Brain zaps are commonly reported electrical shock sensations that are often experienced during discontinuation of antidepressant medications. Other common names for brain zaps include: brain shivers, electrical shocks, and brain shocks. People often describe them as feeling electrical current uncontrollably zapping their brains, which can be extremely frightening and uncomfortable. A person experiencing these zaps may get dizzy, feel minor pain, and high levels of discomfort.
What causes brain zaps?
Brain zaps are considered to be caused by neurotransmitter alterations within the brain, particularly those involving “serotonin.” It is believed that serotonin plays a vital role in the development of these zaps due to the fact that people typically experience them when discontinuing serotonergic antidepressants (e.g. SSRIs). The zaps may also be caused via discontinuation of other psychotropic medications including: antipsychotics, benzodiazepines, MAOIs, SNRIs, and tricyclic antidepressants.
- Antidepressant withdrawal: During withdrawal from antidepressant medications, “brain zaps” are considered common symptoms to experience. It is believed that the severity and length of brain zaps may be related to whether a person discontinues “cold turkey” as opposed to tapering off of their medication.
- Eye movements: It has been speculated that moving the eyes side to side may provoke or intensify brain zap sensations. While this is purely speculation, there are online accounts of individuals that found things like “looking to the side” can trigger them.
- Medication side effects: Some individuals have reported experiencing “brain zaps” as side effects from certain medications. These may be experienced when a person initially begins taking a psychotropic medication. It is thought that adjustments in the functioning of various neurotransmitters are responsible for the zaps.
- Skipping a dose: If you are on a medication and you accidentally miss or intentionally skip a dose, you may notice unpleasant brain zaps. When people experience the zap sensation, they quickly remember that they forgot to take their medication.
- Other medications: It should be mentioned that medications other than antidepressants can cause brain zaps. While they are most commonly experienced as a result of taking serotonergic antidepressants, benzodiazepines and antipsychotics have also been suggested as potential causes.
How long do brain zaps last?
There is no set “timeline” that says how long brain zaps will last. The zaps people experience are generally subject to individual variation. One person may experience them for a significant duration (e.g. weeks or months), while another may find that they go away in short order (e.g. hours or days). There are a number of factors that can influence how long these “zaps” may persist including: your physiology, duration you took your medication, the dosage, and whether you quit cold turkey or tapered.
It should also be noted that while some individuals experience a bulk of the zaps immediately following discontinuation, some experience the zaps during more protracted phases of withdrawal. In other words, some individuals may have no zaps for weeks, and then experience them seemingly out of nowhere.
Factors that can influence the severity of brain zaps
There are several factors that are thought to influence both the severity and duration of the brain zaps. These factors include things like: individual physiology, level of anxiety, the drug that was taken, how quickly a person discontinued, and whether they are currently taking other medications.
- Individual physiology: Since not everyone experiences brain zaps, it should be noted that severity of the zaps will vary based on the individual. People with certain genes and/or more resilient nervous systems may not ever experience zaps even when quitting cold turkey. Some individuals will experience the zaps for longer duration than others. Keep in mind that your experience with these zaps may not be the same as someone else in terms of sensation, severity, and duration.
- Medication: Another huge factor in determining the duration and severity of the zaps is the particular medication that a person was (or is) taking. In most cases, the zaps occur upon discontinuation or skipping a dose of an antidepressant medication. While it is most commonly experienced during SSRI withdrawal, other classes of antidepressants and medications (e.g. benzodiazepines) have been suggested to cause zaps.
- Cold turkey vs. tapering: If you want to decrease your chances of experiencing severe, persistent brain zaps, make sure you taper off of your medication slowly. The more gradually you taper, the less likely the brain zaps are to occur. If you quit cold turkey, you are significantly increasing your chances of experiencing these jolts.
- Duration of treatment: How long were you taking your medication? Those who were on a particular drug for a long period of time are more likely to experience the zaps. This is due to the fact that the drug induced more changes in neural functioning and neurotransmission over the long-term than it would have over the short-term. In general, the shorter the duration for which you took your medication, the less likely you are to experience zaps.
- Half-life: What was the half-life of your drug? Medications with extremely short half-lives are more likely to cause zaps upon discontinuation or missing a dose. A common example of a medication with a short half life is that of Paxil (21 hours). People are much more likely to experience zaps from Paxil than Prozac (with a longer half life of several days).
- Specific drug: Some would suggest that the particular drug that a person takes will influence the zaps. Certain drug formulations are thought to be of greater potency and affect neurotransmission more than others. The more potent the serotonergic drug, the more likely a person will experience zaps.
- Other drugs: One factor that not many people consider is that of taking other drugs. Often times people who are taking other medications will not experience brain zaps because the other medication and/or supplement is mitigating the zaps. This is why many people transition to other medications like Prozac or claim that certain supplements help them cope with the zaps. If a person isn’t taking any other drugs or supplements upon discontinuation, the zaps will likely be more severe than those who are still medicated.
- Level of anxiety: Some have speculated that when a person becomes more anxious, they are more prone to the zaps. This could be due to the fact that anxiety stimulates the central nervous system, and thus could be preventing repairs from occurring after withdrawal. In other cases, people with high anxiety may perceive the brain zaps as being worse than they actually are and/or believe that there is some more significant health problem.
Theories about causes of brain zaps
Brain zaps have long been described by individuals dealing with first-hand experience of antidepressant withdrawal. The zaps feel like jolts of electricity through the head, neck, or other areas of the body such as the spine, arms, and/or legs. In most people, the most common area to experience these zaps is in the head, thus being referred to as “brain” zaps. There are several theories in regards to what may cause them. While certain factors are suggested as causes, the specifics are unknown.
REM Sleep and Serotonin
One hypothesis is floating around the internet that suggests brain zaps are linked to both REM sleep and serotonin. Some people experience brain zaps after waking up from sleep and/or when they fall asleep. A theory is that REM sleep (rapid-eye movement) may influence serotonergic processes in the brain, and the “zaps” are a byproduct of the rapid-eye movement. Whether this has any credibility is debatable. Those who have felt the zaps while sleeping may be able to provide more insight into this experience.
Transitioning out of drug-induced states
Some experts believe that they are a result of the brain suddenly attempting to transition out of the drug-induced neurotransmission to which it had adapted. There are many reports of brain zaps, some of which have been so severe that doctors thought they were experiencing seizures. A couple of British psychiatrists described brain zaps as, “sensory symptoms or symptoms of disequilibrium in brief bursts” when a person moves their head or eyes.
Analogy: Scuba diver surfacing too quickly
They emphasized that this generally occurs during discontinuation from a psychiatric medication. An analogy that has been used to describe why brain zaps occur is a scuba diver who is at the bottom of the ocean, but rises to the surface too fast – resulting in unwanted effects. Other psychiatric authors have suggested that brain zaps are likely influenced by serotonin’s role in sensory functions and muscle movement.
When a person quits an antidepressant, the person then may experience paresthesia or various sensations as a result of abnormal serotonin levels. These authors describe the fact that major changes to neuronal networks can occur during antidepressant treatment, thus leading to zaps when the brain attempts to function without the drug.
Length of treatment and dosage
Authors have also suggested that both length of treatment and the dosage taken may influence the severity of brain zaps. Additionally, other researchers have hypothesized that in addition to serotonin playing a role in the zaps, norepinephrine may also be a contributing factor – especially for individuals who come off of SNRIs.
Researchers have stated that these brain zaps could be similar to pre-seizure symptoms seen in cases of epilepsy. Since there is evidence that the noradrenergic system plays a role in seizure development, it would make sense that norepinephrine could influence brain zaps.
What do brain zaps feel like?
They are relatively difficult to describe because they affect each person differently. For some they are more severe and resemble electrical jolts, while for others they are less severe and easier to cope with. Most would agree that they feel some sort of “electrical” sensation within their head as a result of them. Below is a list of various descriptions of the zaps based on first-hand experiences.
- Electrical shocks
- “Flicking cards” through your head
- Electrical jolts
- Light-bulb going off in your head
- Lightning strikes in the brain
- “Pop rocks” in the head
- Pulses of electricity
- Shivers of the brain
- Strobe light flashing in the brain
Note: These sensations are often accompanied by sensations of dizziness and/or vertigo. Others may experience symptoms of nausea and/or tinnitus (ringing in the ears).
How to stop brain zaps…
There are no known medical treatments that are prescribed specifically to stop the brain zaps. In most cases, people will have to put up with them and understand that with proper time, they will eventually subside. Below are some recommendations that may help you better deal with the zaps.
- Conduct a slower taper: If you quit your medication cold turkey, you may need to start taking it again, and then conduct a slower, more gradual taper off of it. Many zaps are caused when people quit their mediation too quickly and/or from too high of a dose.
- Go back on medication: Another option that some people pursue is simply going back on their medication. After a person is back on their medication they can then decide to taper more slowly and/or switch to a different medication.
- Take Prozac (longer half-life): A strategy for minimizing brain zaps and general antidepressant withdrawal symptoms is to transition to a drug with a longer half-life. Often an experienced psychiatrist will recommend transitioning to Prozac and eventually withdrawing from the Prozac, which should reduce the chances of the zaps.
- Supplements: Many people swear by taking various supplements to reduce the severity of brain zaps. Whether these supplements actually work to alleviate the zaps is unverified. Many individuals have said that supplementation of vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids improve these zaps to a significant extent. Some have suggested that they completely cure the zapping.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Many people claim that the best way to deal with brain zaps is to take omega-3 fatty acids in the form of fish oil supplements. It is unknown why the fish oil helps, but many have testified that it works wonders. While most user accounts suggest taking “fish oil” some would speculate that “krill oil” would provide similar results.
- Vitamin B12: Some have suggested that getting proper vitamins helps significantly to minimize the zaps. In particular, many people have recommended taking Vitamin B12 supplements and have found them especially helpful. The combination of the B12 with fish oil is able to decrease the severity and frequency of zaps in some people.
- Time heals all: Understand that although the zaps may be somewhat painful, frustrating, and annoying, they will eventually subside. Even if it seems like they are a permanent neurological problem, rest assured they are not. Eventually your brain will figure out how to repair itself and as your neurotransmission restores itself, you will no longer feel the zaps. For some people the zaps may last days, for others weeks, and for others even longer, but they will subside in time.
Are brain zaps considered dangerous?
If there’s one thing to know about these brain zaps, it should be that they are not considered dangerous. There is no scientific evidence supporting any claims that these jolt-like sensations cause any brain damage or interfere with the health of neurons. Although they may be highly-uncomfortable to experience, at least you don’t have to worry about them killing brain cells.
Have you experienced brain zaps?
Many people have experience brain zaps upon discontinuation from an antidepressant medication. I personally remember quitting Paxil CR and wondering why it felt like my brain was being tortured in an electrocution chamber. For most people, the brain zaps suck, but will eventually subside. If you have a personal experience with “brain zaps” feel free to share it in the comments section below. Also feel free to mention any supplements and/or strategies that have helped you cope with the zaps.
Take the “Brain Zaps” Questionnaire
Patients know that most medical professionals are unwilling to acknowledge “brain zaps” and usually attribute them to worsening of neuropsychiatric conditions and/or a somatic disorder. Because brain zaps are a legitimate [yet largely unacknowledged] phenomenon among psychiatric patients, a subset of professionals (and many patients) agree that it would be useful to develop guidelines for their prevention and/or treatment.
After being presented with a patient experiencing severe brain zaps, a clinical psychiatrist decided to conduct an investigation by formatting a questionnaire. I was asked to include the questionnaire on this page.
If you’re interested in helping medical professionals better understand “brain zaps,” feel free to participate in the following survey: Click here to take the “Brain Zaps” Questionnaire. The questionnaire results will be used to develop guidelines for brain zap prevention, minimization, and/or treatment. (UPDATE: Questionnaire is now closed).