Many of us have experienced dizziness or ringing in our ears. For me it was disorientating and overwhelming. These invisible symptoms are quite often misunderstood and medical investigations return with normal results.
We question our sanity: “Why do I feel this way? What is wrong with me?”
In this article I am going to discuss the science behind how we can heal vertigo or tinnitus and the dangers of becoming stuck with persistent symptoms.
Vertigo is the sensation of movement when we know we are not moving. It can be described as a ‘drunken’, ‘dizzy’, ‘spacey’ or ‘not-quite-right’ feeling. Tinnitus refers to the internal sounds we can hear within our own ears or head. This could be ringing, popping, roaring, static or more. The descriptions are endless.
Everyone is different.
These sounds and sensations do not come from the world around us and are not able to be heard or felt by others; tinnitus and vertigo come from the world within us.
At best, these sensations come as a brief shock and pass within a short moment of uncertainty. At worst, they can take over our lives and rob us of our self-confidence leading to unsteadiness, hopelessness, isolation, depression, anxiety or panic.
As a vestibular audiologist (inner-ear specialist), I saw thousands of people debilitated by these ‘invisible’ symptoms. Every test was ordered. Every specialist was seen. Every diet, supplement or meditation tried… but symptoms persisted.
The common diagnoses were vestibular migraine, Meniere’s, Mal debarquement, labyrinthitis, superior canal dehiscence, persistent postural perceptual dizziness (PPPD) or benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV).
I asked myself, why is it that some people can naturally rewire their sensory settings and return back to normal while others remain trapped in an endless cycle of symptoms that the medical world cannot explain?
I noticed that clients with persistent symptoms were being told by health professionals to ‘live with it- try these exercises- buy this device- use these medications- and there is nothing more we can do’.
I noticed that these same vertigo and tinnitus sufferers were not receiving an education about the body and brains ability to change itself, a process called neuroplasticity.
They were not being told it was possible and not being shown how to do it.
This is no fault of the medical system as doctors are not trained in neuroplasticity or the process of recovery for these persistent symptoms.
But why wasn’t neuroplasticity being discussed?
I saw the helplessness in the faces of the medical specialists that I worked with, as well as the people diagnosed with supposedly ‘incurable’ conditions.
I began to wonder if there was more we could do for these symptoms and I took an integrative medicine approach to healing vertigo and tinnitus.
During my Masters in Clinical Audiology I experienced both vertigo and tinnitus personally. It was a wild ride. I lost confidence in my body. I questioned myself. I felt anxious, nauseated and I felt that my body had let me down.
I felt depressed and anxious. Did I really have to live with this?
In hindsight, it was an incredible opportunity that I was able to experience firsthand the recovery process of vertigo and tinnitus. I learnt what text books couldn’t teach about neuroplasticity- by feeling it.
During this process, I was forced to feel my neural sensations. I had to trust the science and become curious about my changing biology. I learnt about physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health so that I could better understand how to heal.
I could no longer take it for granted that I would wake up in the morning and feel ‘normal’. I had to cultivate it. I had to re-learn.
I paused. I breathed. I went within. I became the witness and I allowed my body go through discomfort without struggling, judging or analysing it. I began a daily practice that trained my body how to rebuild new neural pathways that felt normal.
I updated my daily exercises to reset my sensory pathways so that my brain and body could adjust. I was lucky enough to have the skills.
I learnt more about the triggers and factors in my life that were aggravating symptoms. It was a solitary period of self-study. And I got better.
I practised self-kindness and began honouring the wisdom within my biology instead of trying to ‘get rid of it’. I asked myself what it was that I needed. I noticed my impatience, self-doubt, helplessness or anxiety pass. I noticed the impulsive urge to seek answers from others or to seek endless expert investigations. I noticed that this didn’t help.
I noticed that I had to change neuron patterns within myself and that no one else could do that for me. It was my body. I had to rewire it.
It took time to cultivate a recovery mindset. At times it was excruciating, confusing and tedious. My self-belief was frequently questioned: Am I healing?
Then little by little, the change came.
I changed from the inside using neuroplasticity.
Despite the common belief that these symptoms are ‘incurable’, I returned to normal. I no longer experience bothersome tinnitus or vertigo.
This is what I learnt:
You can heal vertigo and tinnitus if you have the skills and tools to learn how to do it. Chronic worry and anxiety inhibit this recovery process.
Doctors can order investigation tests to assist with diagnosis, but they can’t rewire our body or brain to reset the symptoms.
During vertigo or tinnitus symptoms, our biology is changing and we need to learn how to support it.
The systems involved include the inner ears, eyes, touch, emotions, brain and spinal cord. These systems are all in constant neural communication.
There are neural messages travelling within our body pathways and informing us about our immediate environment, 24/7.
When these biology systems are working well, we feel good. When one or more of these systems is damaged, we don’t feel good.
Our body and brain are indicating that ‘something isn’t right’. It feels odd.
During vertigo or tinnitus symptoms, there are neural messages being sent between the brain and the body that do not match the world around us.
It is a sensory mismatch or conflict. It feels abnormal and awful.
Our neural settings are no longer congruent with life as we know it.
This may be caused by a spontaneous event such as a virus, a migraine, a trauma, the onset of a genetic condition, or stress. Sometimes it is unknown.
We have so many neurons in our body that we can build new pathways that compensate for the permanently damaged areas- if we learn how to do it.
We can retrain the body and brain to feel confident, steady, at peace, calm, and relaxed.
This ability of the body and brain to change itself is called neuroplasticity.
Our healing processes are paused while we experience stress, so part of recovery is learning how to interrupt cycles of chronic stress.
Part of our recovery is learning how to understand our symptoms and build confidence again.
Stress or chronic worry can pause our internal repair functions. We have evolved to ‘run away’ from dangers such as floods or wild animals. So we begin to get a build up of muscle tension within our body as we prepare to ‘flight, fight or freeze’. It is like a false alarm. We can’t run away from our symptoms, no matter how hard we try.
For many people with unwanted body sensations, they are experiencing this stress response daily. This leaves the body little opportunity to focus on its repair functions.
Imagine waking up every day and feel rocking sensations, or ‘out-of-body’, or roaring sounds! It is immensely challenging to remain calm, relaxed or offer our body compassion when we feel this loss of control.
Of course we want to run away from it, fix it, change it, improve it, or get rid of it!
This leads us into the emotional side of recovery. These physical symptoms are likely to trigger frustration, anger, anxiety or feelings of hopelessness if they persist chronically. All of this quite normal too.
So we need to learn how to support these emotional reactions so that the body can ease back into repair mode.
Otherwise we have a dilemma.
How do we learn to support our body? The medical world has told us ‘to deal with it’. Who is the expert in our healing?
In order to heal using neuroplasticity, we need to become our own expert. It is a personal process. It is an integrative process involving physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of recovery.
We need to learn how to cultivate a daily practice that resets new neural pathways.
It takes time, patience, self-love and self-commitment. These qualities can be very difficult for people who have been experiencing a long period of self-directed frustration or hopelessness.
But it is possible.
It is understandable that people with vertigo and tinnitus may have felt powerless or stuck. It is no surprise that we become anxious about getting rid of unpleasant sensations.
Like so many others, I became overwhelmed and distracted by symptoms. But I began to realise that this was generating chronic stress and preventing my recovery. So I changed my approach and began consciously using neuroplasticity for healing.
What do we need to heal?
Education. Time. Support. Guidance.
The body wants to heal vertigo and tinnitus because it doesn’t like feeling out of ‘balance’. Our biology is continuously striving for an internal balance known as ‘homeostasis’. So if you find yourself trying to avoid your body sensations, you may need guidance to help you sit with it.
What you can do:
- Learn about neuroplasticity. Try reading a book (The brain that changes itself, Norman Doidge) or following a podcast (neuroplastacity for vertigo and tinnitus) to help you learn more about how the body can rewire and change itself. Get inspired to start your own healing process.
- Develop a mindset of hopefulness, openness, curiosity and self-kindness. Become experimental. Recognise that you are the expert in what you feel and you can respond to your body’s needs.
You can tune in, listen and reset the old pathways by replacing them with new neural pathways. Write down how you want to feel and brainstorm activities you can do to generate these desired feelings. Honour your desires. Seek support if you feel stuck.
- Start a daily practice that includes proprioceptive and vestibular exercises designed to retrain the inner ears and touch system.
There are video demonstrations of many vestibular and proprioceptive ‘touch’ exercises. Your brain will need a variety of mind-body-feeling exercises to help you reset back to normal.
- Find supportive people who you can call upon to help you stay motivated as you rewire your sensory system. Find people who offer you unconditional respect and don’t judge you for what you are feeling.
Your feelings are real, and you are allowed to feel them. Get support for those days when you might need a meal cooked for you, a hug, a lift, or inspiration to get up in the morning.
Neuroplasticity takes attention to detail. You don’t need to do it alone.
Many case studies show that through the recovery of chronic symptoms people have learnt about their wholeness; how to befriend their body, change their mindset and whole-heartedly take control of their healing.
I understand the challenges that people suffering with persistent vertigo and tinnitus face. If this is you, or any of your family members, I hope that you find what you need to support healing.