Navigating the Dangers of Chronic Stress: From Seizures to Systemic Health Impacts

Chronic stress can have negative effects like seizures, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. It also negatively affects the immune and digestive systems and cardiovascular health.

Seizures are one of the most adverse effects caused by stress. While they are considered to be non-epileptic seizures, they can be a serious issue if one experiences them frequently.

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1. What is Chronic Stress?

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Having acute stress or short-lived stress is an everyday thing, but when those feelings remain for a prolonged period, it can be fatal.

Stress is a biological response to certain situations, causing the body to release hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones help the body to react to situations, and one is deemed to be high-alerted in such situations. Any reason could be a trigger for stress response, including reasons like exams, deadlines, etc.

While these effects don’t last longer, few people face such situations for an extended period, which causes several symptoms and in certain cases increases the risk of developing illnesses.

1.1. What are the Symptoms?

Chronic stress can affect one’s whole body and can have many psychological and physical symptoms that make it difficult to function properly daily. The symptoms might differ from person to person. The symptoms include fatigue, extreme cases of irritability, difficulty concentrating, headaches, sleeping disorders, sexual disorders, nervousness, and more.

1.2. How Does it Affect?

Research says that chronic stress can affect the brain and immune system. The neural networks of the brain can reduce in size and it may further lead to emotional, cognitive, and behavioral dysfunction.

While stress stimulates the immune system for a short period, continued stress might overstimulate the immune system, resulting in the development of several illnesses like heart disease, obesity, diabetes, sexual dysfunction, gastrointestinal infections, insomnia, schizophrenia, and many more.

1.3. How to Treat and Manage It?

Psychological therapy sessions like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be of help to people suffering from chronic stress. It can help one develop coping mechanisms to manage stress. Many times, doctors recommend medication such as antidepressants to cope with stress, and people suffering from insomnia are prescribed sedatives.

To many people, chronic stress seems overwhelming, making them believe they are unable to gain control of their lives. However, there are certain ways to manage such issues including knowing the symptoms and understanding them. One can talk with family and friends to relieve stress. One should be able to identify what triggers their stress, exercise regularly, and improve their sleeping habits.

2. What is Emotional Stress?

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It is almost impossible to live without having to deal with stressful situations, considering our body is designed to react to stressors. Although stress is temporary, it can have a significant impact on our daily lives. Emotional stress is one such kind.

When a person reacts intensely and negatively to emotions such as worry, fear, anger, or frustration, it is considered to be emotional stress. If left unattended, it can be unhealthy further leading to difficulty in relaxing, maintaining healthy relationships, and carrying out day-to-day tasks.

2.1. What are the Signs? How is it Caused?

There are several physical and mental symptoms of emotional stress, some of which are feeling overwhelmed, difficulty concentrating, mood swings, anxiety, and depression.

Emotional stress is usually caused by situations such as toxic relationships, financial issues, loss, grief, parenting, etc. People suffering from emotional stress feel trapped under such stressful situations and often align to unhealthy ways to cope.

2.2. How to Cope with Emotional Stress?

The best way to deal with emotional stress is by talking to a therapist, who can help in reducing the symptoms and look for healthy ways of coping. Additionally, therapy also helps in finding the source of one’s stress and how it impacts their life. Besides therapeutic methods, one can try and find a distraction rather than ruminating on stress, improve sleeping habits, practice stress reduction and identify unhealthy coping mechanisms.

3. Understanding Seizures

Changes in the brain’s electrical activity are said to be seizures. Often characterized by loss of consciousness, convulsions, and muscle spasms, seizures can be caused by various factors like epilepsy, infections, and genetic disorders. Although they can be alarming, proper medication is essential for treating seizures.

3.1. How are Seizures Caused?

Seizures can arise from several conditions such as alcohol withdrawal, a brain infection like meningitis, electrolyte imbalance, epilepsy, electric shock, head trauma, a brain tumour, kidney failure, substance use, and vascular abnormality in the brain. In a few cases, seizures can run in the family. Seizures in young children may be caused due to unknown reasons.

3.2. What are the Effects of Seizures?

Seizures are known to have both short-term and long-term effects. In the short term, some seizures can make a person lose control of their body, further causing injuries, due to the inability to move. People suffering from epilepsy are supposedly faced with more physical dysfunctions than people without the condition. Being used to seizures can also change one’s way of living.

In the long term, if one doesn’t get their seizure checked, the symptoms might escalate, and prolonged seizures lead to coma or death. Although cases of death due to a seizure are rare, premature death due to epilepsy is about 3 times higher than in normal people.

3.3. How are Seizures Treated?

Treatments for seizures depend on what causes them. Medication such as antiepileptic drugs is the first treatment for people going through multiple and frequent seizures. These drugs effectively control seizures in almost 70 per cent of the cases. In some cases, when medication fails, brain surgery is an option to treat a seizure, especially in patients with epilepsy. Additionally, nerve stimulation and diet changes are some methods to treat seizures.

4. Can Stress Cause Seizures?

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Although stress can trigger seizures in individuals suffering from epilepsy, stress can’t cause a seizure directly. Stressful situations, sleep disorders, and emotional disturbances can reduce the seizure threshold, making one more prone to experiencing a seizure.

Seizures caused by stress are generally considered to be psychogenic nonpileptic seizures or PNES. The causes of PNES are different from that of seizures caused in patients with epilepsy. Also termed pseudoseizures, PNES are usually known to have psychological causes, such as extreme mental stress. It doesn’t involve any change in the electrical activity of the brain.

5. Stress-Induced Seizures

A seizure is a short period of unrestrained change in the electrical activities of the brain and can trigger a wide range of changes in one’s body. Although intense stress can induce a seizure in an epileptic person, it can also trigger PNES in people without epilepsy. The neurological seizures caused in epilepsy patients are different from the physiology of PNES. Unlike epilepsy, PNES is an extreme response to stress and anxiety.

PNES occurs when emotional stress causes physical symptoms that cannot be clarified based on underlying health issues. When certain emotions become overwhelming for the body, it shuts down in response, and for some people, this can present as PNES. It primarily occurs in people living with anxiety, stress, or other traumatic emotional disturbances.

6. An Insight to PNES

The symptoms of PNES are similar to those of epilepsy, but the conditions aren’t the same and the causes are distinct. As per researchers in the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), treatments to cure epilepsy are improbable to be effective, but Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) might be of help.

PNES are a type of seizure-like episode that resemble seizures caused due to epilepsy but are different, as they are not caused by unusual electrical activity in the brain. Earlier it was referred to as ‘pseudoseizures’, and ‘pseudo’ might imply the person is faking a seizure, which is not the case, so the preferred term is now psychogenic nonepileptic seizures.

Also known as functional seizures, PNES is considered a conversion disorder, where psychological stress or trauma ensues as physical symptoms. Emotional distress, unresolved trauma, or underlying mental disturbances are triggers of PNES. It does not show odd brain activity in EEG tests. The treatment of PNES often engages a multifaceted approach that includes therapy, stress management techniques, and treating elemental emotional disorders. People suffering from PNES require proper support and understanding to manage their condition efficiently.

7. Looking Through Symptoms of PNES

Generally, a PNES is different from an epileptic seizure, but their symptoms can be similar. Symptoms such as lowered awareness, loss of body control, thrashing, and tongue biting occur in PNES as well as neurological seizures. Suddenly becoming unresponsive, losing consciousness, and shaking movements are experienced by people with PNES as well as people with epilepsy.

However, some signs indicate that a person is suffering from PNES rather than epilepsy. These symptoms include wildly thrashing, side-to-side head movements, shouting phrases, emotional triggers, and normal EEG results. Additionally, a person with epilepsy might sleep after a seizure which is not the same in the case of a PNES. Also, the symptoms can differ from individual to individual.

8. Can Panic Attacks Cause a Seizure?

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Panic attacks and seizures are two distinct phenomena but sometimes share similar symptoms. Although panic attacks aren’t a known cause of nonpileptic neurological seizures, there might be a correlation between PNES and panic attacks. As per researchers, between 18% and 83% of those who suffer from PNES have also reported accompanied panic attacks.

In some cases, panic attacks might induce symptoms similar to seizures like rapid breathing, trembling, and a sense of detachment. Similarly, some kinds of seizures manifest panic attack-like symptoms such as fear, confusion, etc. It is important to know that some people might experience both phenomena simultaneously, which emphasizes the need for healthcare to determine the causes of the symptoms and provide appropriate medication.

9. How are PNES and Panic Attacks Different from One Another?

While both PNES and panic attacks can be caused by stress and anxiety, understanding the difference between both these phenomena is vital for accurate diagnosis and proper medication. A lot of people who suffer from PNES have also experienced panic attacks simultaneously, while some others don’t go through the same. Researchers found that panic attacks are more likely to happen in PNES than in epileptic seizures.

During a PNES, individuals experience a seizure-like episode, lose consciousness, and do movements that do not involve odd brain activity, whereas, a panic attack usually involves dreadful feelings of fear or terror. An individual experiences rapid heartbeat, chest pain, sweating, etc., in case of a panic attack. The triggers of PNES are mostly unresolved trauma, psychological factors, or emotional issues; in contrast, panic attacks are commonly triggered by thoughts that provoke fear or anxiety.

Although both these circumstances display similar symptoms, the causes, diagnosis, and triggers differ, which is why proper diagnosis by a professional experienced in seizure distress is important to ensure appropriate management.

10. What Causes PNES?

PNES tends to impact people who have experienced trauma or suffer from psychological stress. Stress can be caused by a single trauma or a chronic condition. During a PNES, the person is usually unaware of what is happening and is not conscious of faking a seizure.

Some likely causes can be a history of personality disorders, PTSD, anxiety disorder, a history of physical or sexual abuse, substance use, and behavioural distress such as withdrawal, anger, or aggression. PNES can have a harsh effect on one’s living quality, which is why it is important to get checked by a medical professional and undergo proper management.

11. How to Diagnose PNES?

The symptoms as described by any patient might seem a lot similar to those of epileptic seizures, which makes it difficult for the doctor to diagnose PNES. Often, it is considered to be PNES only when the epilepsy medications aren’t effective.

Additionally, studies at NINDS show that 5-20% of people diagnosed with epilepsy also suffer from PNES. Some people might have both. If an individual has frequent seizures, the doctor might suggest staying in a special unit to observe any sort of changes in the brain activity with the help of an EEG.

Tests like EEG are important to understand why PNES is happening to a person. Doctors connect the patient to an EEG with a video monitoring system to track the electrical activity in the brain, while the video monitoring system records physical signs. Also during the stay, a doctor analyzes any seizures that happen to determine the diagnosis. In some cases, CT or MRI might be done for further inspection of the brain.

12. Treating PNES

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Treatments for PNES usually focus on managing the symptoms causing stress. As the causes are often psychological, it is advisory to determine the underlying causes and triggers. CBT is the preferred treatment for anxiety disorders as it helps a person learn to cope with stressful situations, feelings, and behaviours. For a person with anxiety, drugs like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are prescribed to help with reducing symptoms of anxiety. Having good sleep habits, a balanced diet, and daily exercises can also help reduce stress.

Last Updated on December 25, 2023 by