Does Stress Cause Seizures?

By Jean Cibula, MD, FAES

“Does stress cause seizures?” I’m often asked this by patients and their families. Many of my patients also report more seizures when they’re stressed. Since stress makes everything worse, can we measure its effect on seizure count and severity?

It turns out that stress and seizures are connected. There is a strong connection between having someone close to you (who loves you and cares for you) and your sense of wellbeing or health. People without social support are as disabled by their seizures as people with the most frequent/ severe seizures. We can have good stress (getting married, new place to live) and bad stress (death in the family, divorce) which all take their toll.

Social support is crucial to our wellbeing as humans, and even more so when you have epilepsy; that is, in order to cope, we need someone who cares and is committed to helping and comforting us, both physically and emotionally.

An estimated one-third of people with epilepsy suffer from depression. You may be one if you feel down, have been unusually fatigued or had low energy, lose interest in things that you used to enjoy, and have poor concentration or sleep. Other signs include irritability or anger, increased or decreased appetite, slowing of movements and feelings of worthlessness or guilt. If you’re thinking that these are mostly physical signs, you’re right! Our minds and bodies are closely linked. If you’re unwell physically, you feel bad mentally or can’t concentrate. Likewise, if you’re depressed, you feel bad physically- tired, achy, and slow. We think that depression is often not recognized, so if you’re suffering from these symptoms, please share with your primary care provider or neurologist. Religious leaders and counselors can help, since counseling or “talk therapy” is also effective.  Don’t suffer in silence!

Does that mean more medicine? If your depression is severe, it may. But there’s lots you can do to feel better without adding more pills. Physical activity helps- go for a walk or work in the yard. Do something you enjoy (or have enjoyed in the past) or learn something new. Our animals help us- they lower our blood pressure and love us unconditionally. A massage, yoga or relaxation therapy focused on breathing techniques can also help. The local library may have some self-help resources to teach you how. Our emotional tension can become physical tension in our necks and shoulders (which then affects our posture and can increase neck and back pain). Get a good night’s sleep (7-8 hours for most adults).

If you have physical limits, you can still try a gratitude journal- list a few things each day you’re grateful for- a sunny day, a beautiful tree, a good friend. Think of your strengths and values- being honest, fair, good organizer, hospitable, and so on- these will help you in difficult situations.

At this holiday time, we are often stressed by the extra demands on our time, our finances, and the shorter daylight hours. By being more aware of these things and their effects in our lives, I hope that you have happier holidays and a healthy 2019!