The Real Reason Why You Get Brain Zaps

Have you ever experienced brain zaps or brain shocks? This symptom is surprisingly common, especially among those who stop taking certain medications. For example, Harvard Medical School says that it's possible to get brain zaps after discontinuing antidepressant treatment. Some people may also experience tremors, mood changes, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, dizziness, and other withdrawal symptoms as well.

Brain zaps typically feel like an electrical shock inside the head. They're not necessarily painful, but rather uncomfortable — and sometimes terrifying. This odd symptom can wake you up at night, affect your mental focus, and interfere with your daily life. Its exact cause is unknown, but researchers believe it has something to do with the production of serotonin, one of the so-called "feel-good" chemicals secreted by the brain, explains Psychology Today.

Some people describe this symptom as a "buzz sensation" or sound, while others say it feels like a "brain reboot," seizure, or electric shock, reports a 2018 survey featured in The Primary Companion for CNS Disorders. In some cases, brain zaps can be debilitating — despite their short duration. On top of that, you may also experience vertigo, ringing in the ears, headaches, or disorientation, which only makes things worse. The first step to addressing these issues is to figure out their cause. 

A common symptom of antidepressant withdrawal

As mentioned earlier, brain zaps are common among those who stop taking antidepressants. These medications can alter the production of dopamine, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters influencing your mood. The problem is that you may experience brain shocks and other side effects when neurotransmitter levels go up or down suddenly because you stop taking your meds. The same can happen when people decrease the dose rapidly, explains Harvard Medical School.

Nearly 60% of those who discontinue antidepressant medication will experience withdrawal symptoms, reports a 2019 review featured in Addictive Behaviors. In some cases, antidepressant withdrawal may cause anxiety, depression, insomnia, digestive discomfort, or even hallucinations. These symptoms can last as little as five days or up to a year or longer. For example, venlafaxine — a common antidepressant that alters serotonin levels — causes brain zaps in 17.2% to 78% of patients who stop taking the medicine, according to a 2013 case study published in The Primary Companion for CNS Disorders.

Several other medications can have this side effect, notes Psychology Today. Anxiolytic drugs and sleeping pills, especially those targeting the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), are the most likely to cause withdrawal symptoms. On the positive side, brain zaps often subside over time unless they're due to an underlying condition, such as anxiety. 

The surprising link between anxiety and brain zaps

Some people get brain zaps due to stress and anxiety, says Jim Folk, the founder of If that's your case, you may also experience migraines, agitation, chest pain, migraine headaches, brain fog, and other symptoms. What's more, anxiety can increase the severity of brain zaps in those who stop taking antidepressants, explains CogniFit.

Social anxiety, panic attacks, and other anxiety disorders can affect emotional and physical health. For example, it's common to experience feelings of dissociation when your anxiety is at its worst. Some individuals also get joint pain, hot flashes, hives, or skin rashes, notes PsychCentral. These symptoms can worsen anxiety, creating a vicious circle. 

Unfortunately, there is no treatment for brain zaps — regardless of their cause. You can try to gradually lower your daily dose of antidepressants, but you may still experience withdrawal symptoms, according to 2015 research published in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics. A 2013 study featured in The Primary Companion for CNS Disorders suggests that atomoxetine, a medication prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), may help in this regard, but more research is needed to confirm it. If your symptoms are due to anxiety, consider reaching out to a therapist. Meanwhile, it may be worth trying yoga, meditation, deep breathing, and other relaxation techniques.