Brain Zaps: Definition, Causes, and How They Feel

Last Updated: April 18, 2024

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Article at a glance:

– Brain zaps are a common but uncomfortable withdrawal symptom from certain medications, including SSRIs.
– Brain zaps are not harmful but can disrupt sleep and cause disorientation.
– Sudden changes in serotonin levels in the brain are thought to cause brain zaps, but the exact cause is not known.
– Medications such as antidepressants, benzodiazepines, MDMA, and stimulants like Adderall can cause brain zaps when discontinued abruptly.
– It is important to taper off medications gradually with the guidance of a medical professional to reduce the risk of brain zaps and other withdrawal symptoms.
– Brain zaps usually last for a few weeks and there is no known treatment to specifically stop them, but tapering off medications can help reduce their intensity.

Brain zaps can be an uncomfortable but not necessarily dangerous part of withdrawal from certain medications, including SSRIs. A tapering schedule may reduce brain zaps.

A brain zap is the sensation of an electrical shock in the brain. They’re not harmful and are most likely to happen when someone lowers the dose of certain medications or stops it altogether. While brain zaps don’t cause damage, they can be difficult to deal with, disrupt sleep and cause people to feel disoriented.

What Are Brain Zaps?

Brain zaps are a sensory disturbance in the brain that can feel like an electrical shock. Also referred to as brain shakes or brain shocks, brain zaps can be accompanied by a brief buzzing sound and a feeling of faintness or blackout. Sudden changes in serotonin levels in the brain are thought to cause brain zaps; however, medical professionals are not certain this is what causes them. Often, decreasing or ceasing certain medications, particularly antidepressants, can cause brain zaps. Brain zaps can feel disruptive and uncomfortable, but they are not harmful and do not cause any damage to the brain. 

What Do Brain Zaps Feel Like?

Brain zaps can feel like a little jolt of electricity or a small shock. Some people describe them differently.

  • They might feel like they cause a brief period of blacking out.
  • They can include vertigo or dizziness, or some people feel a zap and a buzzing sound.
  • A brain blink is when someone feels disoriented or says they can hear their eyes move.
  • There may be a seizure-like feeling, headache or sense of pain that comes with the zaps, but this is less common.
  • Some people have said they feel like their brain is shivering.

What Causes Brain Zaps?

If someone abruptly stops certain medications or lowers their dose too quickly, they could experience brain zaps. They can also occur if you forget to take medicines on your regular schedule. The medications and drugs most commonly linked to this side effect include:

  • Antidepressants, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors
  • Benzodiazepines and anxiety medicines like Xanax
  • Amphetamine salts, including medications like Adderall, which treats attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • MDMA or (Ecstasy), an illicit party drug

Brain Zaps From Different Drugs

Different drugs interact with your brain chemistry differently. Common drugs that may cause brain zaps can include:

  • Certain antidepressants, including some SSRIs
  • Benzodiazepines
  • MDMA
  • Adderall

SSRIs and Brain Zaps

Researchers and doctors aren’t sure of the exact causes of brain zaps, but they know they are one of many potential side effects someone can experience if they change their dosage or abruptly stop certain substances. One theory is that SSRIs increase the serotonin available in the brain. Low serotonin levels that stem from discontinuing SSRIs could be the root cause of brain zaps.

Stopping SSRIs can, in some situations, lead to unpleasant symptoms. These symptoms are generally mild if they occur and can include

  • Sleep changes
  • Emotional disturbances
  • Anxiety
  • Nausea 
  • Loss of appetite
  • Clouded thinking
  • Excessive sweating
  • Feeling off-balance/difficulty walking
  • Ringing in ears
  • Tremors

Not everyone who stops using antidepressants will experience withdrawal symptoms, which are generally quite mild. For people who do, they typically only last a few weeks at the most. It’s important, however, for anyone taking an antidepressant to talk to their doctor about a tapering schedule before lowering their dose or stopping the medicine because it can worsen psychological symptoms.

While there are many SSRI antidepressants on the market, these are few of the most popular and have been associated with brain zaps after discontinuing use.

Lexapro and Brain Zaps 

Lexapro is often prescribed for depression or anxiety. Discontinuing Lexapro abruptly or rapidly reducing the dose can lead to withdrawal symptoms, including brain zaps. These symptoms are often due to the sudden change in the brain’s serotonin levels.

Prozac and Brain Zaps

Prozac has a similar effect as Lexapro regarding brain zaps. Abrupt discontinuation or dosage reduction can cause brain zaps and other withdrawal symptoms. Due to Prozac’s longer half-life, withdrawal symptoms, including brain zaps, may be less intense than other SSRIs.

Zoloft and Brain Zaps

Zoloft can also lead to brain zaps when discontinued abruptly. It affects the balance of serotonin in the brain, and the sudden absence of this regulation can cause electric shock-like sensations alongside other withdrawal symptoms.

Benzodiazepines and Brain Zaps

Benzodiazepines, such as Xanax and Valium, are typically prescribed for anxiety or seizures due to their sedative and calming effects. Abruptly changing doses or stopping these medications can cause withdrawal symptoms, including brain zaps. Brain zaps often accompany withdrawal symptoms like dizziness and nausea and often resolve with other withdrawal symptoms.

MDMA and Brain Zaps

MDMA, also known as Ecstasy or Molly, is a synthetic drug that alters mood and perception. Brain zaps can occur after its use, primarily during the “come down” or withdrawal phase. These effects may be caused by Molly’s impact on the brain’s serotonin system, although this concept is still not fully proven. Its abrupt depletion could cause brain zaps coupled with other withdrawal symptoms.

Mirtazapine and Brain Zaps

Mirtazapine is an atypical antidepressant that increases the levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain. Abruptly stopping mirtazapine may cause withdrawal symptoms, including brain zaps. Medical professionals will generally recommend slowly discontinuing mirtazapine to avoid these symptoms. You should always consult a healthcare provider before stopping any medication used to treat a psychological condition.

Wellbutrin and Brain Zaps

Wellbutrin is an atypical antidepressant that acts on the dopamine and norepinephrine systems in the brain. While not as commonly reported as with SSRIs or benzodiazepines, brain zaps can still occur after abrupt discontinuation or dosage reduction of Wellbutrin. The fact that brain zaps can occur with Wellbutrin suggests that they are not caused exclusively by serotonin imbalances.

Adderall and Brain Zaps

Adderall, a stimulant medication used for ADHD, can also lead to brain zaps, primarily during withdrawal or abrupt dosage reduction. These sensations are less common with stimulants than other drug classes but may still occur. This may be due to changes in neurotransmitter levels in the brain, particularly dopamine, which Adderall heavily influences.

Are Brain Zaps Dangerous?

On their own, brain zaps aren’t dangerous. What can be hazardous is trying to stop using medication like SSRIs too quickly. If someone tries to stop using their medicine cold turkey, they might feel sick, and it can cause their original mental health symptoms to return or worsen. In serious cases, stopping an antidepressant without proper supervision can increase the risk of suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

How Long Do Brain Zaps Last?

Brain zaps are usually fairly short-lived. They may last as long as other withdrawal symptoms, so for some people, they could occur for a few weeks. It’s rare to deal with brain zaps for more than four weeks. The actual sensation or experience usually lasts less than a minute.

How Are Brain Zaps Treated?

The best thing you can do to avoid brain zaps is to taper off medicines gradually, working with a medical professional. Even with tapering, though, there’s no guarantee that you won’t experience withdrawal symptoms, but you can lower the risk. There is no known treatment to specifically stop brain zaps or reduce their intensity beyond tapering the dosages of medications you’re using.

How To Avoid Brain Zaps

There’s no particular treatment for brain zaps, but there are things you can do along with a supervised taper schedule to reduce the risk. First, you should never attempt to come off any medicine without talking to your doctor first. Your doctor can tailor a tapering schedule to your needs, requiring you to lower your dose until you completely come off it slowly.

There’s no formal tapering schedule, but the current recommendation is that you reduce your antidepressant dose every one to four weeks, depending on the medicine, how long it’s been used and the person. A taper might last as long as four months for some people, or even longer. Your doctor might switch you to a liquid version of your medicine as you taper to be more precise in your dosing or could lower your dosage by a particular percentage every week. Switching to an antidepressant with a longer half-life may also be helpful. Things you can do on your own include:

  • Make time to get enough sleep
  • Reduce stress
  • Get physical activity and exercise
  • Join an online support group
  • Eat a healthy diet

Brain zaps can be challenging and uncomfortable, particularly if they’re part of antidepressant withdrawal symptoms. However, they aren’t dangerous or deadly. If you’re trying to detox from an addictive medication like a benzodiazepine or Adderall, other withdrawal symptoms will be more important to address.
If you or a loved one are struggling with a benzodiazepine or Adderall addiction and are worried about brain zaps during withdrawal, contact The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper. Our licensed medical team can provide a medical detox to reduce or avoid withdrawal symptoms so you can stop your drug use as safely and comfortably as possible.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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