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An epileptic trigger is anything that brings on a seizure. The seizures that occur in epilepsy, which result from abnormal brain activity, may cause unusual sensations, emotions, behavior, convulsions, or loss of consciousness. While seizures can be triggered by low blood sugar, alcohol, flashing lights, and even lack of sleep, one of the most common seizure triggers is stress.
Are your epileptic seizures triggered by stress? You’re not alone. Stress is a hot topic on MyEpilepsyTeam, where members talk about their experiences managing life’s ups and downs with epilepsy.
“Stress is definitely one of my biggest triggers,” said one member, echoing the comments of many others in the community. Another observed that, “Just about everyone on this site has issues with stress.”
The research seems to agree. A review of the available studies on stress and epilepsy shows that stressful events are a risk factor for increased epileptic seizure frequency.
Researchers and neurologists are working hard to understand the connection between stress and epileptic seizures. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalogram (EEG) tests show us that electrical activity in the brain changes during and after stressful life events. This is likely due to the fact that stress affects the hormones in the human body. Some of these hormones influence brain function, and changing their balance can raise the risk of seizures.
In addition, some of the parts of the brain that are activated when dealing with strong emotions are also important locations for seizure activity. Stress can also cause sleep deprivation, and lack of sleep is also a known seizure trigger.
Ultimately, the impact of stress on epilepsy can be cyclical: stress can cause seizures, which can, in turn, cause more stress. That’s why it’s so important to manage stress before it has a significant impact on your seizures and your quality of life.
Stress is a natural physical response based on the body’s “fight or flight” instinct. When a person detects danger, the body releases the hormone adrenaline. This hormone activates the nervous system by raising electrical activity, helping us respond better to potential threats. However, when high stress levels persist, the body never goes back to a relaxed state. This is called chronic stress, which can lead to a number of health problems. Both chronic stress and acute, short-term stress can affect epilepsy symptoms.
Many different experiences can cause stress. It’s impossible to list all of the situations that could be stressful. However, most stressful situations involve high emotions and feeling a loss of control. When feelings like frustration and anger build up, it can be hard to even breathe normally. It’s no wonder events like these raise the risk of seizures in a person with epilepsy.
Recognizing common potential stressors, like the ones listed below, can help you take steps to reduce stress and protect your health.
Job loss is a risk factor for stress. As one MyEpilepsyTeam member stated, “I don't know where I stand with my job. I am stressed because of this. I haven't had a seizure for a while, but stress brings them on.” Working in a difficult environment or with challenging people can also raise stress levels.
Sometimes, our closest relationships — whether romantic partners, family, or friends — can produce a great deal of emotional stress. One MyEpilepsyTeam member shared, “My brother stressed me out so much as a child, the doctor said it ‘unlocked’ my stress seizures.”
Another member explained, “I had loads of seizures until I divorced my husband. I’ve been seizure-free ever since.”
The holidays can be a stressful time — even if you usually enjoy them. As one MyEpilepsyTeam member explained, “I know there’s an increased chance of triggering a seizure during high-stress times of year like Christmas, with the additional stress of getting all the gift shopping done on time.”
Some things are stressful to our bodies even when they don’t feel stressful to our minds, like drinking alcohol, using recreational drugs, or waiting too long to eat. One MyEpilepsyTeam member passed on some great advice from their neurologist on potentially “hidden” stressors: “My doctor says there are six things our brain does not like: lack of sleep, low sugar, stressful situations, missing medications, alcohol, and street drugs.” Many of these, like sleep deprivation and drinking alcohol, can trigger seizures. Forgetting to take antiepileptic drugs (AEDs) also raises the risk of seizures.
Fortunately, there are many ways you can reduce your stress. Most of these are low-risk, so you only stand to gain from trying them. You can pursue these stress management practices on your own time and at your own pace.
Certain types of therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy, can teach you to respond differently to stress and help you process stressful events in healthier ways. One MyEpilepsyTeam member shared that counseling, or talk therapy, helped them “out of a big slump” as a teenager.
You may need to meet with a few therapists before you find the right one for you. As one MyEpilepsyTeam member wrote, “You may have to see several [therapists] until you find the right connection. Not everyone is easy to talk to.” Finding a therapist who specializes in epilepsy can be particularly helpful, as they’ll have a better understanding of the unique stresses you deal with on a daily basis.
Eliminating stressors is key to stress reduction. This may mean managing your time better, knowing your own limitations, or prioritizing self-care by avoiding people or events that have caused stress in the past. As one MyEpilepsyTeam member explained, “I now stay away from my parents’ place, since that’s where most of my stress comes from.”
Exercising helps immensely with stress reduction. During exercise, the body releases endorphins — brain chemicals that help us feel better about ourselves and our lives. “I’m doing lots of exercising,” wrote one MyEpilepsyTeam member. “Walking, morning stretching, and sometimes some yoga, if possible.”
Mindfulness is key to many stress reduction plans. This skill involves learning to focus on the present moment rather than on everything else that is going on — including stressors. Mindfulness techniques may be learned in therapy, as part of meditation, or during the practice of activities like yoga.
Mindfulness techniques can actually change the activity in the brain and even cause positive structural changes. Mindfulness can also help decrease sleep deprivation, thus eliminating another seizure trigger.
One MyEpilepsyTeam member with a daily yoga and meditation practice said, “Now I’m clear — no more seizures. I can't emphasize enough, when we take back control by not allowing issues in life to get the best of us, a huge 180-degree turn happens.”
When you join MyEpilepsyTeam, you are connected to a community of more than 87,000 members who understand what it’s like to live with epilepsy. Members of MyEpilepsyTeam have a lot to say about stress and seizures.
Here are some question-and-answer threads on MyEpilepsyTeam about stress and seizures:
Here are some conversations about stress and seizures:
Do you feel that stress affects your epilepsy symptoms? What do you do to reduce stress and bring calm into your life? Comment below or share your story on MyEpilepsyTeam today.