Brain Zaps: A glimpse into the jolting brain phenomena

Ever been shocked by your outlet when you’re going to plug in a charger? It feels like a little prick on your finger, followed by a very fuzzy sensation. However, can you imagine such a sensation happening in your brain constantly, or going weeks without a jolting sensation to feeling them almost every day? This article will introduce you to the concept of brain zaps; real phenomena that happen in an individual who is experiencing withdrawal from antidepressant medications. Continue to read below to learn more about what brain zaps are, who they affect, and what it means for an individual’s health. 

According to some individuals, sensations can feel like lightning strikes occurring inside the brain.
According to some individuals, sensations can feel like lightning strikes occurring inside the brain.

What are brain zaps?

Brain zaps refer to electrical shocks or jolting sensations that commonly occur after an individual has discontinued their antidepressant medications. These symptoms can also occur with benzodiazepines and sleeping pills. They have several other names that people go by such as brain shivers, brain shocks, and electrical shocks.

What a person experiences when having an episode of brain zaps, are brief, but quickly repeated electrical shocks, that can potentially spread from the head and brain to other parts of a person’s body. In some instances, the zaps are unfortunately accompanied by vertigo, disorientation, lightheadedness, and tinnitus. Moving eyes quickly from side to side is said to trigger a brain zap. Fortunately though, even with brain zaps being able to worsen over time, they pose no threat to an individual’s well being.

What do brain zaps feel like?

Here are a few quick descriptions on what a person may experience and feel when they are enduring an episode of brain zaps:

  • “Flicking cards” through your head
  • Electrical jolts, shocks, pulses of electricity
  • “Pop rocks” in the head
  • Lightning strikes in the brain
  • Shivers of the brain
  • Strobe light flashing in the brain

What causes brain zaps?

Brain zaps (also known as Antidepressant Discontinuation Syndrome) are merely a withdrawal symptom and are considered to be an after effect when there is some sort of neurochemical alteration within the brain. It is speculated that serotonin is a huge factor in the development of the zaps. The reason being is because most individuals who experience brain zaps discontinued their serotonergic antidepressants (SSRIs). It is also possible that the discontinuation of other psychotropic medications such as benzodiazepines, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), antipsychotics, tricyclic antidepressants, and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are the cause for zaps.

  • Antidepressant withdrawal: When a person stops taking their antidepressant medication, the zaps are a very common sensation to experience. The length and severity of the zaps are said to be related to if a person comes off of their antidepressants cold turkey, or slowly weened themselves off their medication.
  • Eye movements: This isn’t something that is set in stone. It has only been speculated that side to side eye movements can intensify and provoke brain zaps. According to Mental Health Daily, they have found that people online have vouched that even looking off to the side can cause them to experience zaps.
  • Medication side effects: Just as it’s been explained that somebody who discontinues their medication experiences zaps, people who first start on psychotropic medicines can feel them too. The explanation for this would be that the adjustment of functioning in several neurotransmitters cause them.
  • Skipping a dose: This may actually prove to be a very helpful cause of brain zaps. If an individual is on medication, and they miss a dose, they may feel a sudden brain jolt. That being said, when that happens, they’ll be quickly reminded that they forgot to take their medication.
What causes brain zaps?
What causes brain zaps?

How severe can brain zaps be?

The severity of brain zaps differs from person to person. It all depends on an individual’s physiological makeup, level of anxiety, medication, and other drugs. Brain zaps can be long term or short term, lasting from weeks to months, or a few hours to a few days.

  • Physiological makeup: The resiliency of an individual’s nervous system and genes play a vital role in those who may or may not experience brain zaps. It is not wise to compare your zapping sensations to that of another person. Typically, when looking at multiple people who experience the electrical shocks in their head, you will find that duration, severity, and sensation differ from person to person.
  • Anxiety: Having very high anxiety can confuse a person as to how intense their brain zap episode really is. A person can trick themselves into believing that what they are experiencing is worse than it actually is and they are convinced that it is a more significant health problem at hand. Also, something to keep in mind is that because anxiety stimulates the nervous system, it can disrupt the repairs occurring after withdrawal.
  • Medication & Other Drugs: As mentioned in previous bullet points, the types of medication a person is taking can be the reason a person experiences very severe zaps. Prozac and other supplements have been said to help individual’s cope with their brain zaps.

Studies on brain zaps

Scientists have boosted memory skills in healthy volunteers by zapping their brains with weak electromagnetic pulses.

โ€œThis memory network that we targeted has been shown to be impaired in a variety of disorders,โ€ says lead investigator Joel Voss, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University.

He used a transcranial magnetic stimulation that involves a wand emitting a changing magnetic field. This wand can induce changes in electrical patterns of nearby neurons when pressed against the skull.

Researchers stimulated an outer layer of the brain called the lateral parietal cortex which is strongly related to the hippocampus, an important brain area for memory. The researchers stimulated this area in 16 adult volunteers for five consecutive days. Each stimulation session lasted 20 minutes, during which volunteers would feel 2 seconds of pulsing, then 28 seconds of nothing, then 2 seconds of pulsing.

Another study on brain zaps established that an electrical-activity pattern in a key brain region predicts impulsive actions just before they occur. Researchers showed, in mice, that supplying a small electrical pulse to the brain region in question, called the nucleus accumbens, as soon as the electrical signature manifested prevented the mice from overindulging in fatty food, while not affecting their intake of normal food, their social behavior or other physical activity.

Brain scans of the volunteers before and after their week of stimulation showed that the treatment significantly increased connectivity between the hippocampus and four other areas, including the lateral parietal cortex. So it seems that stimulating one part of the hippocampal memory network (the lateral parietal cortex) led to more robust connections in other parts of the same network.

This shows us that brain zaps when induced might have an excellent outcome for our cognitive skills such as memory. If you want to test your cognitive skills and challenge your brain to try CogniFit scientifically validated platform for personalized brain training.

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Treatments for brain zaps

Simple changes to someone’s daily routine can be very effective in helping them cope with their brain zaps. Because brain zaps don’t pose any real threat to an individual, there shouldn’t be much to worry about.

  • Time will take care of it: Even though brain zaps can be painful, frustrating, and an experience you wouldn’t wish on your own enemies – they do eventually subside. The brain is fascinating in a way that it’ll be able to repair itself over time. Once neurotransmission completely restores itself, poof go the brain zaps! It’s always an important thing to remember: Everything is temporary.
  • Do NOT quit cold turkey: It may or may not work for some, however, it is not advised. Quitting your antidepressant medication abruptly can actually increase the intensity of brain zaps when you or another individual are trying to achieve the opposite. Instead of quitting cold turkey, it is suggested that a person slowly taper off their medication.
  • Don’t forget to take your medication: A lot of information provided may seem redundant, and it’s because brain zaps aren’t as complex as many perceive. Since a person can experience brain zaps when forgetting to take their medication, the viable option is to make sure you don’t forget to take your medicine. You’re trying to alleviate yourself from the painful sensation, not make it worse.

Do you, or anyone else you know suffer from brain zaps? Are you currently taking antidepressants and are worried about this phenomenon occurring? Do you feel a bit prepared in what to expect if this happens? Please let us know in the comments below! Also, feel free to ask any unanswered questions that may have not been answered in the article! ๐Ÿ™‚

References (n.d.). What are brain shivers and how to cope with it? (n.d.). Brain Zaps: Causes & Treatments for electrical shock sensations

Pollack, J. (2011). Fireworks or Brain Zaps?