Stress and Epilepsy

Can stress cause a seizure? This is a question that many people with epilepsy ask when searching for potential seizure triggers. While the exact reason why stress can cause seizures for some people is not clear, it can be a factor for many people living with epilepsy.

Dr. Michael Privitera, MD talks about the relationship between stress and epilepsy, and an innovative new study to explore how stress reduction may also reduce seizures.

We aren’t sure why stress may trigger a seizure. Stress is an expected and unavoidable part of life. It is our body's reaction to any change that requires a physical and emotional response. Stress is known to cause worry, depression, frustration, and even anger. Consider the following:

  • Stress makes or releases certain hormones related to the nervous system that can impact the brain.
  • Areas of the brain important for some types of seizures, for example partial seizures, are the same areas of the brain involved in emotions and responding to stress.
  • Stress can cause problems sleeping which is also a seizure trigger.
  • Chronic stress can lead to anxiety or depression. Issues with sleep are symptoms of these mood problems. Being anxious and depressed can also worsen stress, causing a vicious cycle with more seizures and mood problems.

While there is no definite evidence that reducing stress help seizures, a recent study showed that nearly 9 in 10 people who actively managed their stress believed it reduced their risk of seizures. Common sense tells us that if something is bothering you, see what you can do to avoid it or make it better.

Managing stress is very personal and specific to your situation. However, there are some universal recommendations.

  • Use a diary and write down what’s likely to cause stress for you.
  • Try to avoid stressful situations if it makes sense to do so, and if you can avoid it. If you can’t avoid it, can you let go of the worry it’s causing you?
  • When a stressful situation is unavoidable, make sure you are doing your best to get enough sleep and take your seizure medications on time.
  • Find ways to diffuse a situation. Avoid people who cause anger and anxiety if you can. Try to approach them differently – it may help calm you down.
  • Exercise regularly. Lots of research has shown that exercise helps lower stress.
  • Do your best to relax. Try yoga, tai chi, Pilates, a massage, cat naps, or controlled breathing techniques.
  • Limit long naps during the day. Sleeping during the day will cause sleep problems at night and make you feel worse.
  • Keep to a daily routine. Pace yourself and take frequent breaks.
  • Set priorities for what is important in your life and let the rest go.

Talk to your doctor, nurse, or counselor if stress is negatively affecting your life. Let them know what’s bothering you. Below are some ways to find help:

  • Make sure your epilepsy team knows that stress is affecting your seizures.
  • Seek counseling or psychotherapy. If you think you may have anxiety or depression, talk to you doctor about treatment options.
  • Contact the Epilepsy Foundation’s free, confidential Epilepsy & Seizures Helpline available 24-hours a day, 7-days a week in English (1.800.332.1000), and Spanish (1.866.748.8008) for information and resources.
  • Read stories from other members of the epilepsy community via our eJourney blog.
  • Reach out to a local Epilepsy Foundation office near you.

Authored By:

Michael Privitera, MD

Reviewed By:

Joseph I. Sirven MD

Resources

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