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Doctor Q&A

Patricia Gibson, M.S.W., is an associate professor of neurology and director of Epilepsy Information at Wake Forest University.

Patricia Gibson, M.S.W.

Patricia Gibson, M.S.W., is an associate professor of neurology and director of Epilepsy Information at Wake Forest University. She has chaired the International Commission on Community Care in Epilepsy and the International League Against Epilepsy’s committee on psychosocial issues in epilepsy.*

Relax. It’s Good for You!

Why is stress a special concern for people with epilepsy?

Stress can affect you physically, creating chemical changes in your brain and body. Some people respond to stress by having migraines, stomach issues or other issues; in people with epilepsy, stress can provoke seizures and cause other problems. People under pressure may forget to take medications on schedule or have it slip their mind altogether, another risk factor for seizures. When your thoughts are anxious, memory can suffer.

People don’t always know when pressure is affecting them. They’ve got so much on their mind that the last thing they’re thinking is, “Wow, I’m really stressed, and I better do something about that!”

And stress doesn’t have to involve negative issues, right?

That’s very true. One thing I notice through our hotline, the Wake Forest Hotline for People with Epilepsy, is a high number of calls from young adults who’ve had a seizure during their first week of college. It’s an exciting time, with a new environment and routines. These kids may stay up late—and sleep deprivation can compound stress and lead to seizures. Diet and a host of other things can change, too. Another time we see emotionally related seizures is around the winter holidays. Children get excited and stay up late, and this can lead to breakthrough seizures. Weddings, particularly for the immediate families, are another big source of stress arising from a positive event.

Any good coping strategies?

If you know that you have a stressful event coming up or if you’re coping with a long-term emotionally draining issue—problems at work for example, or a sick relative—it’s a good idea to discuss it with your doctor. In general, talking about your stress, fears and anxieties with the right person is one of the best things you can do. Often, when I speak to patients with epilepsy or their caregivers—who are also subject to enormous stress, which needs to be recognized and dealt with—I ask them what they feel is happening. People can have terrible fears they’re afraid to voice. Many of these concerns are overblown or simply false, and talking with someone can really help alleviate anxiety.

How do you find someone to talk to about your stress?

Parents, caregivers and friends are all good options, though it’s important to choose someone who won’t shut you down by saying something like, “That’s silly—you’re way too worried about that.” If you get that sort of response, you need to find a good listener who can offer both objectivity and reassurance.

In addition, exercise in general and yoga in particular have been shown to have excellent stress-reducing effects. Getting out of your usual setting for a walk in nature or for a yoga class can help break the spiraling of thoughts that creates so much anxiety. Be sure to consult your doctor before starting any new exercise regimen.

If you feel that your stress level is significantly affecting your health, including sleep patterns, talking with a counselor or a social worker—professionals found on the staffs of most epilepsy centers—can be an important step toward well-being. I also invite people to call our hotline at 1-800-642-0500. We’re there Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern Time.

The information provided here is not intended to replace the advice and/or care of your personal physician. Please consult with your physician before making any treatment changes.

*Patricia Gibson has been hired as a consultant for UCB