People with epilepsy often say that stress triggers their seizures. And having epilepsy can be a cause of stress too. This information looks at the relationship between stress and epilepsy.
What is stress?
Stress is a normal physical and mental reaction. It happens when you feel you’ve lost control of what’s going on around you. It’s something that affects most people. If it only lasts a short time, it isn’t usually harmful. But it can be harmful if it goes on for too long.
People feel stressed for lots of reasons; work, money, and relationship problems are just a few.
What are the symptoms of stress?
Stress can cause lots of different symptoms. It can affect how you feel, think and behave. It also affects how your body works, so can cause sweating, problems with sleeping, concentrating, and thinking. It can also make you feel anxious, irritable, and weepy. You might lose your temper more easily, drink or eat more, or act unreasonably. You may also have difficulty breathing, headaches, tense muscles, pain, or dizziness.
What does stress do to your body?
When you are in a threatening or challenging situation, your brain produces chemicals that cause your adrenal glands to make ‘stress hormones’. These hormones make your heart, liver, muscles and other organs ready to take action. This is sometimes called the fight-or-flight response. It’s a normal reaction that allows you to stay focused and motivated, cope with challenges, and escape from harmful situations, if necessary.
Once the pressure or threat has passed, your stress hormone levels will usually return to normal. However, if you're constantly under stress, these hormones will remain in your body, leading to the symptoms of stress. For some people, long-term stress can lead to:
- Heart problems
- High blood pressure
It can also make you more vulnerable to infection.
For more information about the long-term effects of stress see the PsychCentral website.
Can epilepsy and seizures cause stress?
Living with a long-term condition like epilepsy can be frustrating and disabling. And the fear of losing control and having a seizure can be very stressful. Epilepsy can cause stress and stress can cause you to have more seizures. Ideally when you’re diagnosed with epilepsy, a doctor should check whether you have a history of problems with stress or other mood problems. They could then make suggestions about ways of managing this.
Here are some people with epilepsy talking about how stress affects their seizures:
“I have a lovely partner now, who understands my epilepsy. But when we first got together, I got really stressed about having one of my turns and wetting myself. Of course, the more stressed I got, the more seizures I had. Thank goodness, she understands and is still here for me.” - Mo
“Stress definitely affects me. Work is really stressing me out at the moment and it can’t be a coincidence that my epilepsy is playing up, when normally it’s well controlled…I just hate the thought of any of my team seeing me have a seizure.” - Sam
"I’ve had epilepsy over 20 years, and stress plays a very big part. It’s not just consciously worrying about things, as hidden stresses are there all the time. You know, even positive things can be stressful, so even going anywhere different, or taking a holiday can trigger my seizures.” - Jamie
What is the relationship between stress and seizures?
Stress can affect different people in different ways. Some people with epilepsy find that during periods of stress they are more likely to have seizures. This can be particularly likely if the stress happens over a long period of time. For other people with epilepsy, stress doesn’t affect them in the same way.
Stress can sometimes contribute to people developing epilepsy in the first place. This is more likely if your stress is severe, lasts a long time, or has affected you very early in life. In very young children, stress affects the development of the brain. In older people, long-term stress can change the way the brain works. For some people, this can be one of the reasons why they develop epilepsy.
The parts of the brain which regulate the stress response are also often involved in epilepsy. So it’s not difficult to imagine how stress could play a role in triggering seizures, or the development of epilepsy.
Long-term stress can change the way you think and feel about your life, and how you react to situations you find yourself in.
If you are stressed you might also:
- Have problems sleeping
- Eat too much or too little
- Drink too much alcohol
- Feel anxious or depressed
- Over breathe
These are all things that can make seizures more likely too. Taking active steps to help manage stress is good for your general health, and may also improve your seizure control.
Getting support with managing your stress levels can make a difference to the number of seizures you have. We all deal with stressful situations in different ways. And not everyone facing stress becomes ill or has a seizure. But, if stress is a trigger for your seizures, or is affecting your wellbeing in other ways, there are lots of ways you might like to manage it:
- Eat a well-balanced diet
- Aim to get active
- Limit the amount of alcohol that you drink
- Try to get a good night’s sleep
- Share your feelings and ask for support
- Make time to relax and do the things you enjoy doing
- Learn some relaxation techniques
- Learn about mindfulness
- Join a stress management group or class
Watch this NHS video about stress.
Have a look at this animated Brainsmart video from the BBC website:
Epilepsy Action online learning
Epilepsy Action has an online learning course called Epilepsy and your wellbeing. If you enroll for this course, you will be able to look at ways of managing your stress.
We also have a self-management course for people with epilepsy called Epilepsy and you.
There are now lots of different stress management resources available. You may like online interactions. Or you may prefer a book.
Buy through Amazon and raise money for Epilepsy Action.
Mind, the mental health charity
Tel: 0300 123 3393
Tel: 116 123
International Stress Management Association (ISMA)
Tel: 0844 8030 240
If you would like to see this information with references, visit the Advice and Information references section of our website. If you are unable to access the internet, please contact our Epilepsy Action Helpline freephone on 0808 800 5050.
Epilepsy Action would like to thank Professor Hannah Cock, consultant neurologist at St George’s University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, London for her contribution to this information.
This information has been produced under the terms of Epilepsy Action's information quality standards.
- Updated August 2019To be reviewed August 2022