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Can Anxiety Cause Seizures and Do Seizures Cause Anxiety?

Faiq Shaikh, M.D.
Can Anxiety Cause Seizures and Do Seizures Cause Anxiety?

Anxiety - especially panic attacks and severe anxiety reactions - overwhelm the brain. They can cause severe physical and emotional responses, and in some cases it may feel as though your brain is firing on all ends.

One of the worries that people have is that their anxiety is causing a seizure. Others already know they have a seizure disorder, and worry that anxiety may make it worse. Still others are concerned that their epilepsy may be causing their panic attacks. We explore all of these briefly in this article.

The Concern About Anxiety and Seizures

Those with anxiety have a tendency to fear the worst. Those with panic attacks even more so. Anxiety causes the brain to focus on worst case scenarios, and unfortunately that means that if you have a panic attack you're more prone to believing it's caused by something worse - something like a seizure.

Anxiety Can Cause Seizures in Those With Epilepsy

If you have already been diagnosed with epilepsy then yes, anxiety can cause seizures. Severe stress is a very common seizure trigger, and those with severe anxiety often experience severe stress.

However, it should be noted that this is far more common with those who already have epilepsy. It is very rare for someone to have their first seizure as a result of anxiety. Those who already have epilepsy are usually aware of the risks.

Similarly, the age groups are very different. Most people have their first panic attacks in their early to mid-twenties (give or take a few years). They may also have panic attacks as a response to pregnancy or stress.

Epileptics tend to have their first seizures while very young - usually as infants, or as the result of head trauma, or as they reach retirement age. Developing epilepsy between the ages of adolescence and adulthood is exceedingly rare.

So while anxiety can cause seizures, it is very rare for anxiety to cause seizures in those that do not already know they have a seizure disorder.

Panic Attacks and Partial Seizures Can Be Similar - But Rarely

Panic attacks usually come on so suddenly and are so overwhelming that everyone looks for some "other cause." If you research too much online, you may find countless forums and websites telling you that it may be something else other than panic attacks, and you may read something where someone tells you that it could be a partial seizure.

There are, in extremely rare cases, partial seizures that mimic panic attacks. But these are not very common, and again, most of these people were already at risk for epilepsy. There are also panic attacks that can be so severe that they mimic seizures. These are slightly more common, but still fairly infrequent.

The only way to tell them apart is to talk to your doctor, but generally there are a few giveaways:

Again, the reality is that the two are very different, even though they do share many of the same symptoms. Also, these are only partial seizures. Full epileptic seizures are nothing like panic attacks.

Don't fall into the trap of convincing yourself that seizures can be the only explanation for your panic attacks. Partial seizures that mimic panic attacks without any other more obvious seizure symptoms are very rare. If you're worried, talk to your doctor, but note that the more you try to talk yourself out of the idea that you have panic attacks, the harder they will be to treat.

Seizures Can Cause Intense Anxiety

Finally, the worry is not just that anxiety causes seizures. The worry for those with epilepsy is that seizures can cause anxiety. Unfortunately, this is a common problem with epileptics for several reasons:

That's why if you are epileptic, treating both your epilepsy and your anxiety is always a smart idea. The right epilepsy medications can help stop your seizures, but you will still want to make sure that you're not letting anxiety upset your life - especially since that anxiety you experience may increase your risk of a seizure.

Understanding Seizures and Anxiety

Those with panic attacks know how easy it is to fall into the trap of convincing themselves that their anxiety is something more serious. If you haven't already been diagnosed with epilepsy, the reality is that your panic attacks are likely just that - panic attacks and intense anxiety.

It never hurts to talk to a doctor. And those with epilepsy are at risk for further seizures because of the intense stress of an anxiety attack. But in general, the two conditions are unrelated, and it does not appear that those with panic attacks are more or less prone to seizures than the rest of the population.

If you have anxiety, no matter the cause, you should get help. Only commitment to an anxiety treatment can rid you of anxiety forever.

Article Resources
  1. Thompson, Siân A., John S. Duncan, and Shelagh JM Smith. Partial seizures presenting as panic attacks. BMJ: British Medical Journal 321.7267 (2000): 1002.
  2. Arun P, Chavan BS, Kumar N. Seizure disorder presenting as panic attack. Indian J Med Sci 2002;56:486-8
  3. Picardi, Angelo, et al. Partial seizures due to sclerosis of the right amygdala presenting as panic disorder. Psychopathology 40.3 (2007): 178-183.
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