Can stress trigger seizures?

By Lisa Marinelli Smith
NeuLine Health

Stress is hard to avoid, but how we manage it can directly impact our health. Stress is linked to many illnesses, including heart disease, obesity, autoimmune disorders, digestive problems – and seizures.

Stress can cause seizures for those with epilepsy. It’s also a primary cause of “psychogenic nonepileptic seizures,” which occur in people who do not have epilepsy.

Epileptic seizures occur when nerve cells or neurons send mixed-up electrical signals to each other. When neurons don’t communicate normally, the body creates erratic thoughts, feelings and actions that a person cannot control, resulting in a seizure.

As a rule of thumb, epilepsy is diagnosed after a person has two or more unprovoked seizures separated by at least 24 hours. An unprovoked seizure doesn’t have an identifiable cause, such as a fever, head trauma or infection, for example.

Neurologists rely on EEGs, which measure the brain’s electrical activity, to identify epileptic seizures.

Epileptic seizures and stress

A stressful time for one person may not be the same as it is for another. Stress can build from daily events and busy calendars.

While quantifying the amount or kind of stress that can lead to a seizure isn’t possible, health care providers and patients agree that stress can trigger seizures for those who have epilepsy.

A particular life event (wedding, divorce, graduation), time of year (holidays) or a major change (moving, empty nest, job loss) can cause enough stress to trigger a seizure for some.

In a study on seizure triggers, epileptic patients used the EpiWatch app for Apple watches to log data. The Johns Hopkins EpiWatch™ app helps people track their seizures, potential seizure triggers, medications and share the data with Johns Hopkins researchers.

Close to 600 patients enrolled in the 10-month study. A total of 177 participants reported seizure triggers. The top cause was stress (37%) with the next cause listed as missing sleep (18%), followed by menstrual cycles (12%).

The study found that stress was more commonly reported as a trigger by those working full time, compared with those working part time, those unemployed and disabled participants.

How stress triggers seizures?

According to the Epilepsy Foundation, stress releases hormones that impact the brain. The hormones can affect an area of the brain that processes emotions and responds to stress, leading to a seizure.

This can become an unfortunate cycle. Stress can also cause anxiety, depression and lack of sleep – all of which are known seizure triggers.

Finding a way to reduce stress is often easier said than done, but the Epilepsy Foundation offers several helpful ideas and tips. 

Nonepileptic seizures and stress

Psychological distress is the core cause of nonepileptic seizures known as “psychogenic nonepileptic seizures” (PNES).

According to the Epilepsy Foundation, a traumatic event, such as physical or sexual abuse, incest, divorce, death of a loved one, or other great loss or sudden change can trigger seizures in people with PNES.

These types of seizures mimic an epileptic seizure in many ways, however, they aren’t caused by electrical disturbances in the brain. Health care providers rely on EEGs to determine whether someone is experiencing an epileptic seizure or a PNES.

Treatment for nonepileptic seizures is different from treatment for epileptic seizures. Antiseizure medications won’t stop seizures for someone experiencing psychogenic nonepileptic seizures. Instead, doctors can rely on other tools to treat PNES, such as counseling, behavior strategies to manage stress, and, possibly, medication to treat anxiety or depression.

NeuLine Health offers those who experience seizures the option of at-home, ambulatory EEGs rather than checking into an epilepsy monitoring unit at a hospital for three days. For more information, call NeuLine Health at (844) 212-5321 or visit our website.


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