Motion sickness, dizzy, lightheaded, sick feeling
Motion sickness and anxiety symptoms:
Anxiety motion sickness feeling is commonly described as feeling dizzy, lightheaded, faint, off balance, unsteady, that the room is spinning, that you might faint or pass out, or that you might fall over. This feeling is often equated to motion sickness, including severe motion sickness.
Anxiety motion sickness might also feel as though you are walking on a boat on water, that the floor beneath you feels unsteady, that your head is spinning, that you are lightheaded and dizzy, or that it’s hard to keep your balance.
You might also have difficulty looking at objects that are moving in front of you because they make your head spin and feel dizzy.
It might also feel like your eyes are wobbly or that things around you are moving, vibrating, or shimmering.
In some cases, this motion sickness feeling may seem that even though you are standing on a firm surface, it may be vibrating or moving; the room may appear to be moving, rocking, or swaying; or the surroundings around you seem to be moving, shaking, rocking, or vibrating.
This feeling can upset your stomach like that of experiencing true motion sickness.
This symptom can also be experienced as a dizzy lightheaded spell that is like having a sudden feeling of being dizzy and/or lightheaded that then disappears.
Motion sickness ‘spells’ can come and go suddenly, come and linger, or come and persist for some time. This symptom and/or ‘spells’ might occur rarely, frequently, or persistently.
Anxiety motion sickness can also be characterized as having severe ‘episodes’ of dizziness, lightheadedness, and feeling like you are going to fall over that come and go or ease off only slightly. Some people describe this feeling as coming in ‘waves’ where it’s severe and then somewhat diminishes.
People who experience the anxiety motion sickness symptom persistently still can notice increases and decreases in severity associated with ‘waves’ or ‘episodes’ of intensity. Sometimes the intensity can increase for an extended period of time, such as days before the severe nature of it decreases again.
Some people experience episodes of this motion sickness feeling in association with an increase or decrease in their anxiety and stress, whereas others experience persistent dizziness regardless of an increase or decrease in their anxiety and stress.
Anxiety motion sickness can occur briefly every once and a while, frequently, or 24/7. This symptom can vary in intensity from slight, to moderate, to severe.
All variations and combinations of the above are common.
What causes the anxiety motion sickness feeling?
Because there are many medical causes for motion sickness, it’s best to discuss this symptom with your doctor. If your doctor says that it’s caused by anxiety and stress, yes, anxiety and stress can cause a motion sickness feeling. Here’s why:
Stress and anxiety activate the stress response. The stress response secretes stress hormones into the bloodstream where they travel to targeted spots in the body to bring about specific physiological, psychological, and emotional changes that enhance the body’s ability to deal with a threat - to either fight with or flee from it - which is the reason this response is often referred to as the fight or flight response.
While the changes the stress response brings about are active, they can cause many ‘emergency readiness’ feelings, such as a motion sickness like feeling. As long as the stress response is active, this motion sickness feeling can persist. This is why when we’re anxious, we can feel off balance, lightheaded, and dizzy, similar to that of real motion sickness.
Furthermore, sustained stress can cause stress-related symptoms, as well. For example, if you’ve been under a lot of stress lately, your body can build up a ‘stress load’ and exhibit symptoms of stress even though you may not feel stressed in that moment. Experiencing anxiety related motion sickness is an example of this.
We explain why anxiety can cause a motion sickness symptom in much more detail in the Recovery Support area of our website.
Other causes of the motion sickness feeling:
- Hyper and hypo ventilation –when we breathe too rapidly, shallowly, or deeply, we change the oxygen and CO2 levels in the blood. A change of too much or too little of these levels can cause a lightheaded feeling, such as that similar to motion sickness. Regulating our breathing pattern to slow relaxed breaths can return these levels back to the normal range, which will alleviate the motion sickness feeling.
- Stiff neck, shoulders, and back of the head – muscle stiffness in these areas can also cause a motion sickness type of feeling in the head. Relaxing these muscles can help alleviate this type of feeling. However, it may take some time for these types of muscles to relax once they have become tight. You may have to work at relaxing them for a while before you notice a difference.
- Low blood sugar – Low blood sugar, even if it is low in the normal range, can cause a motion sickness feeling. Ingesting food, which can increase blood sugar, can alleviate this feeling.
- Prescription and over-the-counter medications - can also cause a motion sickness feeling due to an adverse reaction. If you believe this may be a cause or contributor, speak with your doctor and pharmacist.
When this feeling is caused by anxiety and stress, there can be other factors that can cause this feeling. Again, we address this in more detail in the Recovery Support area of our website.
If you have another cause for motion sickness, such as a medical or medication issue, being stressed and anxious can aggravate it due to how stress hormones affect the body.
How to get rid of the anxiety-caused motion sickness symptom?
When a motion sickness feeling is caused by apprehensive behavior and the accompanying stress response changes, calming yourself down will bring an end to the stress response and its changes. As your body recovers from the active stress response, this feeling should subside and you should return to your normal self. Keep in mind that it can take up to 20 minutes or more for the body to recover from a major stress response. But this is normal and shouldn’t be a cause for concern.
When a motion sickness symptom is caused by persistent stress, it may take a lot more time for the body to recover and to the point where this symptom is eliminated.
Nevertheless, when the body has fully recovered, this motion feeling will completely subside. Therefore, this symptom needn’t be a cause for concern.
You can speed up the recovery process by reducing your stress, practicing relaxed breathing, increasing your rest and relaxation, and not worrying about this feeling. Sure, it can be unsettling and even bothersome. But again, when your body has recovered from the stress response and/or sustained stress, this symptom will completely disappear.
For a more detailed explanation about the stress response, anxiety sensations and symptoms, why anxiety sensations and symptoms can persist, common barriers to recovery and symptom elimination, and more recovery strategies and tips, see Chapters 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 14, 18, 21, and 23 in the Recovery Support area of our website.
The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, coach, or counselor is the most effective way to address anxiety and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - we call these core causes the underlying factors of anxiety - a struggle with anxiety unwellness can return again and again. Dealing with the underlying factors of anxiety is the best way to address problematic anxiety.
For more information about our Anxiety Therapy, Coaching, Counseling option; our Available Anxiety Therapists; to Book An Appointment with one of our anxiety therapists; common Symptoms of Anxiety; Anxiety Attack Symptoms; anxiety Recovery Support area; common Anxiety Myths; and our Anxiety 101 section; or click on the appropriate graphic below:
You can return to our listing of anxiety symptoms here.
Authors: Jim Folk, Marilyn Folk, BScN. Last updated January 10, 2017.