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Can Anxiety Cause Motion Sickness?


Motion sickness is something that affects a lot of us whether we’re travelling or simply on an unsteady surface. It can be uncomfortable and irritating but it’s not normally dangerous, and has been reported has a symptom of anxiety.  


As with a lot of physical symptoms of anxiety, the triggers lie within our caveman brain. This is the survival-driven part of our brain that our newer, rational cortex grew on top of. Its primary concern is keeping us alive, so when our brain perceives a threat, it releases these stress chemicals and activates a response called the fight, flight or freeze response. The stress hormone cortisol or the chemical adrenaline are released and this puts our body on high alert, and as a result, our body prepares to either fight, flight or freeze. 


Why Can Anxiety Cause Motion Sickness?

There’s a few reasons as to why anxiety might cause motion sickness the first being that when our body goes into fight, flight or freeze mode, our heart rate increases and our breathing becomes quicker and more shallow to increase blood and oxygen flow around the body. It might feel like you’re not getting enough oxygen when actually the opposite happens and you’re actually over oxygenating your blood. When there’s a significant imbalance of CO2 and oxygen we can begin to feel lightheaded as the vessels towards the brain begin to constrict.


Another reason is that in this survival mode, our entire body tenses. This includes our shoulders and neck muscles which over time can cause the feeling of motion sickness in the head. This is because our neck and shoulder muscles move to help us steady and realign ourselves, when this is taken away, the sensation is akin to motion sickness.


How Can I Stop This Symptom?

As this symptom stems from our fight, flight or freeze response and accompanying tense muscles and hyperventilation, the main thing that we can do to combat it is to focus on our breathing and keep moving. This should calm our central nervous system, distract our mind from the perceived threat, and deactivate our fight, flight or freeze response allowing our muscles to loosen and our breathing to return to its usual rate.


Of course, in order to prevent the symptoms of anxiety occurring in the first place, you need to manage or build strategies to tackle your anxiety. There are several options available including CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), mindfulness, medication and group therapy. If you’re unsure, please contact your GP for more information.