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The Impact of Stress and Anxiety on Your Vestibular System

The Potential Connection between a Demanding Lifestyle and Vertigo

Are you always on the go? Does it never seem like there are enough hours in the day to do all the things you need to do? Does the nonstop pace ever set your head or body to spinning—literally? You may not realize it, but there could be a connection. Here’s how it works.

What Is Your Vestibular System?

It may come as a surprise to you that almost everything associated with your balance and stability when standing, walking or even sitting is controlled by what’s going on in your inner ear (also known as your vestibular system). Within your inner ear, you have three semicircular canal that contain fluid and almost microscopic hairs. When you turn your head, the fluid in those canals moves. The tiny hairs detect the movement and send signals to your brain that help your body compensate for the movement and stay in balance. When you have an infection or foreign matter within your vestibular canals, the hairs can be fooled into thinking there’s movement when there’s not. In addition, certain things, such as stress and anxiety, can release chemicals that interfere with the transmission of information from your vestibular system to your brain, also leading to dizziness, instability, vertigo and even nausea.

The Connection between Stress and Vertigo

Scientists believe that heightened levels of stress can release hormones that impede or interfere with the neural pathways between your inner ear and your brain. There’s also evidence that increased stress leads to the production and release of steroids and histamines that negatively affect those transmissions. Studies show that elevated levels of anxiety can produce a similar outcome. In a 2016 report from the National Institutes of Health, researchers concluded that individuals with stress or anxiety disorders were more than twice as likely to suffer from benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) than those without those conditions.

How Can a Physical Therapist Treat Vestibular Issues?

A physical therapist can use a variety of treatment modes to help minimize the impact of vertigo or of vestibular malfunction:

  • Balance training and exercises—exercises that target daily activities and help build muscle strength, flexibility and response to minimize loss of balance
  • Head movement training and exercises—An approach that uses head movement and positioning to stimulate your vestibular system and alleviate balance or dizziness
  • Habituation—a process that seeks to replicate the positions where you experience dizziness, so that your body naturally learns to minimize or overcome vertigo
  • BPPV treatment exercises—A number of movements and exercises have been proven to effectively address the symptoms of BPPV
  • Eye tracking—Practice at following moving objects with your eyes so that you improve tracking skills and lessen the vertigo response