Epilepsy Talk

Stress and Seizures | August 23, 2016

Let’s be honest, you probably didn’t plan on having epilepsy.

But here we are. And we all know that stress is #1 in the hit parade of seizure triggers.

And endless surveys prove the fact. Most people think of stress as being related only to unpleasant or sad times in their lives.

However, even “happy” stress can trigger seizures!

Sometimes, seizures occur immediately after a sudden and very stressful event.

Other times, there might be a delay of hours or days.

There are some people who have seizures when there is a release from stress that has been present for a long time.

For example, you might have a seizure on a Saturday or Sunday after a particularly stressful week.

(I used to have one every Friday night like clockwork after a week in the wonderful world of advertising.)

But most of us associate stress with negative feelings. Fear, worry, fright, anxiousness.

Tension, sadness, helplessness or feeling out of control.

There’s acute stress, like we experience when a family member dies or we are in an automobile accident.

Then there’s chronic stress, like we experience if we have financial problems, an unhappy marriage or a boss who is being unreasonable at work.

And Psychogenic Non-Epileptic Seizures — (PNES). Caused by psychological trauma or conflict that impacts our state of mind.

(PNES is not to be simply brushed off. Because one in six of people with PNES have also had epileptic seizures.)

And then there’s the sheer anticipation of having a seizure!

“As a young person you don’t really know what it is, I was having a lot of tests, like the brain scans and consultations and people going, “Well is it her or is it something going on?”

My confidence went downhill completely ‘cos obviously when things are happening to you that you don’t know what on earth the hell is happening, then it’s very difficult.” — Carole

So, it becomes a vicious cycle. Seizures cause stress and stress results in more seizures.

Both mental and physical stress cause changes in the body, increasing the brain’s excitability and activity.

But the type of stress that triggers epileptic seizures most often is emotional stress.

How do these different types of stress affect us? The truth is, we don’t know.

But we DO know about the neurological reactions.

When you feel stressed, the limbic system — the portion of your brain that regulates emotion — goes into overdrive.

Your body responds with a “fight-or-flight” response.

An automatic alert system that, when triggered, affects every part of your body.

Interestingly, this may lead you to hyperventilate, exciting those neurons even more and triggering a seizure.

Particularly an absence seizure.

But whether you hyperventilate or not, this neuron distress causes your body to release cortisol, the number one stress hormone.

And it’s an uphill battle from there.

And here’s some real cheerful news…

Studies from Stanford University have shown that prolonged exposure to stress can potentially lead to brain damage.

However, there’s some promising news here, too…

Research carried out by Michael Privitera, MD, professor and director, Cincinnati Epilepsy Center, University of Cincinnati, and his colleagues, showed some interesting and positive results.

85% of the people studied, believed that chronic stress was a seizure trigger.

And 68% attributed acute stress as a trigger.

Here’s the good news…

57% of these same people used some type of relaxation or stress reduction treatment.

Of those, 88% thought it improved their seizures.

“What was really interesting was that these people have tried all kinds of stress reduction methods, and yoga was number one, which is surprising since this is Cincinnati, and not California, where such approaches might be more popular,” he said.

Patients also tried relaxation and other stress reduction techniques.

The 25% of people who did NOT attribute stress as a trigger for their seizures, tried relaxation or stress reduction and 71% of them thought their seizures improved as a result.

Now, researchers are carrying out a clinical trial of a stress reduction intervention (breathing exercises and other techniques) in drug-resistant people who believe their seizures are triggered by stress.

Asked to comment, Jane Allendorfer, PhD, instructor, University of Alabama at Birmingham, who has done research on the role of stress in seizures, said “It’s interesting, but not surprising, that patients who tried stress reduction techniques believed it reduced seizures.”

Mind over matter?

The best advice is to try to be pro-active and take care — or divert — your stress triggers.

(I know, easier said than done!)

Deep breathing works for me.

Others swear that music does it for them. (See articles below.)

For some, visualization or walking diffuses the stress.

Yet, just like seizures and meds, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. But it sure is worth a try!

What works for you?

To subscribe to Epilepsytalk.com and get the latest articles by email, simply go to the bottom box of the right column and click on “Follow”

Other articles of interest:

Epilepsy, Anxiety and Depression


10 Ways to Cope with Your Fear and Anxiety


Super Seizure De-Stressor


Breathing Your Stress Away…


Epilepsy Versus “Pseudo-Seizures”


How Music Soothes Your Seizures









  1. Hi: Good article. I was not taking medication for 5 years and my epileptologist said they would get worse, and they did. I recently fell down and broke my wrist and it is in a cast. I couldn’t remember where I fell as I have no auras. Do you think a service dog would help to predict? Where can I get one for free, because I can’t afford one,or how about a smart watch? He put me on Keppra and two nights ago I had insomnia. That in itself is stressful. hate side effects, but I am afraid to go off medication. Is there a medication with the least amount of side effects?


    Comment by mary levell — August 23, 2016 @ 11:26 AM

  2. Well….I have developed this problem late in life…and I am a very fit and strong individual….still I do not have them very often and more recently went a year with nothing. I find the medication causes depression and more recently had an emotional meltdown that lasted 3 hours ..does anyone else experience extreme mood swings on dilantin……I stopped taking Keppra because the stuff completly altered my ability to function.


    Comment by northern boy — August 23, 2016 @ 11:49 AM

  3. Good Morning Phylis,

    Another EXCELLENT posting by you regarding the harmful effects of STRESS!

    I would like to provide your readers a Web site that has a FREE recording that I listen to every week since the loss of my Twin Brother Allan : Log onto : http://www.donnabird.com You go over to the Heading “Therapies” Click on this & the very 1st. heading is “Hypnotherapy”…Click on this & Scroll down the page where you’ll see ” 11 – Minute Rapid Relaxer”..Click on this & Turn on your speakers for a wonderful full body destress recording. You can SAVE this recording on your desktop for future listening pleasure as I have. Some folks may be opposed to Hypnosis, but I can assure you are in control & it’s nothing like you may have seen on TV, Movies or read about I can assure you first hand. I hope this FREE RESOURCE will provide much needed stress relief for your readers.

    I still have NOT found a Support Group here in Southern California & have even sent an Email to Dr. Phil to see if he would host a show on “Loss of a Twin” & he hasn’t had the professional courtesy of responding, either himself or a staff member.

    Enjoy your Tuesday Phylis & warmest regards.

    Email: ajgolfnut5gmail.com


    Comment by AL "AJ" Johnson — August 23, 2016 @ 12:01 PM

  4. Wow Phylis. What a wonderful post. I’m only a simple partial guy but what you say about stress resonates so much with me. Beyond epilepsy …..stress is the culprit for so much more. It makes manageable conditions unmaneagable. My episodes are through the roof right now because of it…but not a person outside my family allows for it.

    6 years after first aneurysm surgery I go soon for check angio. Last op made me stutter and my boss said i was deceiving my colleagues to garnour sympathy. Go figure?

    Stress is my trigger.


    Comment by Stephen McGinn — August 23, 2016 @ 12:11 PM

  5. I know what that is like, It,s your feelings, getting to upset or to exc.


    Comment by michele metzger — August 23, 2016 @ 12:18 PM

  6. Unfortunately, it’s a feeling most of us are victim to at one time or another.

    Some more often than others. 😦


    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — August 23, 2016 @ 1:08 PM

  7. Thanks Phylis! This is so helpful. I can totally relate! Do you mind if I share this?


    Comment by Soo Ihm — August 23, 2016 @ 1:44 PM

    • Please feel free to as long as you give proper attribution (the source).

      This website is meant to inform and educate, the more people who know, the better.

      Thanks for asking first, Soo.


      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — August 23, 2016 @ 2:08 PM

  8. I also see a STRESS Doctor my self to, and I am on also this medication called : Citalopram 20 mg* ONE TABLET every MORNING.


    Comment by nadine basten — August 24, 2016 @ 4:31 PM

  9. I’ve never heard of it…how does it work? Is it a benzo?

    Whatever it is, I’m glad it’s working for you, Nadine.


    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — August 24, 2016 @ 6:25 PM

  10. Phylis,
    Citalopram is an antidepressant.


    Comment by Susan — August 24, 2016 @ 8:33 PM

  11. Thanks. I looked it up. “A serotonin reuptake inhibitor.”

    Thanks for answering my question.

    Be well…


    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — August 25, 2016 @ 9:39 AM

  12. My wife and I always called the them “relaxation seizures” to name one type. Stress I could handle, sometimes.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Curtis McMurtrey — August 26, 2016 @ 8:02 PM

  13. I guess you may have a point, if the ictal tension eases after your seizure.

    Seizures are difficult and tense ordeals to get through for most.

    Stress it certainly is!


    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — August 27, 2016 @ 10:00 AM

  14. people are trying to find a cure for epilepsy,why there is no miracle drug. medical mar. won,t do any good I would not take it . Just go on with your life like always.Let the neo. take care of it,so stop trying to find a cure for it, Your just wasteing your time. Wednesday I had seizures all day, some felt like someone put hot bubbleing water in my insides from my I top of my arms down to my feet front and back, It,s been like that since I was in high school. Theres noting anyone can do about it, because it,s no not in my brian.


    Comment by michele metzger — October 1, 2016 @ 1:51 PM

  15. If you don’t take it, you can’t really say whether medical marijuana will work for you or not, Michele. But that’s a very personal decision.

    I’m sorry you’re feeling so terrible and frustrated, but where do you think these pains are coming from?


    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — October 1, 2016 @ 5:22 PM

  16. It’s something you should discuss with your doctor, Michele, so it can be addressed.


    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — October 2, 2016 @ 10:13 AM

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    About the author

    Phylis Feiner Johnson

    Phylis Feiner Johnson

    I've been a professional copywriter for over 35 years. I also had epilepsy for decades. My mission is advocacy; to increase education, awareness and funding for epilepsy research. Together, we can make a huge difference. If not changing the world, at least helping each other, with wisdom, compassion and sharing.

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