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Vertigo is a sensation that causes your environment to feel as though it is spinning around, even in a stationary position. Though commonly caused by inner ear problems, the onset of vertigo has been connected to emotional triggers, such as stress or anxiety. While experiencing high levels of stress may not be the direct cause of vertigo, it can certainly be a symptom. 

This article will explore the complex relationship between vertigo and stress, shedding light on how stress can potentially trigger these episodes of dizziness. 

How The Inner Ear and Vestibular System Cause Vertigo

The inner ear is home to our balance system, also known as the vestibular system. This system consists of three parts:

  • The Cochlea: Responsible for hearing.
  • The Semicircular Canals: Detect changes in head position.
  • The Otolithic Organs: These detect the body’s orientation. 

They work together transmitting signals to the brain through the vestibular nerve to help you keep your balance and sense if you are moving, sitting or standing. 

However, sometimes disruptions to the vestibular nerve occur, referred to as vestibular neuritis. This condition causes inflammation, leading to a disruption of signals between the inner ear and brain, resulting in severe dizziness or spinning. 

Different parts of the brain also help process signals from the vestibular system. The cerebellum plays a role in posture and balance, where the brainstem connects to the spinal cord, managing the body’s basic functions and relaying them back to the brain. When there are disruptions in these processes, it can contribute to vertigo. 

Types of Vertigo

Vertigo is characterized by a distinct sensation of spinning or rotational movement. However, there are two main types of vertigo, each of which varies in severity and can have different causes. These types are known as peripheral and central vertigo:

Peripheral Vertigo

Peripheral vertigo originates from issues within the inner ear or vestibular nerve. It is typically less severe than central vertigo and is often triggered by changes in head position or fluid imbalance in the inner ear. Common causes of peripheral vertigo include benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), Meniere’s disease, labyrinthitis and vestibular neuritis. 

Central Vertigo

Central vertigo is a type of dizziness or spinning sensation that originates from a problem in the brain or central nervous system, rather than the inner ear. It’s often associated with more serious neurological conditions and requires medical evaluation and treatment.

Common Causes of Vertigo

While there are numerous possible causes of vertigo, the most common reasons typically fall within a few categories. Here’ a closer look at some of these causes: 

Meniere’s Disease

Meniere’s disease is linked to a fluid imbalance in the inner ear, resulting in the onset of vertigo. This imbalance may lead to a buildup of fluid inside the ear, disrupting the normal function of the vestibular system. Alongside vertigo, individuals may experience hearing loss and tinnitus, or the ringing of the ears. 

Labyrinthitis and Inner Ear Infections

Labyrinthitis is inflammation of the inner ear, typically caused by viral or bacterial infections. These infections typically affect one ear, disrupting the normal transmission of signals between the inner ear and the brain. This causes vertigo and potential temporary hearing loss. 

BPPV – Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo

Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BBPV), is the most common cause of peripheral vertigo, characterized by brief, intense episodes triggered by specific head movements. This occurs when tiny crystals called otoconia become dislodged from their usual position and now move in response to head movements. This sends false signals to the brain about the head’s position, resulting in vertigo. 

Vertigo isn’t always caused by a specific condition; sometimes it can be triggered by an infection, injury or migraine. Viral infections impact the inner ear, potentially leading to vertigo symptoms. Head injuries may disrupt the vestibular system, causing persistent dizziness and imbalance. Migraines, especially vestibular migraines, can trigger vertigo attacks as well. 

Can Stress Cause Vertigo?

When we experience stress, our body responds by releasing stress hormones called cortisol. These hormones prepare us to respond to stress or danger. However, they also have an effect on our body’s functions, affecting blood pressure, heart rate and overall nervous system function. The physiological impact of stress can sometimes overlap with symptoms of vertigo, such as dizziness, lightheadedness and feelings of imbalance. 

Anxiety Disorders and Vertigo

Anxiety disorders and vertigo often go hand in hand, as stress levels can trigger physical symptoms, including vertigo. This heightened state of stress can affect the vestibular system, which controls our sense of balance and spatial orientation, leading to sensations of dizziness or spinning. 

Cortisol Levels and Blood Pressure

Experiencing stress causes cortisol levels to rise, increasing blood pressure. Elevated blood pressure can impact the structures of the inner ear and disrupt the normal functioning of the vestibular system, contributing to vertigo symptoms. 

Nervous System Sensitivity

Chronic stress can sensitize the nervous system, making individuals more prone to vertigo triggers. Experiencing long-term stress keeps cortisol levels high, causing imbalances in the body’s nervous system. This chronic stress leads to concerns like vertigo, faster heart rate and more inflammation. 

Can Bad Mental Health Cause Vertigo?

The mind-body connection refers to how our thoughts, feelings, and emotions can affect our physical health. This connection is relevant when it comes to understanding conditions like vertigo, where anxiety, stress and other mental health issues have an effect. 

Impact of Chronic Stress on Mental Health

Chronic stress can have a profound impact on mental health, particularly in the development of anxiety disorders. When the body’s stress response remains activated, it can lead to a constant release of stress hormones. Stress and mental health affect each other both ways: high stress can heighten anxiety, and people with existing anxiety are more sensitive to stress. 

Vestibular Migraine and Emotional Triggers

For those with vestibular migraines, emotional triggers, such as stress, may increase the likelihood of a migraine with vertigo symptoms. Stress management techniques and relaxation exercises may help reduce one’s sensitivity to emotional triggers. 

Psychological Impact of Vertigo

Experiencing vertigo can impact one’s overall mental well-being and quality of life. Apart from the physical symptoms, there is a psychological impact. The physical and sudden sensation of spinning can be highly distressing, triggering anxiety and panic in some cases. This may lead to chronic fear, frustration and loss of control.

Cognitive Behavioral Aspects

There are cognitive-behavioral aspects related to vertigo, such as fear avoidance and cognitive patterns. Fear avoidance is when you avoid things that might trigger vertigo, while cognitive patterns are thoughts about vertigo symptoms and how to manage them. Using positive coping strategies to address these cognitive aspects can help you feel more in control. 

How to Manage Vertigo Caused by Stress

Dealing with stress can be challenging, especially when it results in vertigo symptoms. Fortunately, there are effective tools and mindful practices for managing stress, including:

  • Deep breathing
  • Meditation
  • Progressive muscle relaxation

Each of these practices encourages you to slow down and focus on connecting with the body through breathing or releasing tension. Other effectives strategies include:

  • Physical activity: Exercises like yoga or tai chi can promote relaxation and improve both physical and mental well-being. 
  • Daily routines: Establishing daily routines can provide structure and predictability, giving you a sense of stability and control. 
  • Healthy lifestyle: Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can effectively reduce stress levels. 

Final Thoughts

If you’re struggling with vertigo and stress, there might be a connection. While inner ear conditions are the main cause of vertigo, stress can make it worse. Stress hormones can influence your vestibular system, making you feel more anxious and causing more frequent vertigo episodes. 

Managing stress can not only reduce vertigo but can help you feel better both physically and mentally. If you or someone you know is struggling with stress and vertigo, we recommend talking to a healthcare professional to explore the right treatments to regain control over your well-being.