Unlike epileptic seizures, non-epileptic seizures are not caused by physical disorders of the brain. Rather, nonepileptic seizures may result from traumatic psychological experiences or unusual stresses, sometimes even those in the forgotten past.
It has been known since ancient times that emotional or psychological stresses can produce physical symptoms in a person with no apparent physical illness. Almost everyone has blushed in embarrassment or been nervous and anxious as part of a “stage-fright” reaction.
Today, we know that more extreme emotional stresses can actually cause physical illnesses. In addition, some physical illnesses can be greatly influenced by psychological or emotional factors. Such illnesses are called psychosomatic, or mind-body, illnesses. Examples include forms of acne, allergy, angina (chest pain), asthma, headache, ulcer, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis. Although psychosomatic illnesses have strong psychological components, their treatment is primarily medical.
Emotional stresses also can cause symptoms that resemble physical illnesses, but have no underlying physical cause. The medical term for these symptoms are somatoform, meaning they take form in the body. Examples include forms of paralysis, blindness and even the inability to speak. These disorders differ from psychosomatic illnesses in that both their causes and treatments are primarily psychological.
Non-epileptic seizures represent such a disorder. No underlying physical cause is known to be responsible. It is important to remember, however, that somatoform disorders, including non-epileptic seizures, are real conditions that arise in response to real stresses. Patients are not imagining or inventing these symptoms.
If your seizures are determined to be psychological in origin, you should not be ashamed or self-conscious of that fact. But, unfortunately you should recognize that your situation is poorly understood by many people, including some healthcare professionals.
As a result, some people, including loved ones, may try to blame you for having a psychogenic illness or for not getting better. You may even want to blame yourself. Such blame can be far more destructive than the non-epileptic seizures themselves.
A specific traumatic event — such as physical or sexual abuse, incest, divorce, death of a loved one or other great loss or sudden change — can be identified in many patients with non-epileptic seizures. Often the underlying trauma has been blocked from consciousness. Many patients can recall the event only with considerable support from a trained therapist. The unconscious processes that give rise to nonepileptic seizures also may cause or contribute to other conditions, such as depression and anxiety, which need to be identified and treated.
Non-epileptic seizures differ from other psychogenic disorders in one important aspect: Non-epileptic seizures can be shown with great certainty to be of psychological origin. With the appropriate tests, the accuracy of the diagnosis is comparable to that of diagnosing a broken bone with an X-ray. Such certainty is not possible for other psychogenic symptoms, such as pain, blindness or paralysis. This confidence in the diagnosis allows proper treatment to be given and greatly increases the chances of complete recovery.