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A Stable Body creates a Stable Mind: Vestibular Balance linked to Emotional Balance
Research has shown that, perhaps surprisingly, therapeutic stimulation of the vestibular (balance) system can modulate mood and emotions; and that additionally, changes in mood and emotions can affect body balance.
We, perhaps, are already aware of this, when we consider the posture of someone happy and confident; and then compare this to someone who is feeling anxious or depressed. This so-called ‘body language’ is thus not only a type of communication, but it also relates to an internal state – and one that can be deliberately influenced. And, potentially, influenced to suit an individual’s needs.
Your vestibular system is your balance system: your internal compass. It should inform you as to where you are in relation to your environment. It interacts with gravity and it tells you, at any moment, where is your up, down, left, right, forwards, backwards, everything in between, and even tracks acceleration, direction and when we are still.
This very clever system gains much of its information from some sophisticated kit housed in the inner ear, which senses movements of the head. This information is integrated together with other information by the brain to accurately decipher where you are relative to your environment. It is also used to help plan and assess the precision of the movements you make. A well-functioning vestibular system is aroused by even the slightest (or slowest) of movements. Imagine, shutting off your eyes and ears, and then moving on a children’s roundabout at a speed of one inch a second. Could you tell which direction you were moving in?
If your vestibular system is not functioning well, your clever brain will attempt to ‘cheat’ by using information from other sensory systems, such as sight or sound. If we stick with the example of the roundabout, to work out where you are at any given moment, someone with a poorly, or non-functioning vestibular system might use their ears – for example, if you could hear a friend talking, and you assumed they stood still, your brain might use that information to judge where you are in relation to them. Or you might use visual information instead – if you can see the swings, you would use them as a reference point to give your brain information. The brain can also use tactile information, such as air moving past the skin; or olfactory (sense of smell) information, for example your friend’s perfume as you passed her each time the roundabout went round. However, using all this other information and piecing it all together is a ‘brain drain’, meaning that this ties-up certain brain regions leaving them less available, and it uses up energy which should go elsewhere. Relying on this third-party information can also be less accurate than using a fully-functioning vestibular system. When starved of all other sensory inputs, the brain should be able to rely solely on its vestibular system.
A simple test to see how well your vestibular system is working is the Static Balance Test. To do this, find a quiet, still (air), and scentless room, with no obvious (very bright) sources of light. Stand on one leg, and shut your eyes. Can you stay like that for 30 seconds? Did you have to open your eyes? Did you feel any tension, wobbling or actually fall over? Swap legs – is this better or worse? If you could do bot sides easily, then, ‘Congratulations!’ it is likely that your vestibular system is in pretty great shape!
It is pretty obvious how a vestibular system would help us with our physical balance; however, it may come as a surprise to some that the vestibular system can also influence our mood and emotions. One way to think about this is to consider the degree of confidence that you would have in your own body to get you out of any trouble (or just to smoothly walk across a room in some people’s cases) if your vestibular (balance) system was not quite calibrated properly, and the posture you might have to adopt to make up for this (e.g. head looking down at where the feet are, or an abnormal gait to stop yourself falling over). Perhaps you might then imagine how, in that state, you might feel less adequate or confident than your peers, and the knock-on effects of this to your emotions and mood.
Research from 2017 found links both upstream and down-stream, between a well-functioning vestibular system and emotional stability, and between emotional stability and a well-functioning vestibular system.
It reports that, “vestibular stimulation techniques are reported to be effective in stress relief and possibly patient’s emotional well-being”; and that, “vestibular stimulation can modulate mood and hence influence emotions depending on the region of vestibular stimulation. Indeed the concepts of vestibular system influencing emotions has been used therapeutically. For instance, spinning chair was used to treat mania or elevated arousal in the nineteenth century…Vestibular dysfunction is well-known to affect mood and is associated with anxiety disorders and depression. Conversely, changes in mood/emotions can also influence body balance, which may probably be mediated through vestibulo-ocular reflex pathways.”
Vestibular therapies are a type of neuroplasticity therapy. And techniques, even as simple as sitting on a very slow spinning chair have been found to strengthen the vestibular system in the brain. NB This should be done under supervision from a relevant professional, as the direction, speed, duration and frequency of this exercise should be done very much on an individual basis.
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