Research Shows Anxiety-Induced Seizures Can Resemble Epilepsy

A waiting man with hands claspedAlthough epilepsy is one of the most common causes of seizures, it’s not the only cause. Extreme emotional states can give rise to seizures. Psychogenic nonepileptic seizures (PNES) are seizures brought on by emotional states, occurring in between 2 and 33 per 100,000 people. According to one study, as many as 20% of people diagnosed with epilepsy might have PNES instead.

New research published in Epilepsy and Behavior aims to discern the differences between the two types of seizures, and researchers were able to correctly differentiate PNES from epilepsy in 83% of cases. They also found a clear connection between anxiety and seizures.

How Anxiety Triggers Seizures

Epilepsy is caused by rapid and chaotic discharge of electrical signals in the brain, but people experiencing psychogenic nonepileptic seizures don’t show this pattern. People with depression, anxiety, and similar mental health concerns can experience PNES, but doctors aren’t sure why. Strangely, a large percentage of people with PNES have epilepsy, making it even more challenging to distinguish psychologically induced seizures from those brought on by epilepsy. 

Differences between Psychogenic Nonepileptic Seizures (PNES) and Epilepsy

Differentiating between PNES and epilepsy can help people experiencing seizures get faster, more effective treatment. To evaluate differences between the two types of seizures, researchers administered questionnaires to evaluate whether and how frequently participants avoided circumstances that made them feel anxious. The group of participants included 30 people with PNES, 25 with epilepsy, and 31 with no history of seizures. Researchers found that PNES was more common among people who regularly experienced anxiety and who took steps to avoid sources of anxiety.

Researchers also found that people who reported more somatic symptoms were more likely to experience seizures. Somatic symptoms are physical symptoms, such as headaches or vomiting, that don’t have an underlying medical cause. The study’s authors note that their research highlights the need for effective interventions among people struggling with anxiety. Because people who experience PNES tend to avoid anxiety, researchers point to the need for treatments that can help people with PNES reduce avoidance behaviors while more effectively managing anxiety.


  1. Mellers, J. D. (2005). The approach to patients with “non-epileptic seizures”. Postgraduate Medical Journal, 81(958), 498-504.
  2. New research links anxiety to seizures. (2014, August 1). Retrieved from
  3. The Truth about Psychogenic Nonepileptic Seizures. (n.d.). Retrieved from

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Kendall D

    August 5th, 2014 at 10:34 AM

    I have never heard of this. Of course I have heard of epilepsy and then regular anxiety attacks but nothing that would provoke a seizure.

  • Kristine

    August 6th, 2014 at 3:25 PM

    PNES/NEAD (Non Epileptic Attack Disorder) events are not technically “seizures”. They exhibit markedly different physical movements to the trained epileptologists, which do not correlate with the cortical map nor with any abnormal electrical discharges in the brain. A long term video EEG is the gold standard for diagnosis. The symptoms of PNES/NEAD are related to a functional disturbance (i.e. akin to severe PTSD or the aches/pains associated with depression/anxiety, etc.)

  • Lynn

    June 17th, 2015 at 1:20 AM

    I disagree Kristine. Whilst they may not be ‘epileptic’ seizures, they are seizures never-the-less! Maybe ‘convulsions’ would be a better description?

  • Erica

    September 20th, 2019 at 5:08 PM

    i have this issue they are convulsions more then i would say seizures

  • Mark Ramirez

    December 27th, 2019 at 10:54 PM

    I just had one

  • Tatiana

    April 2nd, 2020 at 7:11 AM

    I am so frightened. I thought that surviving the child torture by narcissitis was all I jhad to deal with now they are saying people form PNES die at a rate highter than epileptics from Sudden unexplained Death.These went away for 19 years. Lastt year a psycho shaled the bunk bed in my dorm and i fell out and tried to orient myself but could not and had a seizure. I almost has one again last week. I think it is because of corona and the similarity of terror that the media is inducing in me and being home and inert. I need some toolds can you please help me with anything yo have learned about delaing with your anxiety or panic? You don’tt seem terrifies by them. I cannot stand the feeling it is like dying I do not want to have these this is worse than any anxiety with which i had to deal why is my body protecting me from it when this for me is WORSE. What is even more repulsive is the complete disregard by most nerologists who are “uninterested” simply because we don’t have an organic brain dysfunction like epilepsy. I refuse to go to hospitals becuse of the horrible treatmant of people with this lethal disease

  • Lee

    August 5th, 2014 at 3:16 PM

    It would also seem plausible that the brain could show different areas of activity if the seizure is a different kind or that maybe the chemical balance of the body would be different depending on the seizure acxtivity. I could be way off base but I would just suspect that there is a lot more going on on a biochemical aspect that we can learn from and that it can go far deeper and more exoensive than just that information that a patient questionnaire might have to offer.

  • Kathleen Anne

    August 6th, 2014 at 12:29 AM

    I have had Pnes since I was about 11 yrs old I am now 48
    This article is very interesting
    I hope they do eventually come up with an effective treatment other than the treatment I have experienced of which can be sworn at, dragged out of buildings, bullied by peers not only as a child, but at the age I am now. I have also been told by staff in Hospitals that I am wasting NHS time and money.

  • Lynn

    June 17th, 2015 at 1:23 AM

    I’m so sorry you have been treated this way Kathleen 😥 I think the lack of education and awareness has a lot to do with this; what people don’t understand, they tend to fear! Xxx

  • Tyler A.

    August 6th, 2014 at 12:27 PM

    treatment the same?

  • Kristine

    August 6th, 2014 at 3:15 PM

    The treatment is not the same at all. Epileptic seizures are treated by neurologists with anti epileptic drugs, surgery, or VNS/RNS Neuro stimulators. PNES/NEAD (Non Epileptic Attack Disorder) events are treated by psychiatrists with anti anxiety medications and cognitive behavioral therapy.

  • Arlene

    August 7th, 2014 at 6:02 AM

    My 7 year old son has been taking vimpat to control both his seizures and lessen his anxiety since he was 3.

  • Rosa M

    October 21st, 2019 at 8:03 AM

    Hi Arlene My question does vampat works well for your son ? What are the side affects?

  • Colleen K

    August 6th, 2014 at 5:19 PM

    I personally have Epilepsy and have had the surgery to assist with the frequently and length of my seizures. Initially they thought I had PNES however after a number of VEEG stays I was able to prove it by having a number of GTC’s. I do suffer with anxiety and depression as a result of my Epilepsy and I can say that extreme stress/anxiety is a trigger for me. During my number of stays a number of people had been diagnosed with PNES. They were devastated. I’d never seen a seizure caused by that and they looked similar to me – until I saw my own video and understood the difference.

    One particular patient had a Code Grey called, she was extremely upset (which I understood) as her GP had put her on AED’s and the events she was having were life changing. As my Epileptologist pointed out to her, she did not want Epilepsy.

    Kathleen Anne, I’m sorry to hear about your experience and can totally relate to your devastation.

  • Vickie R

    August 6th, 2014 at 6:31 PM

    That discribes a friend of mine to a T. In 93 a friend from school(Sean) moved from another town to Berlin to go to college. He started having spells where it looked like he was having seizures. I went to the hospital with him. They told him it was anxiety. He wasn’t having seizures. They couldn’t give him anything. He ended up dropping out of school and moving back to Mass with his mom.

  • Jimmy

    August 6th, 2014 at 8:26 PM

    Does PNES/NEAD show itself only in “grand mal” type seizures or can it show as “petit mal” type seizures.
    Thank you

  • Michele A.

    October 8th, 2016 at 11:16 PM

    I have this but it shows as numbness in my tongue and lip – I was treated for epilepsy for 2 years before this was decided x I had many tests

  • Raoul D

    August 6th, 2014 at 10:05 PM

    Could this be why anti epileptics like dilantin cause seizures in me and the only reason I’ve been seizure free is a klonopin regemin

  • Syvanna motta

    August 20th, 2015 at 6:34 AM

    I need to find out if you have PNES if you actually have convulsions or not because I do but don’t. All my muscles tighten but I don’t jerk.

  • Rebecca

    March 28th, 2016 at 10:05 PM

    I’ve been suffering from severe anxiety and panic attacks for the last 10 years and in the spring of 2014 I started experiencing grand mal seizures and they have yet to find out why I started having them.
    I’ve wondering if my anxiety and panic attacks were the cause of my seizures, I can say experiencing the seizures have added to my anxiety as now I worry about myself to the point I don’t go anywhere without anyone. My seizures have been under control since September of 2014 with the help of Dilantin, my anxiety and panic attacks jad mostly seemed to vanish in time, my medication was later switched to lamotrigine which ever since the switch I began having anxiety and panic attacks again, and what I recognize as myclonic jerk seizures which depending on my stress level can vary in severity. Maybe someday I’ll feel like I have my life back, for now its a wait and see game. Its definitely been a complete life changer.

  • Debra

    November 25th, 2016 at 2:01 AM

    I don’t think I have epilepsy. I’ve never had seizures before, at least I don’t remember. However, last night my friend said it looked like I was having convulsions. I remember feeling light headed, dizzy, and everything looked fuzzy. He said I fell to my knee, which explains why it hurts when I awoke, and then he said I started shaking, but my eyes were open. I seriously don’t remember falling to the floor, I don’t recall what I did. We tried to process how that happened and why. I’ve never experienced something like that ever. I’ve felt light headed before, but it always went away after a while. The most recent time, however, I got up and it was dizzy. I went to the restroom, I remember washing my hands, drying them, but it was difficult to walk without stumbling because I couldn’t see clearly. It was like my visual sensations were diluted. I just remember feeling so tired. I thought I just fainted on the floor, but when he told me I was shaking that scared me. I don’t know what it is for sure, but I really hope that it doesn’t happen again.

  • mike

    January 25th, 2017 at 10:58 PM

    my son has anxiety and is on medication yesterday he passed and had a seizure he was very tense and druling and shaking and sounding like ah ah ah ah ah ah. this is the first one he has had he told us he did not take any meds that day and had this happen by not taking his meds bring this on, he has an appointment to see his doctor next week ,

  • Verna

    July 1st, 2017 at 11:36 PM

    I have a had anxiety disorder since I saw my dead father when I was a baby. I became hysterical. I have had them go into a seizure several times in my life. I am on paxil. It helps better than any meds for me. It is a horrible experience. I am now 80 years old.

  • Melanie

    September 14th, 2018 at 5:53 AM

    I’ve been under extreme stress and anxiety for a few months. I experienced a seizure-type episode day before yesterday. My friend said she thought it was a stroke but then her and her daughter said it was a seizure. They said I went “out” twice and 2nd time turned blue so they did chest compressions on me. Very scarey..

  • Rosa M

    October 21st, 2019 at 9:52 AM

    My Question is why Seizure and PNES are being treated with same meds some of these meds are addicting and controlling and would make you have more seizures if you dont drink them .

  • Anniece

    October 25th, 2019 at 8:33 PM

    I’m trying to figure out the same thing, question is do they really work if it two different kinds. I suffer with anxiety seizure and I’m really trying to find a way to fix this.

  • Cristin

    December 3rd, 2019 at 6:02 PM

    I have and just had same thing happen. I was just in the hospital. I was driving and then tried to drive slower then everything light and stuff bothered me and had seziure. So good thing I knew my body and pulled over, I had my family in van when driving

  • Terri

    June 28th, 2020 at 10:33 AM

    Did you every have a MRI and EEG done on the brain? My son is going through this now But no MRI has been done. He did have n EEG which showed small activity.

  • Harley

    August 3rd, 2020 at 2:14 PM

    My first non-epileptic seizure came right after realizing I was likely sexually abused as a child. I didn’t remember much, but after doing some poking around I found out it was quite possible, even likely. My seizure yesterday came after quitting a delivery job in a questionable neighborhood after feeling too scared, and then right after learning more details about sexual abuse in the family and new hints about exactly happened to me. (I have PTSD from a domestic violence situation where I could have died and I have somehow found myself in other dangerous situations. It’s like predators sniff me out… I also have a lot of anxiety and depression.) I felt this sense of impending doom beforehand and am still experiencing it to a degree.
    I’m tired of these seizures, feeling scared, and running into more danger. I hope to find someone who can treat them soon, help me feel safe and less afraid of the world.

  • Jolene

    December 13th, 2020 at 9:47 AM

    I was o. Certralin years ago for anxiety but got off of it after a couple years. When my children grew up, I decided to get a job where I had some hope of a real retirement, got my CDL class A and drove truck. (Single mom) Bad relationship so stayed single for 16 years. This trucker I worked with asked me out and I didn’t sleep for days…because I was actually considering it. I was a mess. Pi ked up my load, headed over to weigh it and woke up in a hospital that afternoon. They said it was a seizure, or syncope, but I remember nothing and they said I fought and would not let the emergency crew remove me from my truck. Apparently there was a huge stand off. I had run the truck k off the road at about 5 miles an hour and had bypassed the scales and the gate where you get your load and papers double checked. Now they have claimed it was a seizure and taken my cdl for 4 years. Put me on kepra. How can they believe it wil. Happen again if I know how it came about and can avoid it in the future? I need to go back to work.

  • David

    January 31st, 2021 at 3:34 PM

    Maybe someone can tell me what I’m having. All the symptoms of a seizure. One thing I’ve yet to find is. I My body gets extremely hot instantly. And a sweat instantly. The seizures I call them seem to last somewhere between 3 to 6 mins. But it’s usually triggered by dejvu. It happens in my sleep or during the day. I can sometimes feel them coming on when others just hit me. I’ve had them while driving at highway speeds. Luckily my wife was present to help control the car to safety. Anybody have an answer to what I might have.

  • Carl

    February 11th, 2021 at 7:20 AM

    David deja vu is the only real way to describe the “aura” phase the feeling that this has already happened, is a pre seizure feeling sometimes called daydreaming or petit mal seizure that sometimes precede a grand mal of which I have had both. sounds to me like you need eeg testing to get confirmation. could be psychogenic or stress related. reduce your stress triggers and you will find a measure of peace, Also consult with a neurologist you may need medication in the future for this deja vu inquire about lorazepam. which acts like a rescue medication in these circumstances that you have described it will calm the thoughts of deja vu and allow you some clarity and new insight into what i am sure is a neurological disorder. I used to describe my seizures the same way now I take Levetiracetam and other meds including lorazepam to control my intractable seizure disorder.

  • Joann

    April 5th, 2021 at 1:38 AM

    I am 38 and have had epilepsy from a traumatic brain injury while I was in the Army in 2003. I suffer from bipolar disorder now, and I have serious anxiety issues. I feel like my seizures come on and are triggered by stressed and anxiety, but not every one of them. I do know that it makes them worse.

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