The Connection Between Vestibular Disorders & Our Mental Health

Physical health and emotional health are not two separate systems but are intimately intertwined -- known as the mind-body connection. Maybe you have heard this term in passing during a yoga class or on social media. The mind-body connection, a science-backed concept, has a powerful impact on our well-being at every level. Mental health has the power to impact our physical health and vice versa. But what does this really mean for us? Is it possible we can improve our physical healing by working on our mental health? The answer is yes: it is absolutely possible!



What is the Vestibular System?


The vestibular system controls our stability, and our stability influences how we stand, walk, and move through the world, adapting to our physical environment. This system, located in our inner ears, is one of the main sensory systems that provide our brains with information about balance, motion, and the location of our head and body in reference to the rest of our world. Meanwhile, our central nervous system (our brain and our spinal cord) performs the sensory integration of vestibular, visual, and somatosensorial pathways to control our equilibrium or balance.


Have you ever struggled with vertigo after being on a boat - feeling like you are rocking back and forth for hours after getting off? Or maybe you struggle with chronic dizziness, which causes you to hyperfocus on your physical symptoms and look around the room to check for how things look. Having a vestibular condition can sometimes feel like an out-of-body experience,. especially if you see auras or your dizziness is a chronic part of your medical condition.


While feeling these vestibular sensations, you may experience heightened anxiety or panic wash over you. This is actually a common experience for those who struggle with vestibular disorders. There is actually something physiologically happening inside of you called the stress-response cycle. When you are stressed about being dizzy, your stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, can directly impact the vestibular system of your inner ear. Therefore, our anxiety about getting dizzy can actually make us physically feel dizzy. This relationship can create a vicious cycle that is hard to break without taking steps to relieve symptoms.


Understanding this connection can help us to take action steps to reduce our anxiety when we begin to experience physical symptoms. One way to treat these interrelated symptoms holistically is to work alongside a therapist who specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, especially if you struggle with anxiety and vestibular symptoms. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be an effective tool for developing strategies to move forward with your life and manage your symptoms more effectively


Evidence-based research has shown CBT results in a strong, long-lasting improvement in anxiety levels, and improvement with CBT tends to last longer than gains made by medication alone. So how could CBT help in the context of dizziness or a vestibular migraine?


At the heart of CBT is the idea that we can heal our anxiety by understanding the relationship between our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Because our anxiety and vestibular symptoms are so interrelated, what makes the most sense is adopting an integrative treatment approach. For example, seeing a mental health therapist to help with your anxiety as well as finding a compassionate vestibular rehabilitation therapist or physical therapist to work on your balance systems.


Anxiety and dizziness have a reciprocal relationship, which can sometimes create a loop of chronic symptoms. If you are exhausted by this frustrating and sometimes debilitating cycle: the therapists at North Berkeley Counseling have extensive experience with both vestibular disorders and anxiety and are here to support you.


If you are thinking that CBT could be particularly helpful for you, psychotherapy could be a great next step in your healing journey. The therapists at North Berkeley Counseling are all licensed psychologists trained in CBT anxiety therapy techniques that can be incredibly helpful. We offer therapy in Berkeley, California, and throughout California, Hawaii, Virginia, and Florida online.