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

The statistics tell the tale. While nearly all cases of hearing loss are physically treatable, only around 20% of people who would benefit from hearing aids make use of them. And even among people who do seek help, it takes an average of 5 to 7 years before they schedule a hearing test.

How can we explain the enormous discrepancy between the opportunity for better hearing and the commonplace reluctance to attain 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 individuals generally react to losing something valuable, which, courtesy 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 defined 5 stages of grief that everyone coping with loss appears to pass through (in remarkably consistent ways), although not everyone does so in the same order or in the same length of time.

Here are the stages:

  1. Denial – the individual buffers the emotional shock by denying the loss and imagining a false, preferable reality.
  2. Anger – the individual recognizes the loss but becomes angry that it has happened to them.
  3. Bargaining – the individual responds to the feeling of helplessness by seeking to regain control through negotiating.
  4. Depression – comprehending the significance of the loss, the individual becomes saddened at the hopelessness of the predicament.
  5. Acceptance – in the last stage, the individual accepts the circumstance and presents a more stable set of emotions. The rationality associated with this stage leads to productive problem solving and the restoring of control over emotions and behavior.

People with hearing loss progress through the stages at different rates, with some never reaching the final stage of acceptance — hence the discrepancy between the opportunity 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 challenging to escape for those with hearing loss. Given that hearing loss develops slowly over time, it can be very difficult to detect. People also have the tendency to compensate for hearing loss by turning up the TV volume, for instance, or by forcing people to repeat themselves. Those with hearing loss can stay 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 may hear those with hearing loss state that other people mumbles, as if the issue is with everyone else rather than with them. People remain in the anger stage until they recognize that the problem 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 various forms. For example, people 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 aging, no big deal.”

After passing through these first three stages of denial, anger, and bargaining, those with hearing loss may go through a stage of depression — under the mistaken assumption that there is no hope for treatment. They may remain in the depression stage for a while until they realize 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 evasive. 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 choose not to take action). In the acceptance stage, people recognize their hearing loss but take action to correct it, to the best of their ability.

This is the one positive side to hearing loss: as opposed to other types of loss, hearing loss is partially recoverable, making the acceptance stage easier to reach. Thanks to major advancements in digital hearing aid technology, people can in fact enhance their hearing enough to communicate and engage normally in daily activities — without the stress and frustration of impaired hearing — allowing 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, damaging relationships, and making excuses — the other 20% have accepted their hearing loss, taken action to amplify it, and rediscovered the pleasures of sound.

Which group will you join?