Brain zaps are sensory disturbances that can feel like electrical shock sensations in the brain. A person may also notice a brief buzzing sound and feel faint or black out momentarily.
Brain zaps can happen when a person decreases or stops using certain medications, particularly antidepressants.
There is no evidence to suggest they are harmful or damage the brain. However, they can be bothersome, disorienting, and disrupt sleep.
There is no medical term for brain zaps, but some experts describe them as a type of sensory disturbance. Sensory disturbances after stopping antidepressants can lead to burning, tingling, electric- or shock-like sensations in the body and brain.
A person may be able to minimize or prevent brain zaps by gradually tapering off their dosage of antidepressants. However, they should always speak with a healthcare professional before stopping their medication or lowering the dosage.
Abruptly stopping an antidepressant may make a person more likely to experience brain zaps and other symptoms.
Brain zaps have no cure, but they usually resolve over time. Once a person’s body has adjusted to the change in antidepressant dosage, brain zaps and some other side effects may decrease.
This article further explains brain zaps, including their causes, how they feel, and when to contact a healthcare professional.
Brain zaps are a
- flu-like symptoms
- sleep issues
- a loss of balance
- hyperarousal, which may lead to jerkiness and irritability
Brain zaps can occur when a person decreases their dosage or stops taking antidepressants or certain other medications.
They can also happen if an individual forgets to take certain medications on their usual schedule.
Healthcare professionals do not know what exactly causes brain zaps. They are one of many different side effects a person may experience as they change their dosage or stop taking a medication completely.
Together, the symptoms a person may experience are called antidepressant withdrawal syndrome (AWS).
Brain zaps and other symptoms of AWS are common. A 2019 review and meta-analysis found that more than half of people who attempt to decrease their dosage or stop taking antidepressants altogether experience withdrawal symptoms.
Some other symptoms of AWS may include:
- changes in sleep
- difficulty with emotions
- flu-like symptoms
- visual changes
Not everyone will experience these symptoms. According to a 2015 review, for some people who do experience symptoms, they may last only a few weeks.
A person should always speak with a healthcare professional if they wish to lower their antidepressant dosage or stop taking it altogether. A healthcare professional can help them safely and gradually taper off the medication.
Some research suggests that brain zaps may occur when a person moves their eyes from side to side during antidepressant withdrawal. However, in many cases, they seem to happen without warning at any time.
Learn more about safely stopping antidepressants.
A 2018 study noted that people described brain zaps as:
- a brief, electrical shock-like feeling in the brain
- a short period of blacking out or losing consciousness
- dizziness or vertigo
- a zap paired with a buzzing sound
- “hearing their eyes move”
- feeling disoriented — a “brain blink”
Some people also reported a painful sensation, a headache, or a seizure-like feeling, but these were less common than other symptoms.
The best way to minimize or prevent brain zaps is to taper off medications gradually rather than stopping them abruptly.
However, some evidence has found that tapering does not guarantee that a person will not experience brain zaps or other withdrawal symptoms. However, it can make it easier to cope with the change.
Some evidence suggests that undergoing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) while tapering off medication may also be helpful.
In a 2019 review, those who underwent CBT while they tapered off antidepressants were more likely to successfully stop taking the medication than those who tried tapering alone.
A 2017 study notes that people experiencing antidepressant withdrawal found the following self-care measures helpful:
- learning more about antidepressant withdrawal
- being outdoors
- getting enough sleep
- expressing their feelings
- spending time with pets or animals
- getting enough exercise
- receiving support from friends and family
- joining online support groups
There is no definitive way to prevent brain zaps. However, people have tried some supplements with mixed degrees of success.
It is important for individuals to always check with a healthcare professional before taking any vitamins or other supplements. This is because they may interfere with other medications or cause unpleasant side effects.
People who wish to decrease their dosage or stop taking antidepressants should speak with a healthcare professional. It is important not to stop taking antidepressants or other mental health medications without medical supervision.
If the side effects of antidepressants are intolerable, a doctor may be able to recommend a different medication.
If a person feels that they no longer need the medication, they can work with a healthcare or mental health professional to gradually decrease the dosage.
Although withdrawal symptoms are common, it is important to tell a healthcare professional about them. There may be ways to help minimize withdrawal symptoms and help a person feel better as they go through the process of reducing or stopping their medication.
If a person is experiencing severe symptoms or thoughts of self-harm or suicide, they should seek emergency medical care.
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.
Here are some answers to questions people often ask about brain zaps.
How long does a brain zap last?
Usually, brain zaps and other side effects from discontinuing antidepressants stop within a few weeks. If they continue for longer or are bothersome, a person should seek medical advice.
Are brain zaps serious?
Brain zaps do not signal a serious problem, but people and doctors sometimes mistake them for signs of another condition. Being aware that they are a side effect can help a person avoid anxiety.
Are brain zaps a seizure?
Doctors do not know why they occur, but brain zaps are not a seizure. Experts describe the effects of antidepressant discontinuation syndrome as vague and nonspecific.
Brain zaps can occur when a person decreases or stops using certain medications, particularly antidepressants. They can be bothersome but do not cause damage to the brain.
While antidepressant withdrawal can be challenging, the symptoms will usually resolve on their own after a few weeks.
An individual should work with a healthcare professional to find the right dosage and always take their medication exactly as recommended. If side effects or withdrawal symptoms interfere with daily life, it is important to inform a healthcare professional.