Fast breathing, a churning stomach, and a racing heartbeat are only a few of the most common physical signs of stress and anxiety. But another symptom can crop up when we feel worried, and it’s much less talked about — vertigo.
Vertigo, which can present as dizziness and being off-balance, can lead to other symptoms.
The condition is often associated with heights — such as looking down from the top of the Empire State Building.
What is vertigo?
“Vertigo is actually a symptom, not a diagnosis, and therefore the causes are wide and varied,” explains Zoë Watson, MD.
“The source of ‘true’ vertigo is usually vestibular in origin or relating to the inner ear and other systems within the brain, which controls the sense of balance and spatial orientation,” Dr. Watson adds.
Dizziness is the most common marker associated with vertigo. You might also experience:
- Feeling unbalanced
- Nausea and vomiting
- Ringing in the ears
Several causes can contribute to dizziness, including:
- Certain medications
- Low blood sugar
- Substance use
How long does vertigo last?
Vertigo can disappear as soon as it appears. “Vertigo is never permanent,” says Julian Lagoy, MD, a psychiatrist at Mindpath Health. “An episode can last seconds, hours, or days, depending on the underlying pathophysiology.”
How are vertigo and stress linked?
Stress can encourage vertigo-like symptoms. “The most common type of dizziness, which tends to be associated with stress, is either light-headedness or presyncope, or the sensation of feeling faint,” says Dr. Watson.
Can anxiety cause vertigo?
Although similar, stress and anxiety are different concerns. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), stress is typically linked to external factors, while anxiety involves worries that persist even when there are no outside stressors.
It’s possible to experience vertigo-like symptoms with stress and anxiety. As with stress, anxiety also prompts the release of cortisol and adrenaline, which can trigger dizzy spells.
In a 2009 analysis in Germany, almost one-third of participants who reported experiencing dizziness also had at least one anxiety disorder. And in a 2018 Chinese study of 127 participants experiencing benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, half had symptoms of anxiety, depression, or both.
Many people with anxiety also experience panic attacks, which can generate sensations of light-headedness and dizziness.
Breathing quickly during a panic attack can cause you to breathe in too much oxygen and breathe out too much carbon dioxide. This can temporarily constrict the blood vessels’ blood supply to the brain and cause the light-headed sensation connected to vertigo.
Remedying stress-induced vertigo
To address the symptoms, a doctor can help you understand them and ensure there are no underlying physical causes.
Keeping a diary to record your vertigo symptoms and instances of stress or anxiety might also help you recognize a connection.
Lifestyle changes can help reduce stress and anxiety. Self-care can reduce cortisol and possibly even alter areas of the brain linked to stress include:
- Deep breathing techniques
- Maintaining good sleep habits
One of the most effective approaches for managing stress and anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
If your vertigo symptoms are particularly severe, you could speak with a doctor or psychiatrist about medication to treat stress and anxiety, Lagoy says.
Doctor-prescribed medications can be an effective tool for managing anxiety causing vertigo symptoms.
Consider talking with a doctor about your symptoms to rule out any health conditions as a first step. Journaling your symptoms in a diary can also help you record your experiences to understand potential causes.
Stress and anxiety can create various psychological and physiological reactions. Recognizing this with hope can be a vital step to wellness.
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