Can anxiety cause seizures? Possibly, in some cases. And seizures may lead to anxiety too. We’ll explore why and what you can do to manage both.
Anxiety is a human response to stress, anticipation, or trauma.
For some people, anxiety becomes overwhelming and disruptive in everyday life. Anxiety disorders are among the most commonly diagnosed mental health conditions in the United States.
Doctors have tried to figure out the connection between anxiety and seizures for years. Though research continues, it’s now clear that this connection is strong.
However, the link between them appears to be complex. Anxiety may lead to seizures in some cases, and seizures may lead to anxiety.
Here’s what we know about how seizures and anxiety are connected.
How might seizures cause anxiety?
It’s natural to experience feelings of anxiety in the wake of a seizure or if a doctor has just given you an epilepsy diagnosis.
As with many chronic conditions and traumatic events, seizures can be unsettling, and some people find them scary. Seizure symptoms that may worry some people include:
- heart palpitations
- loss of motor control
Knowing a seizure could occur without warning might lead you to feel anxious in social or public settings. This element of surprise may take a serious toll on your mental well-being.
Unfortunately, the stigma of epilepsy and seizures is also very real and may contribute to your anxiety.
How might stress and anxiety cause a seizure?
If you experience seizures, you might find that they become more frequent during particularly stressful times.
Since measuring levels of stress and anxiety can be subjective and vague, there’s no clear proof that stress and anxiety directly cause seizures.
However, according to
Lack of sleep is a common trigger for seizures, and this can often happen in people who are experiencing overwhelming stress.
That’s why healthcare professionals recommend keeping a strict sleep schedule as a technique for managing seizures. However, anxiety can disrupt sleep quality and duration.
Even people with well-managed epilepsy may experience a seizure as a result of severe sleep deprivation.
Research indicates that differences in how the brain reacts to increased levels of the hormone cortisol during high anxiety moments may also help explain why stress causes seizures in some people.
Cortisol is a hormone your body produces more of when you’re experiencing stress and anxiety.
Scientists and healthcare professionals usually put seizures into one of two categories: epileptic and nonepileptic. The difference between the two lies in their causes.
Psychogenic nonepileptic seizures (PNES), or dissociative seizures, used to be called pseudoseizures. They’re usually triggered by a particularly emotional or stressful event or by chronic underlying psychological distress.
Divorce, the death of a loved one, and sexual abuse are examples of events that are commonly associated with PNES.
PNES and anxiety are closely intertwined because a seizure can be a reaction to trauma. According to the Epilepsy Foundation, about half of people with PNES are living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
During a PNES, you may experience:
- uncontrolled movements
- head shaking
- loss and regaining of consciousness
- memory lapses
- dizziness or lightheadedness
- heart palpitations
You’re more likely to experience PNES if you:
- are a woman
- have a history of physical, sexual, or emotional trauma
- have an anxiety disorder, depression, or a personality disorder
Four out of five people with PNES have had a psychiatric disorder at some point in their lives.
What’s the difference between PNES and panic attacks?
The symptoms of both events are similar. However, PNES are less likely to include the severe feelings of panic and fear that come with panic attacks.
Panic attacks and PNES are easy to mix up. Even healthcare professionals sometimes mistake one for the other.
In fact, there does appear to be a close relationship between the two. According to a 2018 analysis of studies, 17% to 83% of people with PNES also experience panic attacks.
What makes epileptic seizures different from PNES?
An epileptic seizure occurs as a result of changes in electrical signaling in the brain.
Typically, your brain has regular rhythmic patterns of electrical signaling. But if you’re having an epileptic seizure, these patterns suddenly become disrupted. Instead of firing in the typical pattern, your neurons fire in synchrony, with big bursts of electrical activity.
Nonepileptic seizures like PNES, on the other hand, are not the result of a disruption in brain activity. Another physiological issue or acute psychological stress is generally the cause.
Stress is one of the most commonly cited seizure triggers among people with epilepsy.
A 2017 review of studies suggests that higher levels of stress and anxiety are associated with a greater likelihood of experiencing epileptic seizures.
The same review also notes that reducing stress levels can significantly improve outcomes for people with epilepsy, suggesting a close relationship between stress and epilepsy.
But whether anxiety can alter brain function enough to directly cause epilepsy is largely still up in the air. The evidence so far isn’t conclusive.
One 2015 study found that 5 out of 1,000 people with epilepsy started experiencing seizures after a highly stressful life event, such as the death of a family member.
To give you the most accurate diagnosis, a doctor will need to do a complete medical evaluation and hear from people who have witnessed your seizures.
Because of the overlap in symptoms, PNES are frequently misdiagnosed as epileptic seizures or sometimes as panic attacks.
Brain scans like computerized tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are an effective way of diagnosing epilepsy. These brain imaging techniques allow neurologists to look for a potential physical cause of the seizures, such as a tumor or malformed blood vessels.
However, for PNES, these types of scans are generally unhelpful. A video electroencephalogram (EEG) is most useful in determining a PNES diagnosis. This type of scan records your movement and activity while tracking your brainwaves.
The goal of a video EEG is to determine whether your seizures are, in fact, due to electrical activity in your brain.
People with epilepsy are more likely to have recurrent, shorter seizures and respond positively to antiepileptic drugs.
For people with PNES, identifying the root cause or initial trigger of the seizures is particularly important for successful treatment.
It’s a good idea to address any underlying psychiatric conditions you might have. Treating these may reduce or even eliminate your seizures.
Treatment for anxiety-induced seizures, both epileptic and nonepileptic, may include:
- Psychotherapy. Around 50% of people with PNES show improvement after 3 months of therapy. Types include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and prolonged exposure therapy, which is a type of CBT.
- Mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness may help improve quality of life in people with drug-resistant epilepsy.
- Medication. Many medications have been shown to significantly reduce both anxiety and seizures. These include:
- antidepressants (SSRIs and SNRIs)
While benzodiazepines are effective at treating anxiety and seizures, they come with some risks. If you take them, you may have a high chance of experiencing dependence and withdrawal.
We recommend exercising caution if you’re considering medication. Before taking any, it’s a good idea to speak with your doctor about the benefits and risks and whether it’s right for you.
Reducing your stress and anxiety can do a great deal to boost your well-being.
We know that keeping a positive outlook can be difficult when you’re facing health challenges. Fortunately, the treatments for anxiety and seizures are effective, and there are many you can try.
Relief is possible.
Try to keep a regular sleep schedule and maintain a healthy lifestyle that works well for you. If you believe you’re experiencing anxiety-induced seizures, consider reaching out to a healthcare professional for advice.
For more support and information about seizures, you can call the Epilepsy Foundation’s 24/7 hotline and participate in the organization’s community forum.
You can also read this article to learn more about things you can do to reduce anxiety right now.