What Are Brain Zaps?

They usually happen as a result of discontinuing antidepressants.

If you've stopped or skipped taking antidepressants, you might be familiar with a sensation called "brain zaps."

Antidepressants—including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and selective serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SSNRIs)—balance the chemicals in your brain called neurotransmitters. Some neurotransmitters affect your moods and emotions.

Like any medication, antidepressants can have side effects. Most commonly, antidepressants cause nausea, weight gain, and fatigue. Though, those adverse side effects are often temporary. One thing people may not realize, however, is that going off of antidepressants can also cause side effects.

Technically, the experience of those side effects is called antidepressant withdrawal or antidepressant discontinuation syndrome. The symptoms usually include being irritable, having anxiety, and feeling like you have the flu, Philip R. Muskin, MD, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York and former secretary of the American Psychiatric Association, told Health.

Antidepressant withdrawal symptoms, in general, are pretty standard. According to one article published in 2019 in the journal Addictive Behaviors, as many as half of the people taking antidepressants will have some withdrawal symptoms. And almost half of those folks will rate those symptoms as severe.

So, here's what you should know about one of the common symptoms of antidepressant withdrawal: Brain zaps.

What Are Brain Zaps?

The medical community didn't recognize brain zaps until the late 1990s, Brian Barnett, MD, an addiction psychiatrist with the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, told Health. The term "brain zaps" isn't necessarily the technical name for this symptom, but it's the one that has stuck, added Dr. Barnett.

"People used to call them electrical shocks [or] brain shivers," noted Dr. Barnett. 

Brain zaps, which reportedly feel like "an electrical sensation in the brain," could occur after someone stops taking antidepressants. Though there is not a lot of research on the side effect, one study published in 2022 in The Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders offered more insight into the sensation.

The researchers gathered data from questionnaires completed by 2,346 participants who shared their experiences with antidepressants. The researchers found that 42.5% of the individuals indicated that they experienced brain zaps.

Beyond participants reporting that brain zaps felt like an electric sensation, they also offered descriptions of the zaps, such as them being "nonelectric vibratory sensations" and "momentary change[s] in consciousness." Some participants even said that the zaps were audible and visible.

Dr. Barnett explained that brain zaps might happen when a person, who has recently stopped taking antidepressants, moves their eyes from side to side. 

The researchers also supported that thought, with most participants noting triggers such as moving the head or eyes. Stress, anxiety, and exhaustion were other culprits.

What Else To Know About Brain Zaps

Brain zaps are shared among patients who suddenly stop taking antidepressants (or forget to take them for a few days), explained Dr. Barnett. 

Researchers from the 2022 The Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders article found that restarting the same medications, per their healthcare providers' recommendations, was helpful for 56.6% of the participants. And continuing (for example, not stopping or skipping) medications was beneficial for 38.9% of the participants.

The participants also indicated that the brain zaps had overwhelming (17%) and significant (40%) effects on their quality of life.

Even if you experience brain zaps after you stop taking antidepressants, the problem shouldn't last too long.

While some patients have reported experiencing brain zaps for years, Dr. Barnett explained, "I would say [for] the vast majority of people, they typically resolve within a month."

A Quick Review

Brain zaps are among the common symptoms of antidepressant withdrawal. Patients often describe them as feeling like an electrical shock. However, as of November 2022, more research needs to be done on brain zaps for healthcare providers to understand why they happen entirely. Further research can also help prevent brain zaps.

If you've experienced brain zaps, are worried about discontinuing your medication, or are hesitant to start medication because of the potential side effect, your best bet is to talk to a healthcare provider. They can help figure out a discontinuation or treatment plan that's best for you.

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Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Davies J, Read J. A systematic review into the incidence, severity and duration of antidepressant withdrawal effects: Are guidelines evidence-based?Addict Behav. 2019;97:111-121. doi:10.1016/j.addbeh.2018.08.027

  2. Papp A, Onton JA. Triggers and Characteristics of Brain Zaps According to the Findings of an Internet QuestionnairePrim Care Companion CNS Disord. 2022;24(1):21m02972. doi:10.4088/PCC.21m02972

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