What Is a Seizure?

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
December 11, 2018

What is a seizure? A symptom of many different disorders, a seizure is a sudden surge of brain electrical activity that can be disabling or pass unnoticed.

What is a seizure?

A sudden surge of electrical activity in the brain that usually makes you act strangely for a short period of time.

What causes a seizure?

Complex chemical changes in nerve cells trigger the electricity surge. Normally, nerve cells that excite or stop other cells from sending messages balance each other out. During a seizure, an imbalance occurs, as a result of one of many disorders. People with epilepsy have recurring seizures. In about half of people with epilepsy, the cause is a tumor or stroke, or, especially in young people, a severe head injury.


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What are the different types of seizures?

There are three types, based on where the surge begins.

In a generalized onset seizure, cells on both sides of the brain are affected at the same time. Various kinds of seizures defined by symptoms fall within this category. The signs of a seizure include sustained rhythmical jerking movements (a clonic seizure), weak or limp muscles (atonic seizure), tense or rigid muscles (tonic seizure), brief muscle twitching (myoclonus seizure), or epileptic spasms when the body flexes and extends repeatedly.

You might also have a staring spell (absence seizure) or brief twitches in a small part of your body, sometimes the eyelids.

In a focal onset seizure, the problem begins on one side of the brain. Again, your symptoms might be clonic, atonic, tonic, myoclonus, or epileptic spasms. Sometimes you repeat certain movements automatically — clapping, rubbing your hands, smacking your lips, or chewing. You could feel gastrointestinal sensations, waves of heat or cold, goosebumps, or your heart racing. You might be unable to move.

In a focal onset aware seizure, you are aware during the seizure. In the past, this was called a simple partial seizure.

In a focal onset impaired awareness seizure, your awareness is affected. This was once called a complex partial seizure.

In an unknown onset seizure, the beginning isn’t known, possibly because it happens at night or in a person who lives alone and isn’t witnessed by anyone. The person may just stare and not make any movements — a condition known as a behavior arrest. When the path of the seizure is clarified, it may later be diagnosed as a focal or generalized seizure.

Can stress cause seizures?

Yes, and the stress may be a major life event or a build-up of small frustrations. Stress leads to the release of hormones related to the nervous system, and the areas affected by focal onset seizures are the same cells that process emotions. Sleeping problems — often tied to anxiety and depression — can trigger seizures, too.

How to prevent seizures

  • Protect your head with a helmet any time you're engaged in an activity, like football or riding a bicycle or motorcycle, that can lead to concussions.
  • Ask your doctor about a low-carb, high protein diet, something like the modified Atkins diet, which can help protect both children and adults with epilepsy.
  • Avoid drugs and alcohol. If you’ve become addicted, the process of quitting can trigger seizures.
  • Avoid bright, flashing lights and other intense stimuli like violent video games and movies.
  • Understand what situations you find most stressful. You may need to keep a diary to be sure.
  • You can try to avoid a stressful situation, and if you can’t, accept that you can’t instead of wishing otherwise.
  • Avoid people who make you angry or anxious, or try to approach them differently.
  • Make sure you’re getting enough sleep and taking your medications on time, especially during stressful periods.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • There are many relaxation techniques — among them, yoga, tai chi, meditation, and breathing exercises. Look for one that you can keep up over time.
  • Don’t take long naps. Instead, maintain a regular routine.
  • Set priorities and let minor matters go.
  • Make sure your medical team know that you believe stress may be affecting your seizures.
  • If you have anxiety or depression, look into treatment.
  • Talk to confidantes or seek out a support group.


March 16, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN