Stress and Epilepsy

What do we know?

Many people believe that stress can trigger seizures. When we physicians at the UC Epilepsy Center surveyed our patients, more than 50 percent told us that stress causes them to have more seizures, or that stress makes their seizures worse. But whether this is actually the case, we still don’t know. That is why we are taking a close look at the role of stress in the lives of our patients who have epilepsy. We are hoping to answer three specific questions:

  • How do we define stress?
  • How and why is stress a seizure trigger?
  • What can we do to stop this connection between stress and seizures?

Stress is complicated

The topic of stress and seizures is complicated because people define stress differently. For one thing, there are different types of stress. There is acute stress, which we experience when a family member dies or we are in an automobile accident. Then there is chronic stress, which we experience if we have financial problems, an unhappy marriage or a boss who is being unreasonable at work. Do these different types of stress affect us differently? We don’t know.

We also don’t know if stress can trigger a seizure by itself, or whether other factors are contribute to the seizure as well. Perhaps the person’s response to stress is more important than the stressful event or condition itself.

Researchers also want to know whether certain types of seizures are more likely to be triggered by stress and whether the location of the seizures in the brain makes a difference. Is stress more of a factor or less if a person’s seizures are related to a traumatic brain injury suffered in adulthood compared to a person who has had seizures since she was 12 years old. And is the relationship between stress and seizures different if the person suffers from depression or anxiety.

Tips for reducing stress >>

Screening for Depression and Anxiety

At the UC Epilepsy Center, we conduct a simple screening test to determine a patient’s level of anxiety at every office visit. The test is free and involves answering seven simple questions. We perform this screening for two reasons. First, because we know that people who say their seizures are triggered by stress have significantly higher anxiety levels than those who say their seizures are not triggered by stress. Second, we know that most cases of anxiety and depression are highly treatable. Whether lowering anxiety will reduce seizures, we do not yet know. But we do know that reducing anxiety can improve an individual’s quality of life.

The Charles L. Shor Foundation

UC Epilepsy Center is hoping to answer questions about stress by conducting research with the help of the Charles L. Shor Foundation for Epilepsy Research. Our objective is two-fold: 1) we want to better understand the possible link between stress and seizures; and 2) if stress does help to trigger seizures, we want to learn how stress and seizures can be reduced. To this end, we are performing an innovative study in which patients use smartphones to keep daily diaries of how relaxed, nervous or anxious they feel each day.

Learn more >>

Read Charlie Shor’s story >>

Learn about the SMILE study >>