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Neuroplasticity for persistent vertigo and tinnitus

Posted by Cynthia Ryan

Neuroplasticity is your body’s ability to change itself.  This is an essential part of the recovery process for tinnitus and vertigo. 

It is not something that a doctor can do for you.  And it is much more than physical exercises or ‘rehab’.

What is neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity describes the body’s ability to change and adapt itself.  Inside of our brain, spinal column and all throughout our body are networks of fibres that communicate, head to heart.  These networks are made of neurons.  A neuron is a cell within our body and its job is to transmit information from one place to another and back again.

The information that our neurons carry include feelings, sensations, emotions, thoughts, ideas, movements, speech etc.  Everything we do and experience is a result of many neurons talking with each other.  It is like a complex spider web with fibers moving in multiple directions.  Science can only explain and understand a small part of this neural mapping.

For example, our brains tell our muscles to move.  Our skin collects information about the weather or temperature.  Our ears collect sound and movement vibrations.  And our eyes collect visual information.  And so on.

Each of our sensory organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, touch) informs the brain about our environment within and without.  Our emotions send neural information about how we feel within each situation.   Our thoughts are being transmitted along their own neural pathways.  There is a huge amount of ‘data’ being transferred between our brain and our body.  

This is happening all the time.  24/7.

Picture the most complicated super highway road map of the largest city you can think of, and you are not even close to visualising the complexity of our neural mapping.  It is remarkable.

Our body holds a lot of data in our neuron mapping and we use this to help us stay orientated, safe and connected to our environment.  This is why we feel so distressed when suddenly we experience vertigo or tinnitus. 

Vertigo and tinnitus neurons will tell the brain, accurately, that things aren’t quite right.  Then the brain will scan the system for errors and solutions.  We begin to fire ‘emergency’ signals.  This is a normal response to a change within our environment. 

Picture a large multi-level building that has a fire alarm alerting danger and creating a scene of noisy evacuation.   Something similar happens within our biology.   It is both healthy and normal to respond with shock to sudden changes.

The body’s internal emergency system is often called the fight/flight/freeze or ‘stress’ response.  Symptoms such as vertigo and tinnitus can inadvertently trigger this response.  Over-activity of this system leads to chronic stress and this inhibits neuroplasticity. 

Neuroplasticity is our body and brain’s ability to change itself.  To build new pathways and to reset internal systems.  It is an important part of healing vertigo and tinnitus.

When our system is in ‘emergency’ mode, it is less able to think clearly or rewire a new neural map.  This can result in a loop of vertigo and tinnitus neural pathways and can delay neural recovery. 

Vertigo/tinnitus> stress response> vertigo/tinnitus> stress response> looped on repeat.

Being in a background state of ‘chronic stress’ is exhausting for our body and our neurons.  We begin to triple guess ourselves and triple check for dangers.  The brain and the body begin working overtime trying to solve the mismatching information and make sense of it all.

This feels distressing, lonely, impossible.  It is very common to lose self-confidence and feel ‘not-quite-right’ (NQR).

The emotional system may then begin to send neural messages about more danger.

“I feel NQR… what is wrong with me!?”

While this stress response is natural, it impacts us immensely.  Our heart pounds, our body feels uneasy and tense.  All of the neural networks are now transmitting physical, mental and emotional messages of angst. 

Our neural fibers are firing in all directions, pumping blood to our legs so that we can run away or hide as though a giant lion is chasing us.  We feel persistent symptoms.  We feel NQR.  Yet, there is no lion.

Our biology is preparing to run away from the vertigo/tinnitus but this isn’t possible.  So we have a dilemma. 

If this is you, please know that you are not alone.  This is a very common reaction to unwanted symptoms that have not been easily medicated or diagnosed.   It creates uncertainty, and this impacts our overall ability to generate healing within ourselves.

In these situations of chronic or persistent symptoms, our body and brain need to do a sort of ‘software update’.  This is something that no medicine can do for us. 

Like a computer, we need the latest templates and data systems for the best outcomes.  We need to update our neural mapping.   This doesn’t mean our body is ‘broken’, just that we need to recalibrate the internal percpetions.

This rebuilding process is called neuroplasticity (medications that suppress our vestibular function also suppress this recovery process).  The neurons throughout our body need to re-set in small stages.  This process can feel strange while it is happening.  It can occur quickly, or, if there has been significant hearing loss, vestibular damage or emotional trauma, it may take a little longer. 

Everyone is different.

For neuroplasticity to take effect we need to interrupt this chronic ‘stress’ loop.  We need our emotional system to create neural maps indicating safety and preparing us for building new pathways, rather than running away from danger.

So how do we do that?

Neuroplasticity involves learning to do something new, so let’s use the example of learning the piano. 

We learn best when we feel accepted and welcome to make mistakes.  We need a teacher, resources, a desire to learn, a commitment to practice, and self-support for times when we feel hopeless!  We need patience, kindness and to support ourselves as we progress. 

It is much more difficult to learn if we are in a state of alarm or confusion!  And not just the piano, but any new task at all.  We are better at building new neural pathways when we are at ease, educated and supported through a process.

Going back to our piano example, we can’t learn the piano if we don’t sit down and play it! 

Positive mantras  (e.g. “I will play, I can play) will not build the muscle memory that we need in our fingertips.  We need to use our body, our eyes, and our ears so that we can physically build new neural connections.  This is the learning process.

We go through it daily.   But we cannot begin until we learn how to begin.

For the example of the piano, we need to sit down and play music that we want to learn.  If we don’t feel motivated, inspired or capable, we are more likely to quit.  This is where mindset and professional guidance come into it.

If you want to play jazz music, you will need a jazz teacher and jazz resources.  It would be important that you don’t spend hours focused on folk songs. 

For effective learning, we need specific goals, a daily practice and professional guidance to help us stay on track.

Neuroplasticity for healing vertigo and tinnitus is a similar process.  We are learning how to recreate neural pathways that feel ‘normal’.   To do this, we need guidance to reset our perception of symptoms. 

We need to know what we are aiming to feel.  What new neural pathways are we building?  What are we now focusing upon?  How can we create a daily practice that assists the learning process for the body and brain?

You may choose to use educational resources for vertigo and tinnitus.  To learn how to cultivate a specific daily practice using self-study audios, worksheets and short videos. 

You will most likely need to practice self-support for difficult moments and learn how to remain focused in moments of hopelessness.  During this process of healing we need to stay focused on our desired outcomes and not fall into the trap of feeding unwanted fears or anxiety.

You may look for a professional therapists to help you build a daily practice and address the many layers of your neuroplasticity holistically (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual).  There will be many aspects of your mind and body going through changes, as you create new neural pathways.

In terms of the piano, there is no use practising the same folk song on repeat everyday if you really want to start learning some jazz.  You need to update your neuroplasticity program to address your challenges and your desired feelings.

We are less likely to heal if we feel overwhelmed by self-doubt, as the underlying stress delays neuroplasticity.  Remember, neuroplasticity is inhibited by chronic stress.  It is important to surround yourself by people who understand your healing process.

Many people need a support team to help them through this process. 

However, you are changing daily so it is difficult for others to truly understand what you are going through. 

You are the expert in what you feel.  You are the expert in knowing what you need.  You can learn to become the expert in your neuroplasticity healing process.

Consider what your desired sensations are.  You may want to feel confident, strong, calm, relaxed or at ease in your body.  You may want to get to work or feel happier.  These goals will depend upon your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual connection to the world around you.  All parts of you are involved when you begin rewiring your neural networks. 

Whatever you feel is real in your biology.  You feel it.

Whatever you want to feel is real too.  You just need to learn how to stimulate those neural pathways and activate it, by practicing, to feel it.

If you don’t believe this is possible, then it isn’t possible for you.

Our beliefs play a vital role in rewiring our mapping.  Beliefs keep us inspired, to remain open, and to stay connected to our feelings in our body.  If we understand our biology and believe healing is possible, this belief can fill us with curiosity and whole-heartedness beyond our symptoms.

We begin to practice feeling our body with openness in each moment rather than trying to run away from it or ‘get rid of’ feelings that we don’t like.

We begin to use neuroplasticity consciously and ease our own anxiety.  We self-soothe.  We trust.  We have a better understanding of how to reset our neural patterns.

During this process, many people will discover underlying beliefs or thoughts that are inadvertently triggering symptoms into a loop.  Through awareness and understanding, this loops tires, symptoms, heal and a new belief system is set in place.

For example from “My body has let me down, I hate this feeling and I can’t heal” to “My body is sorting this out and these sensations are purposeful.  I don’t need to get rid of them.  I am okay right now.”

If we ignore, suppress or numb our feelings, then we simply cannot rewire them. Neuroplasticity requires that we feel into it without judgment to collect the data so that we can rebuild it. 

We need to feel it in order to heal it.  The brain needs to process it.

My personal experience with vertigo and tinnitus

I have had vertigo and tinnitus too.  At the time, it felt like the world was saying: ‘Too bad, deal with it’.

Fortunately, I had training in neuroplasticity.  I had studied neuroscience, vestibular audiology and had a background in psychology so I understood the science behind what I was experiencing. 

I knew the importance of sensory enrichment, community, and a daily neuroplasticity practice.  I had a strong background in yoga and mindfulness so I could observe what I was feeling with curiosity and non-attachment.  I knew how to self-soothe my doubts and I knew how to release the tension in my body. 

I had the tools.  I began to study the neuroplasticity process for vertigo and tinnitus by going through it.

I knew my experience was unique and not to be compared to any others, but I also knew that this was a rich learning experience better than any textbook.

I used the foundations of integrative medicine and pieced together skills, tools, strategies and techniques useful for recovery of vertigo and tinnitus.  I had to rewire my body for the simple reason that I knew it was impossible for anyone else to do it for me.

Now, on the odd occasion when intermittent symptoms arise, they pass elegantly without any drama as I have the skills and tools to settle them.  I understand it.

Engaging in neuroplasticity teaches us to be in the process, not the destination.

We begin to learn how we can rebuild sensations rather put our energy into trying to eliminate symptoms.  We incorporate all layers of health.  We no longer rely on a linear or a single solution. 

Neuroplasticity involves the neural connections between not only our senses but also our thoughts, emotions, memories, beliefs and our surrounding environment.  Each of these factors is incorporated into recovery.

So if you are reading this and thinking: “I tried those balance exercises or that meditation and it didn’t work!” it could be that there was a missing element in your home program, so please don’t lose hope.  You body is capable of redesigning its neural mapping on physical, mental, emotional and spiritual levels. 

You are not broken

You are more than just your ears or just your thoughts.  There is a wholeness to you. You are not broken.

It is possible to feel at ease, happy and connected despite your diagnosis.  But you may need to build new neural templates in order to feel that.

It is true that permanent neural damage cannot be replaced, but neuroplasticity allows us to build around damaged areas and substitute it with new pathways.

The road to discover your healing can feel confusing, because no one else in the world is expert in you.  You are the expert in you.

Thus, generic exercises are a poor substitute for a customised personal home program designed by you!  I have never seen two people with the same goals or home practice.  This is a highly individualized process and each person surprises me with the new neural solutions they need.

Doing physical exercises, relying on daily suppressant medications or meditating with mantras alone are not likely to be the ongoing solution.  Most people need an integrated practice each day, depending on what they feel and what is going on for them at that time. It is dynamic. 

You are the expert in what you feel.  What you feel informs you about what you need.  With support and eLearning resources for vertigo and tinnitus (videos/audios/worksheets), you can choose from a plethora of tools as to how you will rebuild your desired sensations.

Just like the piano player who chooses different songs to learn, you can choose or create different neural exercises to remap your system.

The process of neuroplasticity may not remove the initial distress we feel when our symptoms erupt; nor does it replace the importance of medical investigations.  

However, thanks to technology, eLearning for neuroplasticity can change the way we approach recovery of persistent vertigo and tinnitus.  Why? Because neuroplasticity is a process that we can learn at home, self-paced, and it empowers us to become the expert in what we need to heal.

Further reading:

  • The Brain That Changes Itself: Book by Norman Doidge
  • Full catastrophe living: Book by Jon Kabat-Zinn

By Joey Remenyi - MClinAud, MaudSA (CCP), BA (Psych), ACT/CBT (cert), Registered Senior Yoga Teacher

Joey is a vestibular audiologist specialising in neuroplasticity for vertigo and tinnitus.  She is also the founder and director of Seeking Balance Australia.

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