Stress that’s not managed and progresses into constant anxiety or anxiety with no clear cause can trigger epilepsy seizures. Not only does stress release certain hormones that can impact the brain, but the same areas of the brain that control emotions can also be the parts of your brain where a seizure starts. Stress and constant anxiety may also impact your sleep, another risk for increased seizures.

Understanding the connection between stress, anxiety and epilepsy

Although stress is an unavoidable part of life, there are ways to cope so you don’t become overwhelmed and anxious. Anxiety can also take hold for no apparent reason, making a person feel constantly nervous, uneasy or in distress. 

Of course, a diagnosis of epilepsy or worrying about unexpected or uncontrolled seizures can fuel more stress and anxiety as well. In some cases, anxiety can even be a side effect of epilepsy medication. 

At the Ohio State Comprehensive Epilepsy Center, we understand that anxiety may not be easily controlled. The same triggers or abnormal brain functions that cause your seizures may also be responsible for your anxiety. This can lead to obsessive behaviors or agitation, which are often seen in people with epilepsy.

Woman sitting on couch inside with hands folded looking concernedHelp with anxiety

It can be tough to pinpoint which came first – the stress and anxiety or the epilepsy – or if they just feed each other in a frustrating cycle. Because anxiety can be caused by or also worsen both your mental and physical health, we’ll work with you to tackle your anxiety from all angles.

  • Treatment triggers — If anxiety is a potential side effect of your epilepsy medications, we can adjust the dosage or try a different medication. There are even some anti-seizure medications that also have anti-anxiety effects.
  • Stress reduction — Counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy and other mental health support can teach you how to cope with both stress and anxiety.
  • Support groups — We can give you a list of local epilepsy support groups that can provide you a sense of community with those who understand your struggles.
  • Anti-anxiety medication — If your anxiety is unresolved, there are some specific anti-anxiety medications that may be helpful in combination with counseling either in the short- or long-term. If you do receive a prescription for an anti-anxiety drug, we’ll monitor how it interacts with or affects your epilepsy treatment.

Is it an epileptic seizure or something different?

Even people without epilepsy can suffer stress- or anxiety-induced episodes that look similar to an epileptic seizure.

  • A panic attack comes on suddenly and usually ends within 10 minutes. Symptoms include a pounding or racing heartbeat, sweating, chills, trembling, difficulty breathing, chest pain and tingling, weakness and dizziness. Most people can retain some level of function during the attack, although this varies by person.
  • A psychogenic nonepileptic event (PNEE), previously referred to as pseudoseizures, may happen with no signs of panic or anxiety. PNEE tends to happen gradually and last longer than a panic attack. Symptoms include jerky movements, tingling, problems with coordination and staring spells, which is why people often suspect epilepsy as the cause.

Even when a panic attack or PNEE looks similar to epilepsy, there’s no neurological connection. Testing will help differentiate between the conditions. For all three conditions, counseling, stress-reduction strategies and anti-anxiety medication may be appropriate. However, anti-seizure medication is only effective for epilepsy.

Learn more about epilepsy

Learn more about epilepsy

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