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What is listening fatigue? Causes, symptoms and treatment

Last update on Jul, 31, 2023

Hearing loss is tiring—many people with hearing loss experience listening fatigue (also known as listener fatigue) at some point. The term refers to the mental, physical and emotional exhaustion from overworking your brain while trying to hear. That fatigue is an early sign of hearing loss and will happen more frequently as hearing loss progresses. People with hearing loss will likely have to take breaks from conversations and noisy environments to give their brain time to recoup.

Why do we experience listening fatigue?

With hearing loss, your brain has to work harder to hear and listen. Hearing loss can prevent your brain from processing auditory information, and you may find it difficult to keep up in conversation, follow along with a TV show or effectively communicate in noisy environments. As a result, many people with hearing loss will experience listening fatigue symptoms, such as low energy, difficulty concentrating, elevated stress or shifts in mood.

One thing to note: Listening fatigue usually doesn’t occur without hearing loss. If you have listening fatigue, you likely have some degree of hearing loss.

What parts of the brain process sound?

The sound-processing function of the brain consists of three main parts: the temporal lobe, Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area. Here’s a short summary of each part.

  • The temporal lobe: The area where the primary auditory cortex lies, which is the part that receives sensory, auditory information from the inner ear;
  • Wernicke’s area: The location that comprehends speech;
  • Broca’s area:  The part in charge of speech production

Sound first goes through the outer ear, then through the ear canal to the eardrum. The incoming sound waves vibrate the eardrum, which then goes along to the middle ear. Bones within the middle ear subsequently convert the vibrations into mechanical energy and send that energy to the inner ear. There, the mechanical energy causes tiny hair cells to move, creating electrical signals. Those signals are carried by the auditory nerve to the brain, where they are processed as sound. That’s when the auditory message is interpreted and understood!

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How can I relieve my listening fatigue?

Are you struggling with listening fatigue? There are ways to cope with it. See these methods to ease fatigue when it happens. 

Removing yourself from a situation that causes stress will allow you to de-escalate and check in with yourself. So, if your listening fatigue is peaking and you’re feeling extra exhausted, don’t be afraid to step away. Find a quiet environment away from the noise source and give yourself time to recover.

No matter the situation, deep breathing is a helpful way to center yourself, calm down and even lower your heart rate. Listener fatigue can induce stress, and overwhelming and noisy environments may worsen the mental strain that comes with it. So, if you’re becoming anxious or frustrated due to your listening fatigue, take a minute to close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.

To do so effectively, first, breathe in through your nose so your chest and abdomen gradually rise; and you fill your lungs. Hold for a second, then release slowly through your mouth.

Background noise will often exacerbate the listening situation you are in. It can become hard to distinguish what someone’s saying if you’re in a noisy room. For example, somebody may be playing music, or the TV is on while you’re trying to talk or listen. In these cases, don’t be afraid to turn off the source of extra noise or even leave the room to continue a conversation.

Even with hearing aids helping you hear, you may still experience listening fatigue. New users are especially vulnerable to this, as they get used to hearing far more sound than they’d previously been hearing. While you should resist taking long and frequent breaks from your hearing aids, it’s completely okay to remove your hearing aids on occasion. Doing so will give you an easy opportunity to have a moment of rest from noise pollution.

Believe it or not, sleep can impact how heavily listening fatigue affects you. Physical exhaustion from lack of sleep can cause your listening fatigue to build up quicker. Think about how sleep deprivation can make you irritable and less productive at work. Listening fatigue can do the same, and together it all adds up. That’s why it’s important to stay consistent with your sleep schedule and get eight hours every night.

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How do hearing aids help with listening fatigue?

Ignoring or simply trying to cope with hearing loss can perpetuate listener fatigue. Hearing aids are a helpful listening fatigue treatment that reduces the amount of effort you need to put in while trying to listen, hear or catch what someone’s saying. That will help minimize your listening fatigue.

A hearing care professional at your local Miracle-Ear location can help you get fitted for a hearing aid to resolve that unwanted listening fatigue and help you hear comfortably.

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