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If we really want to understand hearing loss, we need to understand both the physical side, which makes hearing progressively more difficult, and the psychological side, which includes the lesser-known emotional responses to the loss of hearing. In conjunction, the two sides of hearing loss can wreak havoc on a person’s quality of life, as the physical reality causes the loss and the psychological reality prevents people from dealing with it.

The numbers tell the tale. Although virtually all cases of hearing loss are physically treatable, only about 20% of individuals who would benefit from hearing aids make use of them. And even among those who do seek help, it takes an average of 5 to 7 years before they arrange a hearing test.

How can we explain the enormous discrepancy between the possibility for better hearing and the wide-spread resistance to achieve it? The first step is to acknowledge that hearing loss is in fact a “loss,” in the sense that something invaluable has been taken away and is ostensibly lost forever. The second step is to find out how people typically react to losing something invaluable, which, by way of the scholarship of the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, we now understand very well.

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ 5 stages of grief

Kübler-Ross identified 5 stages of grief that everyone coping with loss appears to pass through (in incredibly consistent ways), although not everyone does so in the same order or in the same period of time.

Here are the stages:

  1. Denial – the individual buffers the emotional shock by denying the loss and imagining a false, preferred reality.
  2. Anger – the individual recognizes the loss but becomes angry that it has happened to them.
  3. Bargaining – the individual reacts to the feeling of helplessness by seeking to regain control through negotiating.
  4. Depression – understanding the weight of the loss, the individual becomes saddened at the hopelessness of the circumstance.
  5. Acceptance – in the last stage, the individual accepts the predicament and displays 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 behavior.

Individuals with hearing loss progress through the stages at different rates, with some never arriving at the last stage of acceptance — hence the discrepancy between the possibility for better hearing and the low numbers of people who actually seek help, or that otherwise wait several years before doing so.

Progressing through the stages of hearing loss

The first stage of grief is the most difficult to escape for those with loss of hearing. Because hearing loss advances gradually over time, it can be very hard to recognize. People also have the tendency to compensate for hearing loss by cranking up the TV volume, for instance, or by forcing people to repeat themselves. Those with hearing loss can persist 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 show itself as a form of projection. You may hear those with hearing loss state that everybody else mumbles, as if the problem is with everyone else rather than with them. People remain in the anger stage until they realize that the issue is in fact with them, and not with others, at which point they may move on to the bargaining stage.

Bargaining is a form of intellectualization that can take various forms. For example, those with hearing loss might compare their condition to others by thinking, “My hearing has gotten much worse, but at least my health is good. I really shouldn’t complain, other people my age are coping with genuine problems.” You might also come across 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 getting older, no big deal.”

After passing through these first three stages of denial, anger, and bargaining, those with hearing loss may enter a stage of depression — under the mistaken assumption that there is no hope for treatment. They may stay in the depression stage for a while 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 reached the acceptance stage but for other reasons decide not to act). In the acceptance stage, people acknowledge their hearing loss but take action to correct it, to the best of their ability.

This is the one positive side to hearing loss: distinct from other forms of loss, hearing loss is partially recoverable, making the acceptance stage much easier to reach. Thanks to major advances in digital hearing aid technology, people can in fact strengthen their hearing enough to communicate and engage normally in daily activities — without the stress and difficulty of impaired hearing — permitting 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 stuck somewhere along the first four stages of grief — struggling to hear, damaging relationships, and making excuses — the other 20% have accepted their hearing loss, taken action to improve it, and rediscovered the pleasures of sound.

Which group will you join?

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