The role of stress as a trigger for epileptic seizures: a narrative review of evidence from human and animal studies

Epilepsia. 2013 Nov;54(11):1866-76. doi: 10.1111/epi.12377. Epub 2013 Oct 1.


Stress is one of the most frequently self-identified seizure triggers in patients with epilepsy; however, most previous publications on stress and epilepsy have focused on the role of stress in the initial development of epilepsy. This narrative review explores the causal role of stress in triggering seizures in patients with existing epilepsy. Findings from human studies of psychological stress, as well as of physiologic stress responses in humans and animals, and evidence from nonpharmacologic interventions for epilepsy are considered. The evidence from human studies for stress as a trigger of epileptic seizures is inconclusive. Although retrospective self-report studies show that stress is the most common patient-perceived seizure precipitant, prospective studies have yielded mixed results and studies of life events suggest that stressful experiences only trigger seizures in certain individuals. There is limited evidence suggesting that autonomic arousal can precede seizures. Interventions designed to improve coping with stress reduce seizures in some individuals. Studies of physiologic stress using animal epilepsy models provide more convincing evidence. Exposure to exogenous and endogenous stress mediators has been found to increase epileptic activity in the brain and trigger overt seizures, especially after repeated exposure. In conclusion, stress is likely to exacerbate the susceptibility to epileptic seizures in a subgroup of individuals with epilepsy and may play a role in triggering "spontaneous" seizures. However, there is currently no strong evidence for a close link between stress and seizures in the majority of people with epilepsy, although animal research suggests that such links are likely. Further research is needed into the relationship between stress and seizures and into interventions designed to reduce perceived stress and improve quality of life with epilepsy.

Keywords: Autonomic nervous system; Ictogenesis; Nonpharmacologic interventions; Physiologic stress; Psychological stress.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Electroencephalography / psychology
  • Epilepsy / etiology
  • Epilepsy / physiopathology
  • Epilepsy / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Stress, Physiological / physiology*
  • Stress, Psychological / complications
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*