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Stress and epilepsy

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 we think we've lost control of what’s going on around us. It’s something that affects most people, and if it only lasts a short time, it isn’t usually harmful. But it can be, 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 many 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 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 produce ‘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 us 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
  • Skin problems
  • Pain

It can also make you more vulnerable to infection.

For more information about the long-term effects of stress see the PsychCentral website.
Website: psychcentral.com 

Stress and epilepsy

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.

"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.

What is the relationship between stress and seizures?

For some people, stress doesn’t affect their epilepsy, but it is a seizure trigger for some people. It may also cause their epilepsy to develop in the first place. This is more likely if the stress is severe, lasts a long time, or affects someone 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 causes epilepsy to develop.

"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

The parts of the brain which regulate the stress response are also often involved in epilepsy, and so it’s not difficult to imagine how stress could play a role in triggering seizures.

Long-term stress can change the way people think and feel about their lives, and how they react to situations they find themselves in.

"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

People who are stressed might also:

  • Have problems sleeping
  • Eat too much or too little
  • Drink too much alcohol
  • Feel anxious or depressed
  • Over breathe
  • Forget to take their epilepsy medicines

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.

Watch this NHS Choices video about coping with stress

Managing stress

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, 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

Have a look at this Brainsmart video from the BBC website.
Website: bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00hylmg

Online learning

Epilepsy and wellbeing module

You can find more about the different stress management strategies in the following resources:

The NHS Choices website: nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/pages/mindfulness.aspx
Website: nhs.uk/conditions

Books

There is a CD called Applied Relaxation Training (Relaxation & Stress Reduction)

Buy through Amazon.co.uk and raise money for Epilepsy Action

Useful organisations

NHS Choices
Website: nhs.uk/conditions

Mind, the mental health charity
Tel: 0300 123 3393
Website: mind.org.uk

Samaritans
Tel: 08457 90 90 90
Website: samaritans.org

International Stress Management Association (ISMA)
Tel: 0845 680 7083
Website: isma.org.uk

Counselling Directory
Website: counselling-directory.org.uk 

If you would like to see this information with references, visit the Advice and Information references section of our website.

Code: 
F027.04

Epilepsy Action would like to thank Dr Hannah Cock, consultant neurologist at St George’s Hospital, London for her contribution to this information.

Dr. Cock reports personal fees from UCB Pharma Ltd, personal fees from Epilepsy Nurse Specialist Association UK, personal fees from European Medicines Agency, personal fees from Special Products Ltd, personal fees from Eisai Europe Ltd, non-financial support from GSK Ltd, personal fees and non-financial support from Lupin Pharmaceuticals, grants from NINDS, NIH USA , outside the submitted work. Details are recorded and updated at least annually at the website whopaysthisdoctor.org/doctor/35

This information has been produced under the terms of The Information Standard.

  • Updated June 2016
    To be reviewed June 2019

Comments: read the 2 comments or add yours

Comments

Hello,

A very interesting read about stress, especially about stress shown in animals in early life can develop seizures in later life.
I lost my father to pancreatic cancer when I was nine, followed by all of my grandparents during the remainder of my childhood and then my boyfriend from leukemia when I was nineteen.
When I was 24 I had my first grand mal seizure following a stressful day at work. It was seen as an isolated seizure and I was discharged from the epilepsy clinic. A year later, after my wedding and another stressful day at work I had another seizure. This time round my neurologist diagnosed focal epilepsy and acknowledged the seizures were caused by stress. I was just wondering if there could be a connection between my diagnosis today and my not so nice childhood? My neurologist thinks it's from the stress at work which I don't disagree with, but my past trauma has been on the back of my mind.

Many thanks,

Amy.

Submitted by Amy Carter-Jinks on

Hello Amy
Epilepsy is different for each person, as is the way a seizure affects a person. Epileptic seizures happen because of an intense burst of activity in the brain. This means there is a temporary disruption in the way the brain normally works, so the brain messages get mixed up: epilepsy.org.uk/info/what-is-epilepsy

We are not aware that stress alone can cause epilepsy. For some people stress makes the chances of a seizure more likely, so it is possible from what you describe that stress is a seizure trigger for you. Some people do tell us that stressful events such as changing job can increase their chances of them having a seizure. More information about seizure triggers can be found on our website: epilepsy.org.uk/info/triggers

If you think there may be a possibility that you are experiencing seizures because of what has happened in your past, it would be worth you talking to your epilepsy doctor about it. This will give you chance to explore your seizures and check you are getting the right treatment for you.

If you would like to talk more about this feel free to get in touch: epilepsy.org.uk/info/support/helpline

Karen
Epilepsy Action Advice & Information Team

Submitted by Karen, Epilepsy... on