Dizziness is commonly experienced by everyone worldwide. You might remember feeling it for the first time as a child after being spun around too fast on a merry-go-round. You could also experience dizziness after standing up too fast.
While everyone experiences dizziness differently, it generally describes the feeling when you’re unsteady on your feet, feeling faint or woozy, or feeling as though the world is spinning around you.
Interestingly, people who suffer from anxiety are more likely to experience dizziness. A study of 1,287 participants¹ in Germany found that of the 15.8% of the group who experienced dizziness, over one-quarter of them had symptoms of at least one type of anxiety.
For some people, dizziness can get so bad it causes fainting, which increases the chances of injury. Fainting might be a result of blood pressure dropping, which can come from experiencing something fearful like intense pain, the sight of blood, or when the body undergoes physical stress.
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In some cases, it’s believed anxiety is the main cause of dizziness². When people feel anxious, they can hyperventilate. This type of breathing changes the balance of gases in the blood and causes the brain to feel weak and faint.
Hyperventilation is associated with anxiety disorders and often causes lightheadedness, one of the main categories of dizziness. In other cases, a person may have some form of injury or head trauma³ that impacts the brain, spinal cord, and/or nerves of the brain and body, causing dizziness.
Dizziness on its own can cause anxiety with people feeling insecure on their feet, being afraid of falling or causing general concern about their health.
The central vestibular system is a part of your brain and brain stem that’s responsible for balance. Research suggests that a connection exists⁴ between the central vestibular system and the pathways for triggering anxiety and fear.
The duration and severity of your dizziness depend on how bad the initial imbalance of chemicals in the system is and how severe its related to anxiety.
You can breathe a deep sigh of relief knowing that dizziness symptoms are not always caused by a significant illness. Often, some form of a balance problem is involved, which may require the intervention⁵ of a neurologist, ear nose and throat specialist, audiologist, physiotherapist, or psychologist.
If you have a diagnosed anxiety disorder where you experience panic attacks (feelings of severe anxiety) that are over quickly, your experience of dizziness may be quite different from someone with persistent chronic anxiety who may be more likely to suffer chronic subjective dizziness accompanied by anxiety.
When you first feel a wave of dizziness coming on, you can do a few things to help keep you safe.
Sit down as soon as you start feeling dizzy to reduce your risk of falling over and injuring yourself.
If sitting down doesn’t reduce feelings of dizziness, try lying flat to allow oxygen to reach your brain.
Hold on to the furniture or use a walking stick if you have one to provide additional support.
If you’re driving, protect yourself and others by pulling over as soon as it’s safe to do so.
Avoid coffee or tobacco.
Keeping a diary of your activities, when and how frequently symptoms occur, and how (if at all) you manage your symptoms can be a good way to build awareness around your triggers to dizziness and anxiety, and where they come from.
When you work with a health professional, you can learn various techniques to help reduce your anxiety.
When you’ve been feeling dizzy or anxious, it is tempting to want to sit or lie down and wait for the feeling to go away. Exercise, however, can be a highly valuable part of dealing with dizziness. It helps the body correct for the feeling of imbalance and alleviates the symptoms.
Exercise also releases endorphins and other feel-good hormones⁶, which help the brain deal with stress. When you’re moving your body, your mind tends to move away from whatever might be causing your anxiety.
To make it easier to get out the door, choose an exercise that you enjoy doing. Go out and enjoy nature to help build the feeling of connectedness.
If getting active on your own feels overwhelming, have a chat with your doctor and see if they can refer you to a vestibular physiotherapist.
If you experience dizziness related to anxiety, working with a physical therapist (physio) can be helpful. Physical therapists target the central vestibular system with various exercises to get it working as effectively as possible.
In addition, they can discuss with you the situations when you feel more frequent dizziness related to anxiety.
Often, this might be environments such as shopping malls, grocery stores, or even wide-open spaces. By understanding the potential triggers of your dizziness, your physical therapist can determine the best treatment approaches.
Working with a physical therapist doesn’t need to be a big step. They will work with you at your own pace and gradually increase activity levels.
Many breathing techniques are available to provide relaxation and manage stress and symptoms of dizziness.
One strategy is diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing, where you use your entire stomach, abdominal muscles, and diaphragm. This technique is designed to help slow your breathing when you’re feeling anxious.
You might have also heard of people breathing in and out of brown paper bags, which is another way to help control breathing.
Another technique is called progressive muscle relaxation, which helps you relax in a two-step process. First, you tense different muscle groups in your body, then you release the tension and take notice of how you feel once the muscles relax.
Coping with anxiety
People deal with anxiety differently. Reading a book, particularly fiction, can be a good way to unwind and free the mind from whatever may be causing your stress. The same enjoyment can be found in music, podcasts, drawing, and other artistic crafts.
Animals can also be highly therapeutic, particularly cats and dogs. They provide a sense of companionship, encourage owners to be playful and active, help reduce stress and anxiety, and lift low moods.
Talking with a friend or family member whom you feel safe confiding in can be helpful to reduce the load of whatever stress may be driving your anxiety. If you prefer to keep your worries confidential, write them down in a journal or somewhere private.
Visualizations are another tool that can be used to help manage stress and its associated dizziness. Visualizations are when you imagine something that’s enjoyable for several minutes so you feel better afterward. An example might be your favorite holiday destination.
When thinking about these pleasing scenarios, the body and brain are more prone to relaxation and calmness.
You can also choose to participate in talk therapy to work through your anxiety, stress, or depression. There are different types of talk therapies available to choose from. It might be done in a group setting, one-on-one with a mental health professional, or you can seek the support of a loved one.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is commonly used to treat anxiety. It involves exploring how you view things and then challenging you with tasks to break free from unhelpful thoughts. The focus is to train your brain to stop thinking negatively by replacing those thoughts with positive alternatives.
If your dizziness is severe enough to cause nausea, vomiting, severe headaches, difficulty breathing, changes in speech, fainting, or seizures, seek help from your doctor as soon as possible. You would want to make sure the symptoms aren’t being caused by anything that needs immediate treatment.
If you continue to feel dizzy for several days, check-in with your doctor, particularly if you’ve recently changed medications.
Medications, specifically selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are effective in managing dizziness in people with or without significant anxiety.
One study found that approximately two-thirds of people who took SSRIs noticed that their symptoms of dizziness had been alleviated⁷.
Side effects include nausea, physical fatigue, and mental sluggishness. However, these feelings usually subside within a few days to a couple of weeks.
If the side effects don’t subside in a reasonable time, see your doctor to discuss a revised treatment plan.
Dizziness can be an overwhelming experience, particularly if you already suffer from anxiety. It’s normal to feel uneasy when you experience dizziness, but it’s comforting to know that you’re not alone.
Staying active, finding ways to control your breathing, talking out your anxieties, and coming up with ways to de-escalate stressful situations can all provide relief from dizziness caused by anxiety.
Dizziness and stress | The University of Melbourne
Exercising to relax | Harvard Health Publishing