Mya Care Blogger 03 Feb 2022

Vertigo is identified as a sensation that you, or your surroundings, are moving or spinning. Globally, evidence indicates that 1 in 10 people will experience vestibular (of the inner ear) disorders such as vertigo and dizziness in any given year. A feeling of movement even when you are still, of spinning or floating, or as if you are trying to balance yourself on an incline, are some common sensations associated with vertigo. Vertigo tends to be more common with advancing age and women are two to three times more likely to have symptoms. Interestingly, many people experience it when they are anxious or under stress.

High blood pressure and heart problems, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, depression, and anxiety. These are some of the health problems commonly attributed to stress. Constant stress can take a toll on your body, causing a multitude of symptoms and worsening your health. However, the fact that stress can trigger vertigo - a body balance disorder - may be surprising to many.

But how exactly are stress and vertigo linked?

Defining Vertigo

Vertigo is a feeling that the world around you is spinning, tilting, or off-balance – an illusion of movement when you’re actually still. Symptoms of vertigo could persist anywhere between a few hours or even a few days. These symptoms can also include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headache
  • Difficulty in focusing the eyes
  • Sweating
  • Loss of hearing or ringing in the ears

Vertigo is often confused with other vestibular disorders such as dizziness or unsteadiness. In simple terms, these three conditions can be distinguished as follows:

  • Vertigo - Sensation that things are spinning or moving around
  • Dizziness - Feeling lightheaded, disoriented, and like you are about to faint
  • Unsteadiness - Feeling that you’re about to lose balance

Dizziness could be caused by a heart-related or respiratory issue. On the other hand, Vertigo is predominantly caused by problems with the vestibular system. The vestibular system comprises the inner-ear organ that controls balance which is made up of three semicircle-shaped canals filled with fluid and tiny hairs. When you move your head in a particular direction, these tiny hairs detect the direction the fluid is moving in and help your brain to interpret the direction your head is facing. Located under these canals are two similar organs – the utricle and the saccule - that detect acceleration. The vestibular nerve transmits information from both sets of organs to your brain.

Vertigo isn’t classified as a disease; but rather a symptom with many possible causes.

There are two types of vertigo:

  1. Central vertigo: Related to an issue with the brain such as infection, tumors, trauma, or stroke.
  2. Peripheral vertigo: Occurs due to a problem in the inner ear.

Depending on the type of vertigo, the symptoms may differ.

The Link Between Stress And Vertigo

Stress does not directly cause vertigo. Rather, the bodily impact of stress – especially on the functioning of the vestibular system – can trigger vertigo.

Research indicates that elevated levels of the primary stress hormone - cortisol - might be linked to vertigo since it impacts neurotransmission. In fact, stress activates the autonomic nervous system, setting off a multitude of bodily reactions and hormonal and chemical releases. When under significant stress, your body adopts the flight-or-fight response releasing adrenaline in high amounts, setting off your instincts, and speeding up your heart rate and breathing.

Collectively, elevated levels of these stress hormones can negatively impact the transmission of information from your vestibular system to your brain. Thus, in a state of high stress, hormones can impair the functioning of your vestibular system (which controls balance), creating an illusion of movement even when you are still.

Conversely, several studies have indicated a strong correlation between vertigo and stress among those with anxiety, mood, and personality disorders. Bouts of vertigo may trigger symptoms of anxiety since the vestibular system and parts of the brain that modulate emotions are linked. Simply put, worrying about experiencing vertigo can dampen your emotional wellbeing.

What Are The Other Causes Of Vertigo?

Vertigo has many possible causes, however, it often relates to an inner ear problem. Here are some of the common causes:

  • Migraines - 1 in 10 people with migraines experience episodes of vertigo
  • Ear infections
  • Ménière's disease – a build-up of fluid in the inner ear
  • Neurological disorders (stroke, brain disease, multiple sclerosis)
  • Cardiovascular reasons such as arrhythmia, changes in blood pressure
  • Vestibular neuronitis (labyrinthitis) – a viral infection of the inner ear that can disrupt the transmission between your vestibular system and brain
  • Head injuries or trauma
  • Bed rest for an extended period
  • Certain medications that damage the ear
  • Ear surgery
  • Hyperventilation
  • Muscle weakness
  • Acoustic neuroma - Non-cancerous, usually slow-growing tumors that form along the nerve leading from the brain to the inner ear which impacts both hearing and balance
  • Aging
  • Pregnancy and hormonal changes

What Can You Do?

Preventing vertigo brought on by stress can be challenging. A certain degree of stress is universally prevalent in our daily lives. While it might be difficult to eliminate it, certain measures can help manage stress. However, if you experience frequent or very severe vertigo, visiting an ENT specialist is advised to check for underlying causes and initiate treatment, as necessary.

  • Control your stressors - Identify your triggers and find ways to minimize them. Steps like taking more time off to unwind, asking for help with your chores, getting past a difficult conversation, or completing that long-pending task, can all help reduce stress.
  • Get regular and adequate sleep - Tiredness brought on by inadequate sleep or irregular sleep patterns can have a significant impact on both your psychological and physical wellbeing.
  • Adopt a healthy diet and fitness regime - The link between lifestyle choices (such as diet and exercise) and your mood and physical wellbeing is well documented. Avoid consuming anything that causes inflammation, such as fried or highly processed foods, alcohol, or caffeine. Reducing your salt intake and ensuring proper hydration are also important aspects to maintain inner ear health. Sources that improve blood flow to the brain such as foods rich in antioxidants and omega-3s can also be helpful.
  • Incorporate therapeutic practices - Taking up an activity that you enjoy, meditation, a leisurely stroll, or even a simple conversation with a loved one can all help keep stress at bay.

In the event of a vertigo attack, here are some tips to manage it:

  1. Sit down on a chair or similar flat surface right away. This will protect you from falling.
  2. Try to find a quiet spot with the lights switched off to ward off the spinning sensation.
  3. Steady yourself and slow down movements, especially of the head.

In Summary

It is important to remember that vertigo is a symptom and not a disease. Therefore, the first and foremost step should be to seek professional medical advice regarding the cause to rule out anything serious. Since it is a dysfunction in how the brain processes sensory inputs, the encouraging news is that neural networks in the brain are capable of growing, resetting, and rewiring pathways to heal themselves.

When it doesn't go away on its own (as it does in many cases), vertigo is highly treatable with many existent therapies available depending on the cause.

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