Can Stress Cause Vertigo?

Mar 27, 2022

Can Stress Cause VertigoAny type of anxiety or stress can have a significant impact on our health- not just mental health, but physical health as well. Enough stress can trigger a range of reactions and symptoms throughout the body, creating problems or exacerbating existing ones. Everything from nausea to serious car accident injuries can be impacted when we are in a negative emotional state, but one condition that is commonly linked to stress is vertigo. Vertigo, which is a type of dizziness, creates the sensation of spinning and can be hard to manage in everyday life. Read on to explore how this is linked to stress and anxiety and how you can manage these symptoms.

What Is Vertigo?

Vertigo is a term widely used to refer to a certain kind of dizziness, in which it feels that you or your surroundings are spinning and tilting, despite everything being perfectly stationary. An acute version of this often occurs when you stand at the top of a very large building and look over the edge, but when people suffer from vertigo. The feeling can lead you to experience dizziness, imbalance during movement, and nausea. These symptoms can last for a few seconds or days at a time, depending on the severity. When a person has chronic vertigo, they are experiencing this on a frequent basis, enough that it impacts daily life.

The terms vertigo and dizziness are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are not exactly the same. Vertigo is a type of dizziness that makes you feel that you or your surroundings are spinning. Other symptoms may include:

  • Unsteadiness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Faintness
  • Headaches
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Tinnitus and other hearing problems
  • Poor coordination
  • Vision issues during movement
  • Abnormal eye movements

Common Causes of Vertigo

Dizziness is generally related to problems in the vestibular system. The vestibular system is the organ in your inner ear that controls your balance. It is composed of three semicircular canals that are filled with fluid and microscopic hairs. As you turn your head, the hairs detect which direction your head is facing and send signals to your brain to allow the body to adjust properly.

Beneath these canals are two similar organs called the utricle and saccule, which are also filled with fluid and hairs that detect speed and acceleration. The vestibular nerve also sends this information to the brain for proper acclimation.

There are two main types of vertigo: peripheral vertigo and central vertigo. The peripheral form is the most common and occurs as a result of problems of the inner ear or vestibular nerve, which controls balance. On the other hand, central vertigo is a result of problems in the brain, including stroke or tumors.

In many cases, vertigo is a response to another medical condition or physical trauma that impacts the vestibular system. Some of the most common are listed here.

Vestibular neuritis: A viral infection of the vestibular nerve that can impair neural transmissions from your ear to your brain, leading to intense and sudden vertigo.

Vestibular labyrinthitis: A viral infection of the inner ear that may disrupt the transmission of neural information between the brain and vestibular system.

Meniere’s disease: A buildup of fluid in the inner ear that is a common cause of ringing in the ear, hearing impairment, and vertigo.

BPPV: The most common cause of vertigo, benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, develops when calcium carbonate crystals form inside the semicircular ear canals, disrupting neural messages sent to the brain.

Vestibular migraine: An episode of vertigo that occurs in people prone to migraine headaches. It’s not known what causes these episodes.

Cholesteatoma: A non-cancerous skin growth that is most commonly caused by repeated ear infections. If this grows in your inner ear, it can lead to vertigo.

Physical trauma: Certain head injuries, neck injuries, or concussions can interfere with the vestibular system’s normal function and cause symptoms of vertigo. When the neck is destabilized as a part of this injury, the symptoms may become recurrent.

Medications: Some medications can induce vertigo, along with other symptoms like dizziness,s hearing loss, or a ringing in the ear called tinnitus.

Stress, Anxiety, and Vertigo

During periods of stress, the body releases elevated levels of certain hormones, including cortisol. This increase in cortisol can negatively impact the transmission of neural information from the vestibular system to the brain. While it’s not definitively known why this occurs, it’s believed that the hormones disrupt ion channels in your nerves and neurotransmitters in the brain. Along with cortisol, your body releases other chemicals such as histamine and neurosteroids when you experience stress. These may indirectly impair neurotransmission between your vestibular system and your brain.

In addition to periods of stress, many people experience chronic anxiety and related disorders. When this occurs and the body’s level of cortisol and stress hormones is elevated for an extended period of time, it can have an even greater impact on the vestibular system. In past studies, those with diagnosed anxiety disorders were shown to have an increased risk of developing BPPV when compared to those without anxiety disorders.

Some people with anxiety report experiencing sudden vertigo when faced with a trigger for their anxiety. For example, somebody who suffers from social anxiety may experience dizziness upon being forced into a crowded room.

It is also possible for the reverse to occur. Stimulation of the vestibular system and the fear of experiencing vertigo can worsen anxiety, causing a sort of cycle. For example, if somebody is a nervous or anxious driver, they may feel dizzy or nauseous during a traffic jam. The next time they get in the car, they may become worried about another traffic jam occurring and experiencing vertigo, making them more nervous about driving.

Preventing Vertigo Related to Stress

The best way to prevent vertigo that is induced by stress is to minimize and manage stressors in your life. The best method for doing so may vary based upon what is causing your stress, but some common methods include:

  • Meditation and mindfulness
  • Light exercise
  • Talking with a friend or family member
  • Listening to calming music
  • Engaging in activities you enjoy

Certain healthy habits can also be useful in managing symptoms of vertigo and lessening stress on the body. Some of these habits are:

  • Minimizing caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco use
  • Staying hydrated
  • Sitting or lying down during bouts of vertigo
  • Maintaining a healthy diet

If you are experiencing consistent vertigo, it is important to be cautious until you find relief. Avoid activities that could be dangerous if you suddenly lose balance, like riding a bicycle or standing at high altitudes.

When your vertigo is related to anxiety, further intervention and treatment may be needed in order to address the root cause. Talk therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, and medication are all options you can discuss with your doctor to help manage your anxiety.

Managing a Vertigo Episode

Before you have fully addressed any underlying causes of vertigo, it is helpful to develop tools that can help you manage a bout of vertigo. These episodes can be scary, especially if you are hit with vertigo while doing something like driving. Follow these simple steps to manage these attacks.

  1. If you are performing any kind of movement or activity, stop as soon as safely possible. This may mean pulling your car to the side of the road, dismounting from a bicycle or horse, or simply sitting down. If you are at home, find somewhere comfortable like a bed or couch.
  2. Remove external stimuli like lights by closing your eyes or turning off lights and sound.
  3. When you begin movement again, be careful and slow. Pay specific attention to your head movements, keeping them deliberate and slow for as long as possible.

When to See a Doctor

A single instance of vertigo, especially when it is brought on by an unusual circumstance, is usually nothing to be concerned about. However, if you are experiencing severe, unexplained, or reoccurring dizziness and vertigo, it is worth a visit to a doctor. You should also see a doctor if you experience fainting, seizures, difficulty breathing, or chest pains in relation to your vertigo.

The doctor will be able to use something called the Dix-Hallpike test to diagnose true vertigo. To perform this test, they will put you into a position that usually initiates your vertigo. When symptoms begin, they check your eyes for certain involuntary movements that indicate vertigo. From there, they can begin to understand what may be causing your vertigo and develop a treatment plan based on that information.

Any sign of vertigo following an injury or a physical trauma is also important. While it may be unrelated, symptoms of vertigo can signal that critical injuries have occurred, especially in the brain. Concussion symptoms are often very similar to vertigo symptoms and should always be evaluated to rule out more serious head injuries.

At AICA Atlanta, we offer a team of specialists who can work together to assess the underlying cause of your condition and develop an appropriate treatment plan. With chiropractors, physical therapists, orthopedists, pain management specialists, neurologists, and radiologists at our office, we are able to treat your condition holistically and by understanding the root cause.


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