Every individual responds differently to PTSD. The impact of past trauma can produce a wide range of results and consequences depending on how the brain processes the bad memories.
Sometimes, the brain tends to go into a protective mode, causing dissociative behavior in PTSD patients. This means that even though the patient is in a conscious state of mind, they may not be able to recollect the traumatic event.
While this adaptive response of the brain might benefit the patient as it helps them deal with past traumatic experiences, the body may still sustain long-term physical trauma.
One such physical response as a consequence of PTSD or Complex PTSD, also known as C-PTSD, is non-epileptic seizures. We will get to the finer details in this blog to understand the link between PTSD and seizures.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is short for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is a serious, chronic mental illness caused due to exposure to life-threatening events such as road accidents, sexual abuse, rape, violence, military combat, etc.
It is an intense fight or flight response triggered by your body to escape danger. While it is normal to be terrified of certain events or things, fear in PTSD is deep and exaggerated with long-term physically and mentally disabling after-effects.
Let us understand how the body may react to PTSD triggers in the next section.
Effects of PTSD on the Body
As mentioned earlier, the physical impact of PTSD or C-PTSD differs from patient to patient based on several factors, such as the intensity of the traumatic event, the duration and frequency of exposure to violence, and the external environment the patient is exposed to post the incident.
However, if you have severe PTSD, you are likely to experience the following symptoms. They can be quite serious, needing immediate medical intervention if you have them almost daily:
- Freeze response to trauma can flare up and trigger non-epileptic seizures – more on this later in the article.
- Constant nervous sweating and palpitations.
- Intensified allergies due to a rise in cortisol levels.
- Significant disturbances in blood flow to major parts of the body, especially your hands and feet.
- An increase in cortisol levels also affects your muscle-building, recovery, and maintenance capacity.
- Extreme PTSD-related anxiety and stress trigger bad bouts of diarrhea disturbing your digestive tract (this is mainly due to the release of CRF or the corticotropin-releasing factor hormone as a natural response to fear and hampering the intestinal system).
- Increased frequency of body aches due to hyperalertness causes immense pressure on your joints and muscles.
- Chronic insomnia and fatigue as you are constantly under stress.
- The overworked limbic system of your brain, responsible for managing emotions and stress, triggers tinnitus or excessive ringing in the ears.
- Disturbed metabolic function due to compromised functioning of the hypothalamus, adrenal, and pituitary glands, causing uncontrolled weight gain.
Is there a Connection Between PTSD and Seizures?
Yes, PTSD and seizures in the form of after-effects of PTSD are definitely linked to one another.
It is very common for PTSD patients to suffer from dissociative seizures, which are non-epileptic in nature and are triggered majorly by an irrepressible recollection of traumatic memories.
Such seizures indicate the body’s activated defense mechanism to involuntarily shut down extreme stress caused by bits of traumatic events trapped in the brain’s memory.
Intense nightmares or flashbacks in overdrive mode triggered mainly by PTSD are the usual starting points of a PTSD-connected seizure.
Patients have reported slipping into uncontrolled confusion, impaired hearing/speech, and restricted movement while in the middle of these flashbacks.
According to the patients, the flashbacks are too stressful and hard for the brain to manage, causing the body to break down and experience seizures.
Here is how it may feel during the seizure:
- Fainting or falling due to overwhelming remembrance of past trauma.
- Conscious but disconnected thoughts.
- An intense rush of anxiety and panic.
- A state of being disconcerted and feeling detached from the body.
Can Trauma Result in Epileptic Seizures?
There is not enough evidence to support this. But head injuries in the past can be one of the reasons for epileptic seizures. Many veterans experiencing such seizures have had a historical diagnosis of a severe physical impact on their heads during military service.
A 2021 research paper published by the National Library of Medicine stated that 48 out of 107 medically evaluated survey participants reported experiencing seizures when reminded about past trauma.
The study indirectly established that past traumatic memories could even trigger epileptic seizures affecting motor skills due to electrical disturbances in the brain.
The reasons are predominantly mental and emotional, stemming from extreme fear of anticipated recurrence of past traumatic memories.
PTSD-induced dissociative seizures happen when the brain effectively blocks cognitive functions, preventing the refreshing of bad memories and shielding you from stress.
These after-effects are more emotional responses than physiological or neurological. They are called dissociative seizures because they reflect your brain’s automatic coping mechanism of detaching you from resurfacing trauma.
PTSD involving seizures is highly prone to misdiagnosis, given its complex nature. This is because, in most instances, your body’s reaction to extreme stress or traumatic memories might manifest itself in the form of a seizure.
Symptoms of Seizures Caused by Trauma
Signs of seizures in PTSD adults are more prevalent, and they may include:
- Loss of consciousness
- Involuntary urination
- Abrupt mood and emotional changes
- Twitching of muscles
- Inability to stay or stand still, shaking/trembling
- Tongue biting
- State of confusion
The duration, frequency, and intensity of such seizures can vary from patient to patient. However, any seizure, shaking, or trembling lasting for more than five minutes could be a serious health hazard and will need urgent medical attention.
Seizures, whether mild, moderate, or severe, represent compromised bodily functions and can even lead to loss of consciousness in extreme cases. We recommend a thorough medical check-up if you are experiencing them on and off.
What is a Non-epileptic Seizure?
Non-epileptic seizures, unlike their epileptic counterparts, don’t result from electrical disturbances in your brain. They are episodic trembling or seizure-like behaviors caused by multiple reasons, such as intense psychological, physical, or neurological trauma.
According to the Epilepsy Foundation, here are some of the causative factors of non-epileptic seizures:
- Stress and anxiety
- Personality and mood disorders
- Frequent substance abuse and addiction
- Sexual abuse trauma
- Family conflicts
- Psychosis and more
Non-epileptic Seizures in PTSD-affected Patients
Stay with me as I explain what non-epileptic seizures are and what are the factors that cause such seizures in this section.
Non-epileptic seizures in PTSD are more commonly observed in older people. They seem like attacks similar to a seizure and may appear differently in different patients. They are generally characterized by:
- Uncontrolled convulsions
- Excessive involuntary jerking and twitching in limbs
- Passing out/syncope causing fall injuries
- Rapid head and body movements
You are prone to such attacks/seizures if you are affected by one or more highly severe psychiatric disorders such as PTSD, personality disorders, depressive disorders, somatic symptom disorders, and dissociative disorders.
You are very likely to experience non-epileptic seizures due to intense PTSD. You are at risk if you have been a victim of extreme childhood violence, sexual abuse, complex grief, war violence for veterans, relationship trauma, etc. These can act as future triggers, leading to non-epileptic seizures on and off without any warning.
These kinds of seizures can neither be cured nor prevented. Therefore, it’s advisable to meticulously manage causative stressors or triggers, engage in psychotherapy, and use clinically proven relaxation techniques for better distress or emotion management.
Psychiatrists may also recommend antidepressants and therapies like DBT (Dialectical behavioral therapy) or EMDR to improve overall treatment outcomes.
Since PTSD-causing seizures are tricky to identify, observe, and diagnose, the treatment was a grey area for several years. Over the years, multiple research studies and evidence-based evaluations have provided effective diagnoses and solutions to address them appropriately.
You should check with a therapist, primary care doctors, and psychiatrists if you or your loved ones are going through a similar situation.
All the best!
She is an experienced Clinical Psychologist and Mental Health Writer with a decade of expertise in psychology. Skilled in assessment, therapy, and patient care. Committed to helping individuals through clinical practice and mental health writing at Therapyjourney.co. Passionate about promoting mental well-being and awareness. Open to aligned opportunities.