The vast majority of people who suffer with labyrinthitis or vestibular neuritis (vn), report experiencing either anxiety, panic attacks or both together. When I was sick, I couldn’t understand why the doctors were not recognising that my anxiety & panic attacks were related to labyrinthitis. I had never had a panic attack before I contracted the virus. I used to feel so frustrated when I left their office, because they wouldn’t accept that an inner ear virus was the cause. They kept suggesting I was anxious because I was dizzy, that fear was causing my anxiety, not something physical. In fact there is a huge body of research showing the link between inner ear illness, anxiety and panic attacks. One such study conducted on ‘Panic disorder and the vestibular system’, concluded that there is strong evidence to show both psychosomatic and somatopsychic relationships between panic and vestibular dysfunction (Jacob R. G, 1988). What this means is that the body and the mind are creating the panic attacks. So there is a physiological reason for experiencing panic attacks and also a psychological reason. This makes complete sense because according to research by Nakagawa et al. (2003), stimulation of the vestibular system was found to directly affect the amygdala gland, which triggers our ‘fight or flight’ response to danger. So what both research studies are showing, is that people suffering with inner ear illness are in a constant state of ‘red alert’ due to the stimulation of the amygdala gland.
What this means for us as sufferers, is that anything that removes us from where we feel safe, will leave us in a state of panic; for example, leaving our house to go to the shops. In addition, when we arrive at the shops, there is far too much stimulus such as bright lights, noise and movement, for our vestibular system to process. This overstimulation will arouse the amygdala gland triggering our ‘fight or flight’ response to danger. So in this situation, both the psychological and the physiological are causing our panic and anxiety.
I remember having panic attacks and not understanding what they were. I honestly thought I was dying or that I would collapse. One example was when I was driving my car at night, I was convinced I was about to pass out while in transit. I had to pull over to the side of the road and roll my seat back to lie down. I thought ‘I’ll faint here and I am safe because I am in my car and lying down’. Interestingly as soon as I accepted that I was going to faint, the panic attack eased off. I went home and just didn’t know what was wrong with me. I felt defeated and helpless. Looking back now, I know that driving at night in the dark, looking at headlights from the oncoming, cars were too much for my eyes to process. This is what caused my panic attack.
The message I really want you to take from this post, is that anxiety is not all in your head. There is a very real, scientifically proven association, between vestibular illness and anxiety and panic attacks. Even if you are not getting validation from your doctor, trust your instincts. You know your body. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy offers great ways to change patterns of thinking and behaviour, and has been highly successful in treating anxiety, panic attacks and depression. Another treatment option is to speak to your GP about temporarily taking anti anxiety medication. Some helpful books to read are:
Jacob, R. G. (1988). Panic disorder and the vestibular system. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 11(2), 361-374.
Nakagawa A, Uno A, Horii A, Kitahara T, Kawamoto M, Uno Y, Fukushima M, Nishiike S, Takeda N, Kubo T (2003) Fos induction in the amygdala by vestibular information during hypergravity stimulation. [Electronic version] PubMed, Oct 3;986(1-2):114-23.