Epilepsy Talk

Childhood Abuse and Epilepsy | August 25, 2018

All types of abuse — sexual, physical, and emotional (including verbal abuse and witnessing domestic violence) raise the risk of depression, anxiety and epilepsy-like symptoms.

Research featured in Harvard Mental Health Letter and published in The American Journal of Psychiatry looked at the damage that hostile words, and or yelling can have on a child.

They found “words are weapons that can cause lasting wounds, especially when wielded by parents against children. The damage is sometimes more serious and lasting than injuries that result from beatings”, say Harvard researchers reporting on a survey of young adults.

Basically, abuse releases a cascade of stress hormones which produces a lasting effect on brain signals.

Experiments at McLean Hospital, for example, show that patients with a history of abuse are twice as likely to show abnormal electrical activity as non-abused people.

And this abnormal electrical brain activity, in turn, resembles a seizure state, but doesn’t actually produce epilepsy.

Hippocampal Sclerosis

This is a very common (but often unknown) feature of temporal lobe epilepsy.

Changes in the hippocampus — the part of the brain that deals with stress, learning and memory — can be caused by hormones flooding the brain during and after a stressful episode.

But the BIG question is whether hippocampal sclerosis is the consequence of repeated seizures, or whether it plays a role in the development of the epileptic focus?

NESD — Non Epileptic Seizure Disorder

A non-epileptic seizure is a short burst of activity that changes how you move, think, or feel. It looks like an epileptic seizure but there are no measurable electrical changes in the brain.

Not surprisingly, many people have a history of sexual or physical abuse. 75% to 85% are women between the ages of 15 to 35.

It’s a serious condition that shouldn’t be ignored. With early diagnosis and treatment, future problems can be averted.

Psychogenic Non Epileptic Seizures

These seizures are caused by psychological trauma or conflict that has a lasting effect on your state of mind.

The Epilepsy Foundation explains that sexual or physical abuse is the leading cause of psychogenic seizures, where the abuse occurred during childhood.

A psychogenic seizure can be confused with a grand-mal seizure — with convulsions, falling and shaking.

Less often, a psychogenic seizure takes on the form of a complex partial seizure, with a temporary loss of attention.

Because of the reasons for these psychogenic seizures, mental health counseling is encouraged. The prognosis is good, with 60 to 70 percent of patients alleviated of seizure symptoms.

“Children love and want to be loved and they very much prefer the joy of accomplishment to the triumph of hateful failure. Do not mistake a child for his symptom.” — Erik Erikson


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  1. Thank you for writing about this topic. 🙏🏻


    Comment by Bonnie — August 25, 2018 @ 9:48 PM

  2. What is the recommended treatment to address the factors related to the sexual abuse? and the partial complex seizures that have I have been having? I have worked with counselors for years! & I have also had 2 brain surgeries to address damage to my brain secondary to having had a fractured skull at 1 year old, and being in a car accident where I broke the steering wheel with my nose. Life sure has been hard! Thanks for your help.


    Comment by Maire Archbold — August 25, 2018 @ 10:27 PM

    • Frankly Marie, I don’t know what else you can do.

      My first advice would be counseling. But you’re doing that already.

      And you’ve had brain surgery, so there’s no use recommending a VNS or TNS.

      So, I’m sorry to say, I’m stumped. 😦


      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — August 26, 2018 @ 9:02 AM

  3. Worse than physical & verbal abuse I believe is the ACCEPTANCE life which usually does not include you but REJECTS YOU as a child & leading into the adult world of the seizure life. The human brain just focuses on the REJECTIONS ever since 5 years old & every year past that, as the brain has no idea how to accept how others could include you & respect who & what you are, but the seizures keeps them all far away from you & you from them.


    Comment by CD — August 25, 2018 @ 10:52 PM

  4. My biggest question is if you suffer from both epilepsy and psychogenic non-epileptic seizures how do you differentiate between the two. My neurologist, psychiatrist and therapist can’t answer the question and everything I have read on PNES states that the most important thing you can do if you have both conditions is to differentiate between them. But no one can answer me. Since they diagnosed me as having both I have tried to analyze my seizure activity and try to associate them with my past but I can’t seem to relate them. Regular stress can bring on epileptic seizures as well as non-epileptic ones and so I can’t find an answer for proper treatment to stop my seizure activity. I’m refractory epileptic, dealing with six different types of seizures. The question remains which ones deal with the epilepsy and which ones with the PNES. I need to know in order to figure out proper treatment. What do I do?


    Comment by Julie — August 26, 2018 @ 11:38 PM

  5. Child abuse is very rare at education ofcourse the world raise fingers from behind parents co-operation is most necessary at childhood stage today we were writing this topic due to their cooperation we are grateful to them.
    Be positive and never get distracted from negative feelings or emotions of the public.


    Comment by Yusuf — August 27, 2018 @ 11:03 AM

  6. Seizures, whether from epilepsy or pnes are still traumatic events. Your Neurologist or GP will take care of the medical aspects of these events but NOT the psychological aspects. I believe it is essential for patients to get some type of psychotherapy (short-term, EMDR), to aid in the treatment process. Again, whether epilepsy or pnes. It’s ALL traumatic!!!!!


    Comment by skolly9 — August 27, 2018 @ 2:52 PM

  7. My seizures have recently become “not Epilepsy-related,” while they haven’t exactly said PNES I am guessing that’s what it is. I have been going through emotional abuse and recently (back in February) got diagnosed with Anxiety. I did have a lot of bullying in school, plus as you mentioned we were spanked and yelled at growing up.


    Comment by trekkie80sgirl — August 27, 2018 @ 11:06 PM

  8. I’ve been thru that also been thru old relationships 2 dealing w/it.


    Comment by Denise Myhre — August 28, 2018 @ 3:00 AM

    • I hope you’ve thrown away those toxic relationships and haven’t become a victim yourself.

      How is your anxiety level now? Or is it more like depression?


      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — August 28, 2018 @ 9:46 AM

  9. Thank you for this information.


    Comment by juniorsplaceofhope — September 8, 2018 @ 12:46 AM

  10. You mentioned that for people 15 to 35 years of age with NESD, 75 to 85 percent will be of women who experience sexual abuse. What are the statistics for men and boys ? I am curious because I experienced sexual abuse as a teenager and I developed NESD about 25 years later. They would usually happen when I got prolonged absence seizures. This was seen by at least two teachers who did nothing. One even said that I should consider myself lucky that girls showed an interest in me.


    Comment by dc — September 11, 2018 @ 1:52 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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