Vertigo refers to a type of dizziness that gives you the sensation that you or the world around you is spinning. It isn’t a medical condition but a symptom of other conditions that range from viral infections to the formation of calcium carbonate crystals in your inner ear.
About 5 percent of American adults experience vertigo, and many people notice it when they’re feeling stressed or anxious. Even though stress doesn’t directly cause vertigo, it can contribute to dysfunction of the part of your inner ear that controls balance, called your vestibular system.
Let’s examine how stress and anxiety contribute to vertigo. We’ll also look at other conditions that cause vertigo and when you should see a doctor.
Stress and anxiety can contribute to dysfunction of your vestibular system. Dizziness or vertigo can occur if any part of this system is impaired.
Your vestibular system refers to the organ in your inner ear that controls your balance. It’s made up of three semicircle-shaped canals filled with fluid and tiny hairs.
As you turn your head, the hairs can detect which direction the fluid is moving and your brain can use this information to determine what direction your head is facing.
Beneath these canals are two similar organs called your utricle and saccule that are also filled with fluid and hairs and detect acceleration. The information from both sets of organs is sent to your brain via the vestibular nerve.
Stress and vertigo
Elevated levels of stress hormones including cortisol can negatively impact the transmission of neural information from your vestibular system to your brain. It’s thought that these hormones may disrupt ion channels in your nerves and neurotransmission in your brain.
Your body also releases other chemicals including histamine and neurosteroids when you’re stressed that may indirectly impair neurotransmission between your vestibular system and your brain.
Anxiety and vertigo
When you chronically feel anxious, your body’s level of cortisol and other stress hormones remain elevated and negatively impact your vestibular system.
After 9 years of following the participants, the researchers found that people with anxiety disorders were 2.17 times more likely to develop benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), the most common type of vertigo, than people without anxiety disorders.
Some people may experience sudden vertigo when faced with the trigger of their anxiety. For example, somebody with social anxiety may experience dizziness when forced to be in a crowded room or a nervous driver may start to see the world spinning when navigating through heavy traffic.
Anxiety and vertigo can have the opposite relationship, too. Stimulation of the vestibular system and worrying about experiencing vertigo can cause anxiety.
Common signs of vertigo
The terms vertigo and dizziness are often used interchangeably. However, dizziness refers to a general feeling of being off balance. Vertigo is a specific type of dizziness that makes you feel as if you or your surroundings are spinning when they’re not.
Common symptoms that often accompany vertigo or dizziness include:
- hearing problems
- poor coordination
- difficulty seeing while moving
- abnormal eye movements
The best way to prevent stress-induced vertigo is to try to minimize stress in your life. You may find the following methods can help you relieve stress:
- listening to calming music
- scheduling time for things that make you laugh
- light exercise
- talking about the stressful situation with a friend or family member
If you’re already experiencing stress-induced vertigo, it’s a good idea to take steps to relieve stress as soon as possible before symptoms get worse.
The following healthy habits may also help alleviate symptoms:
- minimize caffeine, alcohol, or tobacco use
- stay hydrated
- sit or lie down until you feel better
- see a doctor if the vertigo is severe or long-lasting
Psychotherapy may be an effective treatment option if you’re experiencing vertigo symptoms due to anxiety.
There are many potential causes of vertigo. Some of the more common causes include ear infections, BPPV, and Meniere’s disease.
- Vestibular neuritis is a viral infection of your vestibular nerve and can cause intense vertigo by impairing neural transmissions from your ear to your brain.
- Vestibular labyrinthitis is a viral infection of your inner ear that can disrupt the transmission of neural information between your vestibular system and brain.
- Meniere’s disease is a buildup of fluid in your inner ear that can cause vertigo, hearing problems, or ringing in your ear.
- BPPV is the most common cause of vertigo. It develops when calcium carbonate crystals form inside your semicircular canals and disrupt the neural messages sent to your brain.
- Vestibular migraine refers to an episode of vertigo in people who experience migraine. It’s not clear what causes these episodes, but similar to migraine attacks, stress is thought to be a trigger.
- Cholesteatoma is a noncancerous skin growth most commonly caused by repeated ear infections. It can cause vertigo if it grows into your inner ear.
It’s generally a good idea to see a doctor anytime you’ve been experiencing severe, unexplained, or reoccurring dizziness or vertigo. You should also see a doctor if your dizziness is accompanied by:
- difficulty breathing
- chest pain
A doctor can diagnose vertigo with the Dix-Hallpike test. They will put you in a position that usually initiates your vertigo and when your symptoms start, they’ll check your eyes for involuntary movements that indicate vertigo.
Stress and anxiety can elevate hormones like cortisol that impair the function of your vestibular system that controls your balance. There are many other causes of vertigo, including inner ear infections and Meniere’s disease.
If your vertigo is reoccurring or severe, you should see a doctor to get a proper diagnosis. They can also recommend the best treatment options.