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Ever Feel So Stressed It Seems Like The World Is Spinning? Why It Happens and 6 Ways To Instantly Feel Calmer

MDs and Psychologists weigh-in on the best ways to feel less stressed in 5 minutes or less

Ever look up from what you were doing only to suddenly feel like the room is spinning? That’s a hallmark sign of vertigo. The condition, which affects nearly 40% of adults at some point in their lives, becomes more common with age. While there can be a host of underlying causes, you may be wondering, can stress cause vertigo? It turns out tension is a sneaky dizziness trigger that often flies under the radar. Luckily, it’s one of the easiest to fix — no prescription required.

The most common causes of vertigo

Vertigo refers to dizziness that makes it feel like you’re spinning or that the world is spinning around you. “You might have experienced a sensation mimicking vertigo as a child after spinning around in circles or going on a rollercoaster,” says Megan Boysen Osborn, MD, professor of clinical emergency medicine at UC Irvine.

There are 2 main types of vertigo: Peripheral vertigo makes up approximately 80% of the cases. This occurs when there’s a problem with the vestibular system inside your inner ear that helps you maintain balance. Your vestibular system does this thanks to two otolith organs (which are like a speedometer that tells your brain if you’re moving straight or stopping) and three semicircular canals (which tell your brain if you’re turning or spinning).

The most common cause of peripheral vertigo is benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), which accounts for more 50% of cases. “BPPV is caused by canalithiasis or very tiny ‘stones’ in the part of the inner ear that is responsible for balance,” says Dr. Osborn says. With peripheral vertigo, you experience a spinning sensation when you move your head due to dysfunction in this part of your body.

An illustration of the tiny "rocks" inside the ear that can cause vertigo
BPPV is caused when tiny “stones” in the inner ear shift out of placettsz/Getty

The second main type of vertigo is known as central vertigo. This is a result of issues with the brain (such as stroke, migraines or brain tumors) and makes up about 20% of vertigo cases. It can make you feel like you’re standing on a boat that’s rocking in choppy water.

How stress can cause vertigo

In addition to the two types of vertigo mentioned above, there’s another reason that could cause you to feel dizzy: high stress. “Stress is not linked to specifically causing vertigo, but vertigo absolutely can be triggered during times of stress,” says Laura Purdy, MD, a veteran US Army physician and battalion surgeon, board-certified family medicine physician and chief medical officer of the telehealth company OpenLoop. If you notice symptoms of vertigo rise when you’re tense and ease when you relax, stress could be the cause of your vertigo.

The reason: Elevated stress hormones, such as cortisol, can interfere with the way neurons send messages to each other. “Because of this, stress levels that are increased can impact your brain communicating with other parts of your body, such as your vestibular system,” Dr. Purdy explains.

How to determine if stress is the cause of your vertigo

“If you are experiencing vertigo and are concerned it might be caused by stress, it’s best to speak to a medical professional,” Dr. Purdy urges. Your doctor can rule out other causes with certain tests. To detect BPPV, they would likely ask you to move in certain positions (a test known as the Dix-HallPike maneuver) while keeping your eyes open. If your eyes jerk in response to moving, a condition called nystagmus, it could signal BPPV. For other causes, your doctor will ask you questions about your medical history and symptoms, do a physical exam and possibly schedule an MRI.

The Dix-HallPike maneuever can test for vertigo caused by BPPV

But if it’s solely stress that’s behind your bouts of dizziness, Dr. Purdy says that reining in tension can thwart the problem altogether. And while that may seem easier said than done, tamping down tension doesn’t have to involve elaborate relaxation rituals or lengthy meditation. These simple tricks take just minutes and can be done anytime, anywhere to stop stress-triggered vertigo in its tracks.

The 6 best ways to block vertigo caused by stress

These study-proven solutions help you dial down stress and usher in relaxation, warding off this sneaky cause of vertigo.

1. Take slow, deep breaths

No matter where you are, there’s an easy way to tame stress in seconds: Take deep, slow diaphragmatic breaths (that make your belly rise and fall) and focus on your breath as you inhale and exhale. “Intentional and mindful breathing is an evidence-based technique to reduce stress levels immediately,” says Jennifer Wegmann, PhD, a health and wellness studies lecturer at Binghamton University. “Anyone can easily use this technique in a meeting, conversation or stressful event.” She advises inhaling deeply until your lungs are least 80% full. Then slow your respiration rate down as you fully exhale. Strive to take about six breaths per minutes. (Click through to learn more about how cyclic sighing can produce immediate stress relief.)

The reason deep, slow breathing so effective? It activates your parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for “rest and digest”). “This system works to bring your body back to homeostasis; heart rate slows, respiration returns to normal, blood pressure decreases and there is a marked decrease in cortisol,” Wegmann notes. In fact, it’s so relaxing that a study in Hypertension shows that just 2 minutes of deep, slow breathing lowers elevated systolic blood pressure (top number) by 9 mmHg and diastolic (bottom number) by 5 mmHg. (Click through to our sister publication to see 20 simple blood pressure hacks to keep your readings in check.)

2. Enjoy a brisk walk around the block

“The most effective way for women to reduce their stress in the moment is to move their body,” says Natalie Christine Dattilo, PhD, a psychology instructor at Harvard Medical School, clinical psychologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and founder of Priority Wellness Group. “Stress signals the release of cortisol and adrenaline, which are designed to get us moving (think ‘fight-or-flight’),” Dattilo says. “But most of the time we end up sitting or doing nothing, basically bathing our brain and body in stress hormones. Without circulating these hormones, they can “build up” in our system and become toxic over time.”

That’s where moving comes in! In a study from the University of Birmingham in the UK, adults ages 60 to 77 who walked for about 24 minutes experienced a 25% decrease in cortisol one hour afterward. “If you are able, I recommend taking a short, brisk walk, climbing a flight of stairs, running in place, or doing some jumping jacks, lunges or crunches,” Dattilo advises. “The goal here is not to work up a sweat, but to raise your heart rate briefly to essentially ‘short-circuit’ the fight-or-flight response.” Too tired or achy to get moving? “If you are not able to do this type of physical activity, stretching can be effective as well.”

Woman walking a dog down a tree-lined street to reduce vertigo caused by stress
Jessica Peterson/Getty

3. ‘Squeeze’ your muscles for five seconds

When your stress level climbs, there’s a simple technique that can help bring it back down: “Progressive muscle relaxation,” says Jessie Borelli, PhD, a professor of psychological science and associate director of clinical training at UC Irvine and clinical director of Compass Therapy. “This involves sequentially tightening and releasing different muscle groups of the body,” she explains. “For instance, you would tighten the calf muscles, hold for 5 seconds, then release. Do this twice and then move on to another muscle group.” You can do this while lying down or sitting.

The reason this works? “The body reacts to stress by tensing one’s muscles,” notes Borelli. “Progressive muscle relaxation helps to reduce the stress that the muscles are holding. As the muscle relax, the muscle tension is relieved, and you experience a reduction in your felt experience of stress.” Indeed, in one study from Luther College in Iowa, researchers found that 20 minutes of progressive muscle relaxation increased relaxation by 42%. For a quick how-to, check out the video below.

4. Place your hand on your heart

When tension rises, gently rest one or two hands on your heart or abdomen, take two to three deep breaths and focus on the warmth and pressure of your hands. Research in Comprehensive Psychoneuroendocrinology shows that just 20 seconds of self-soothing touch like this relaxes you. It reduces cortisol by releasing oxytocin, which is the same calming hormone that spikes when you’re hugged. (Click through to our sister publication to see how hugging a weighted stuffed animal cured one woman’s anxiety.)

5. Step outside for a 5-minute nature break

Research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that women who go into their backyard, visit a park, spend time at nearby lake or surround themselves with nature elsewhere experience a 56% reduction in stress within just 5 minutes. Researcher explains that the beauty of trees, flowers and other parts of nature distracts you from worries, allowing you to relax.

A park bench on a lake dock with trees nearby, which can ease stress-triggered vertigo
Damien VERRIER/Getty

6. Cue up a silly sitcom

Finding reasons to giggle (like watching a favorite sitcom) is an easy way to tamp down tension. In a review of 8 studies out of the University of Toronto in Canada, at least 9 minutes of laughing reduces the output of the stress hormone cortisol by nearly 37%. (Click through to see how to lower cortisol in the morning to block stress and unwanted belly fat.)

How to treat vertigo caused by BPPV

If your doctor has determined that BPPV, not stress, is the trigger behind your bouts of vertigo, help is here! Tilting your head in a series of simple moves, a technique known as the Epley maneuver, can flush those tiny “stones” in your inner ear. This stops BPPV-triggered vertigo for up to 91% of folks, according to University of Colorado researchers. Even better: The same study found that for 85% of folks, performing the series of movies just once or twice is enough to block future recurrences for at least a year. For a quick guide, check out the video below.

When should you see a doctor about vertigo?

Since sudden, unexplained vertigo can be a sign of a wide range of health issues, it’s smart to see a doctor when you start to experience this symptom. And the Mayo Clinic recommends that you seek emergency care when you have any of these other symptoms:

  • Sudden, severe headache
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Numbness or paralysis of arms or legs
  • Fainting
  • Double vision
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Confusion or slurred speech
  • Stumbling or difficulty walking
  • Ongoing vomiting
  • Seizures
  • A sudden change in hearing
  • Facial numbness or weakness

Some risk factors also make it important to see your doctor if you experience vertigo for any reason. “While many causes of vertigo are benign, patients with older age and other conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure are at risk for more dangerous causes of vertigo, such as stroke,” Dr. Osborn notes.

Read on for more ways to outsmart stress:

30 Journal Prompts That Boost Bliss, Slash  Stress and Ease Anxiety — In Minutes!

Top Doctors Say Toning Your Vagus Nerve Undoes the Toll Chronic Stress Has Taken on Your Body — and All It Takes Is Cold Water

Study: This Tea is So Good at Easing Stress, Just Smelling It Works Better Than Meds

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