If you’ve ever been extremely stressed or anxious, you might have felt woozy, like the room was spinning or you had to sit down. This could make you wonder, Can anxiety cause dizziness and lightheadedness?
Sudden lightheadedness can be alarming and may even add to your worries. Understandably, you’d want to know the cause of your dizziness.
Anxiety isn’t just an emotion but rather a serious yet common mental health condition that can cause a range of physical symptoms. One survey found that about 28 percent of people with dizziness also have symptoms of an anxiety disorder.
Below, we’ll break down how anxiety and lightheadedness are connected, as well as ways you can manage your unexpected dizziness.
First, it should be noted that dizziness is an umbrella term for multiple sensations that cause unsteadiness, such as lightheadedness or vertigo.
Vertigo is a type of dizziness that can cause a person to feel as though they’re moving or falling, even while standing still.
Dizziness can be caused by multiple underlying problems, such as a vestibular disorder or neurological or psychiatric issues.
Anxiety is a natural response to stress. It can range from acute anxiety, such as the nervousness you feel before a date, or chronic, like an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are mental disorders that affect how you feel, think and act.
They can bring on many psychological and physical symptoms, which everyone experiences differently. Some people with anxiety disorders may experience a rapid heart rate and dry mouth, while others may have a history of panic attacks.
So, can anxiety cause dizziness and lightheadedness? Possibly. The answer depends partly on the type of anxiety disorder you have.
There are multiple anxiety disorders, each with unique symptoms.
Those that may cause dizziness include:
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Generalized anxiety disorder is a persistent feeling of worry and anxiety that interferes with everyday activities and impacts your quality of life. Other symptoms of GAD include feeling on edge, trouble sleeping, fatigue, difficulty concentrating and headaches.
Social anxiety disorder. This is the intense feeling of being judged or watched in social situations. If you deal with social anxiety, you may experience sweating, blushing, rapid heart rate and trouble making eye contact, along with lightheadedness.
Panic disorder. Panic disorder is characterized by sudden panic attacks, an unexpected feeling of fear or worry with no clear cause or trigger. People with the condition may experience dizziness, rapid heart rate, sweating or feeling like they’re out of control.
So, can anxiety cause dizziness and lightheadedness? Yes, potentially. However, anxiety and lightheadedness are connected in more ways than a certain type of anxiety disorder.
Dizziness might also cause anxiety. For instance, if you’re experiencing lightheadedness for an unclear reason, you may worry about what’s happening until you know the answer. This worry could result in anxiousness.
There are a few potential reasons behind the connection between anxiety and lightheadedness.
One possible explanation is the vestibular system, the part of the brain responsible for dizziness and balance issues. The vestibular system involves communication among many parts, including the vestibular nerve, which is responsible for motion and where your body is positioned.
If you’re experiencing vertigo, you may be dealing with vestibular disorders (also known as inner ear disorders). Besides dizziness, vestibular symptoms can include feeling off-balance, feeling like the world is spinning, blurred vision or the sensation of falling.
In some cases, a vestibular disorder that causes chronic dizziness or vertigo may increase stress and anxiety levels. Vestibular patients may even have an increased risk of developing an anxiety disorder.
One common symptom of anxiety is shortness of breath. Some people — especially those with a history of panic attacks — may hyperventilate when they feel anxious. This rapid breathing decreases carbon dioxide levels in the blood and can make you feel dizzy.
Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) is one of the more common inner ear disorders. Someone with BPPV will experience a spinning sensation when they move their head, along with dizziness, nausea, lightheadedness and balance issues.
A 2016 report on a study carried out over nine years found that participants who had anxiety disorders were more than twice as likely to develop BPPV.
A stressful or anxiety-inducing situation can trigger what’s known as the “fight-or-flight” response, a survival mechanism that helps us fight or run away from the present danger. Our bodies release stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which may increase breathing and blood pressure.
Changes in blood pressure can sometimes account for dizziness. For example, your blood pressure might rise when you’re stressed, then lower when the stressor passes. But more often, stress hormones impact the vestibular system of the inner ear.
Whether your dizziness and lightheadedness are caused by anxiety or something else, you’ll be glad to know there are ways to manage both the physical and emotional responses.
If you find yourself dealing with lightheadedness and anxiety, you may benefit from some of the treatment options below.
Physical therapy is a standard treatment option for vestibular disorders like BPPV or vestibular migraine. Exercises that focus on the head and eyes, walking and balance can all be used to reduce severe dizziness and balance problems.
A typical vestibular rehabilitation program can last six to eight weeks, with scheduled sessions happening once or twice a week. A medical professional can figure out the best therapy plan and exercises based on your symptoms.
If physical therapy isn’t enough to alleviate dizziness, your healthcare provider may recommend certain medications to help relieve symptoms. Common medications for vestibular disorders include:
Calcium channel blockers
Or if your dizziness is caused by an anxiety disorder, anxiety medication may also be prescribed to help relieve symptoms.
Antidepressants — such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) — are sometimes prescribed for anxiety. They include sertraline (Zoloft®), duloxetine (Cymbalta®) and escitalopram (Lexapro®).
Meanwhile, beta-blockers can help reduce the physical symptoms of performance anxiety.
You can learn about other medications for anxiety in our full guide.
Psychotherapy — otherwise known as talk therapy — is a generally successful treatment for anxiety disorders. Therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help increase your self-awareness of anxiety triggers, identify unhealthy thoughts and behaviors and learn coping skills to help reduce some symptoms of anxiety.
Frequent dizziness can lead to anxiety, while chronic anxiety might cause lightheadedness and dizziness. In many cases, dizziness and anxiety go hand-in-hand, creating a vicious cycle of long-term symptoms.
By treating the underlying cause — whether psychological or physical — you can relieve the symptoms of dizziness and anxiety and improve your quality of life.
Get started with a licensed therapist from the comfort of your couch to discuss your anxiety symptoms.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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