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Motion Sickness: Symptoms, Causes, and Links to Anxiety and Pregnancy

None of us is immune to motion sickness. Even experienced sailors can feel queasy when the sea gets too rough. For some people, however, all it takes is a few sharp turns in a car to bring on horrible symptoms of nausea, vomiting, vertigo, cold sweat, and confusion. In this article, you’ll learn about motion sickness, why some people are more prone to it, and how to relieve the symptoms.

Do you dread road trips and boat rides and don’t even consider getting on a ride at the amusement park? If your stomach starts to churn and your skin feels clammy the moment the road gets bumpy or the sea gets rough, and all you can think is: “When this will end?”, you’re likely one of many people who experience motion sickness.

Why do I get motion sickness?

Motion sickness—also called seasickness or road sickness—is an uncomfortable yet perfectly normal physiological reaction to real or perceived motion. This happens when your brain can’t make sense of the information it receives from your vestibular system.


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The vestibular system lies in the inner ear and is responsible for your sense of balance and spatial orientation. It is made up of tiny, fluid-filled semi-circular canals positioned on three axes that detect rotational movement and tiny otolithic organs that detect linear movement and acceleration. These structures work together with visual cues from your eyes and haptic information from the somatosensory neurons in your skin and muscles to send information to your brain, which it then uses to coordinate the movement of your body from moment to moment without you even being aware that this is going on.

However, when you’re riding on a rollercoaster or sitting in the backseat of a car, the vestibular system is perceiving conflicting signals—your surroundings are in motion, but your body is still. The vestibular system can also have trouble keeping up with sudden or extreme movements, for example if you are travelling in rough seas, swaying in a boat that rises and plunges with each wave. In this situation it can be hard to maintain your balance, and you may suddenly feel nauseous to the point of vomiting.

Motion sickness symptoms and susceptibility

If you have ever experienced motion sickness, you’ll be familiar with the sensations of light-headedness, a sudden queasiness in your stomach, cold sweat, and the awful feeling that you can’t move properly. These symptoms can be intense, but will quickly subside once you are back on solid ground.

Other common symptoms of motion sickness include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, increased salivation, pallor, dizziness, headache, rapid breathing, and fatigue.

Although no one is immune, some people experience more severe symptoms and may struggle to relax in any moving vehicle, even when the ride is smooth. If this sounds familiar, you may be experiencing symptoms more intensely due to:

  • pregnancy
  • the use of hormonal contraception
  • being on your period
  • an inner ear disorder
  • genetics
  • sleep deprivation
  • migraines
  • Parkinson’s disease

Women and children under the age of 12 tend to be more prone to motion sickness.


Motion sickness and anxiety

The symptoms of an anxiety attack—dizziness, light-headedness, and nausea—can feel just like a bout of motion sickness. When crippling anxiety hits, you can feel as if the ground beneath your feet is moving, or that you might fall although your body and the world around you are completely still.

Anxiety can bring on such symptoms because when you’re anxious, you may start to hyperventilate—rapid, shallow breathing deprives the brain of oxygen, making you feel lightheaded. An anxiety response can also interfere with your vestibular system by pumping cortisol and other stress hormones into your body. Stress hormones mobilise energy, increase your heart rate, and prepare you for fight or flight; your vision narrows to perceive danger and your hearing becomes more acute, picking up every little sound. This modified perception of the environment can be disorienting and cause your vestibular system to send conflicting signals to your brain.

Unlike a typical case of motion sickness that can be eased by slowing down or getting out of the car, the terror of a stress response must be addressed within the body. Here are two techniques you can use to calm yourself:

  • Bring attention to your breath. Feeling stressed and anxious can lead to hyperventilation—breathing too rapidly or too deeply. This can disrupt the balance between oxygen (O2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) in your blood; over-exhaling CO2 provokes respiratory alkosis bringing on dizziness, light-headedness, and confusion. To rebalance yourself, slow your breathing to about one breath every five seconds and either restrict O2 by pursing your lips or breathing through one nostril at a time, or increase CO2 by exhaling into a paper bag and inhaling the same air for a few breaths.
  • Engage your senses. Pause for a moment to take in your surroundings, then name 5 things you see, 4 things you feel, 3 things you hear, 2 things you smell, and 1 thing you taste. Some people find that naming these things out loud helps them feel more grounded. Repeat the exercise until you feel calm again. There are several variations of this grounding technique, but they all work by tapping into your senses to shift your focus to what is happening around you and away from anxious thoughts.

If there is no immediate danger and you can bring yourself back to the present moment, your brain will quickly calm your stress response.

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Motion sickness during menstruation and pregnancy

As we mentioned, women are more prone to experiencing motion sickness. If you’re on your period or pregnant, you may be even more susceptible. One study found that women are most likely to experience motion sickness symptoms on day 5 of the menstrual cycle, with sensitivity significantly decreasing on day 12 and day 19, reaching minimum reactivity on day 26 of the cycle. While the reasons for this are unclear, it is likely to be connected to hormonal fluctuations and/or a drop in essential nutrients due to menstruation.

When you’re pregnant, motion sickness and morning sickness can be hard to tell apart. Pregnant women are generally more prone to experiencing symptoms because of:

  • hormonal changes that can affect the body’s balance and coordination systems, making it more difficult to maintain equilibrium
  • an increase in human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) produced by the placenta during pregnancy that can affect the part of the brain that regulates nausea and vomiting
  • tissues swelling from water retention that can put additional pressure on the inner ear, affecting the vestibular system and exacerbating the symptoms of motion sickness

How to avoid and treat motion sickness

If you are sensitive to changes in motion while travelling, here are some things you can try to prevent motion sickness and keep yourself from feeling sick:

Antihistamines

Over-the-counter antihistamine pills such as dimenhydrinate (Dramamine), diphenhydramine (Benadryl), meclizine (Antivert), and promethazine (Phenergan) help alleviate the symptoms of motion sickness by blocking histamine and acetylcholine, two chemical messengers that trigger nausea and vomiting. They need time to take effect, so take your first pill an hour or so before you travel. The sedative effect of these first-generation antihistamines also helps calm anxiety, but this means you shouldn’t drive or engage in activities that require you to be alert while using them. Second- and third-generation antihistamines are not effective for motion sickness.

Scopolamine

Scopolamine, usually in the form of a transdermal patch, also works by blocking acetylcholine. Scopolamine patches are convenient for long journeys as they can last for up to three days, but they are only available by prescription because this drug has greater potential for a bad interaction with certain other medications and for misuse, although stories have been somewhat exaggerated in the media.

These drugs all have potential side effects including drowsiness, dry mouth, blurred vision, constipation, and headaches. If you do not want to use medications, or do not have time to plan, here are four techniques you can use to relieve the symptoms of motion sickness:

Look straight ahead

Looking in the direction of travel can help your brain perceive and process the movement. Don’t read or look at a screen; even though you are focused on a stable element, your peripheral vision will still pick up the movement of the vehicle, making it more challenging for your brain to make sense of conflicting signals.

Find the best position

If you are a passenger in a car, sitting in the front seat and looking ahead will be most relaxing, but it’s better to avoid sitting at the front of a boat because this is where you will experience the most movement. If you are travelling in a larger vehicle and circumstances permit, try lying down or walking around. A little movement can help stabilise your vestibular system.

Be mindful of what you eat

Eat a light meal before travelling and be sure to avoid heavy, greasy foods that tax your stomach. During the trip, munching saltine crackers and sipping cold water can ease your stomach and alleviate nausea. You might also try chewing gum. Studies show that chewing gum can effectively reduce symptoms of motion sickness. Tasty flavours and pleasant smells ease nausea, and chewing helps with dizziness.

Tea made with chamomile, liquorice root, or ginger has long been used to calm nausea; you can also nibble on ginger cookies or chew ginger gum.

Acupressure

Acupressure is a technique that involves applying pressure to certain points on the body to relieve muscle tension and facilitate the free flow of energy. Applying pressure to the “P6 point”—located about two fingers up from the bend of the wrist, in the centre between tendons, palm facing upwards—helps alleviate nausea and vomiting. You can buy special wristbands that apply pressure on this point, or simply find the spot with your finger, relax your breathing, and press lightly for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat as needed.

Exposure

When you see boat crew minding their business and working normally, even in a rough sea, you might wonder why some people are more resistant to motion sickness than others. Studies show that gradual conditioning through exposure to the movement of boats, cars, rollercoaster rides, and the like can help you reduce your sensitivity. If you don’t take many boat trips, exposure therapy with car rides can work just as well.

The bottom line

No one is immune to motion sickness. Although the body’s visual, vestibular, and somatosensory systems work in elegant cooperation, sudden, rapid, and extreme changes in motion can confuse the signals these systems send to the brain resulting in temporary discomfort and disorientation. While the symptoms can be stressful and unpleasant, motion sickness is not generally dangerous and can be easily limited or avoided completely with simple techniques. Anxiously anticipating motion sickness before a trip can make things worse, so find what works for you and be prepared. If you are travelling by commercial plane or boat, the staff is sure to have plenty of experience helping passengers with motion sickness so don’t hesitate to ask for assistance if it happens to you.

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https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4112051/
https://www.anxietycentre.com/anxiety-disorders/symptoms/motion-sickness-anxiety/#:~:text=Anxiety%20motion%20sickness%20can%20also,severe%20and%20then%20somewhat%20diminishes
https://www.calmclinic.com/anxiety/symptoms/nausea
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16235881/
https://www.whijournal.com/article/S1049-3867(08)00010-8/pdf
https://www.healthline.com/health/motion-sickness-remedies#medication
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34997261/
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