If we genuinely want to understand hearing loss, we have to understand both the physical side, which makes hearing increasingly challenging, and the psychological side, which includes the lesser-known emotional reactions to the loss of hearing. In conjunction, the two sides of hearing loss can wreak havoc on a person’s total well being, as the physical reality causes the loss and the psychological reality prevents people from dealing with it.
The statistics tell the story. Even though almost all instances of hearing loss are physically treatable, only about 20% of people who would benefit from hearing aids make use of them. And even among individuals who do seek help, it takes an average of 5 to 7 years before they arrange a hearing test.
How can we explain the immense discrepancy between the potential for better hearing and the wide-spread resistance to achieve it? The first step is to recognize that hearing loss is in fact a “loss,” in the sense that something valuable has been taken away and is seemingly lost forever. The second step is to find out how people typically respond to losing something valuable, which, by way of the scholarship of the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, we now understand extremely well.
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ 5 stages of grief
Kübler-Ross noted 5 stages of grief that everyone coping with loss appears to go through (in surprisingly consistent ways), although not everyone does so in the same order or in the same period of time.
Here are the stages:
- Denial – the individual buffers the emotional shock by denying the loss and contemplating a false, preferred reality.
- Anger – the individual recognizes the loss but becomes angry that it has happened to them.
- Bargaining – the individual responds to the feeling of helplessness by seeking to regain control through bargaining.
- Depression – comprehending the significance of the loss, the individual becomes saddened at the hopelessness of the circumstance.
- Acceptance – in the final stage, the individual accepts the predicament and demonstrates a more stable set of emotions. The rationality associated with this stage leads to productive problem solving and the recovering of control over emotions and actions.
People with hearing loss progress through the stages at different rates, with some never getting to the final stage of acceptance — hence the gap between the potential for better hearing and the low numbers of people who actually seek help, or that otherwise hold off several years before doing so.
Progressing through the stages of hearing loss
The first stage of grief is the trickiest to escape for those with loss of hearing. Because hearing loss develops slowly as time passes, it can be very difficult to detect. People also have the tendency to compensate for hearing loss by cranking up the TV volume, for example, or by forcing people to repeat themselves. Those with hearing loss can remain in the denial stage for many years, saying things like “I can hear just fine” or “I hear what I want to.”
The next stage, the anger stage, can reveal itself as a form of projection. You might hear those with hearing loss assert that everybody else mumbles, as if the issue is with everyone else rather than with them. People remain in the anger stage until they recognize that the issue is in fact with them, and not with others, at which point they may transition on to the bargaining stage.
Bargaining is a form of intellectualization that can take different forms. For example, those with hearing loss might compare their condition to others by thinking, “My hearing has become much worse, but at least my health is good. I really shouldn’t complain, other people my age are coping with real problems.” You may also find those with hearing loss devaluing their problem by thinking, “So I can’t hear as well as I used to. It’s just part of growing older, no big deal.”
After passing through these first three stages of denial, anger, and bargaining, those with hearing loss may head into a stage of depression — under the mistaken assumption that there is no hope for treatment. They may stay in the depression stage for a period of time until they recognize that hearing loss can be treated, at which point they can enter the last stage: the acceptance stage.
The acceptance stage for hearing loss is shockingly elusive. If only 20% of those who can benefit from hearing aids actually use them, that means 80% of those with hearing loss never get to the final stage of acceptance (or they’ve arived at the acceptance stage but for other reasons choose not to take action). In the acceptance stage, people recognize their hearing loss but take action to improve it, to the best of their ability.
This is the one positive side to hearing loss: in contrast to other types of loss, hearing loss is partly recoverable, making the acceptance stage easier to reach. Thanks to major innovations in digital hearing aid technology, people can in fact strengthen their hearing enough to communicate and participate normally in daily activities — without the stress and difficulty of impaired hearing — empowering them to reconnect to the people and activities that give their life the most value.
Which stage are you in?
In the case of hearing loss, following the crowd is going to get you into some trouble. While 80% of those with hearing loss are trapped somewhere along the first four stages of grief — struggling to hear, harming relationships, and making excuses — the other 20% have accepted their hearing loss, taken action to strengthen it, and rediscovered the pleasures of sound.
Which group will you join?