Dealing With 'Brain Zaps'? Here's Why They Might Be Happening—and What to Do

You may have experienced total fatigue and blamed whatever the cause—poor sleep, a busy day at work—as the reason you felt your energy was "zapped." The term is figurative. However, some people feel literal zap-like sensations in their brains. These sensations are known as "brain zaps."

What is a brain zap? While not a clinical term, brain zaps are a real issue. 

“These ‘brain zaps’ are very common, yet underreported,” says Dr. Howard Pratt, DO, a psychiatrist and medical director at Community Health of South Florida, Inc. “They are these little sensations, which are referred to as a ‘zap’ because it can feel like a little charge of electricity in your brain—a feeling people are not used to feeling in their head.” 

Understanding what causes brain zaps is important, especially because they aren't treatable. The good news? Brain zaps are preventable. Psychiatrists gave the 4-1-1 on brain zaps.

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What Are Brain Zaps?

Technically, a brain zap isn't a clinical diagnosis. However, it's a widely-used term. "Brain zaps are sensory disturbances that feel like short electrical shocks," explains Dr. Yolonda R. Pickett, MD, a psychiatrist and the director of the inpatient behavioral health unit at Hackensack University Medical Center. 

OK, how did the term become popular if it wasn't from a medical journal? Dr. Pickett says patients used it to share their experiences with the sensation. These days, it's commonly used in academic literature, even if it's not a scientific term. 

We'll get more into brain zap causes in a bit, but research and experts point to abruptly stopping antidepressant medications as the No. 1 trigger.

"Venlafaxine, in particular, has been associated with these symptoms, but other serotonergic antidepressants, especially with short half-lives, can cause them as well," says Dr. Alex Dimitriu, MD, the founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine, who is double board-certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine. 

A 2020 review of previous studies involving more than 2,300 people who had taken antidepressants found that 42.5% of them said they felt brain zaps.

What Do Brain Zaps Feel Like?

You might notice a range of sensations when you experience a brain zap. "Brain zaps can vary from mild shock-like sensations to dizziness, vertigo or brief moments of feeling spaced out, lasting microseconds at most," Dr. Dimitriu says.

In his practice, Dr. Dimitriu generally uses the term "vestibular jitters."

"Your vestibular system is your sense of balance, and it can almost feel like there was a quick earthquake or jitter...that can leave you feeling spacy and confused for a short moment," Dr. Dimitriu says. "While annoying and somewhat unpleasant, they are often not debilitating. They do make people feel funny because they are so unusual."

Brain zaps aren't just in the head—figuratively or literally. "Brain zaps are mostly felt in the head but can also radiate to other parts of the body," Dr. Pickett says.

What Causes Brain Zaps?

The most common cause of brain zap is antidepressant withdrawal. "Brain zaps are triggered when serotonin levels fall too quickly, as in the case of missing a dose of an antidepressant, especially if the medicine has a short half-life in which it clears out of your body fast, resulting in a rapid drop with a missed dose," Dr. Dimitriu says.

Research published in 2018 indicated that brain zaps could be a sensory disturbance triggered by antidepressant withdrawal.

Importantly, people generally don't experience brain zaps if they haven't been taking antidepressant medications for a very short time. “A patient typically needs to have been taking these medications for four to six weeks before the drug starts becoming effective,” Dr. Pratt says. “Once it is taking effect, you are at a significantly higher dose than when you began."

However, when you go cold turkey, the brain has the pivot. 

"It’s like if you are a person that drinks four cups of coffee daily during the week and then you stop during the weekend, and you’ll have a headache caused by the caffeine withdrawal," Dr. Pratt says.

Brain zaps aren't the only symptom you may experience if you stop taking antidepressants, especially without a slow taper. Dr. Pickett says other common signs of antidepressant continuation, also known as antidepressant withdrawal syndrome, include:

  • Flu-like symptoms

  • Nausea

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Tremors

  • Irritability

"These discontinuation symptoms may last for weeks after the final dose of medication has been taken," Dr. Pickett says.

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Triggers of Brain Zaps

Again, abruptly stopping antidepressant medications without taper is the primary reason for brain zaps. Missing a dose is another common cause. However, some movements, behaviors and issues can trigger brain zaps if you aren't taking antidepressants as described. Dr. Pratt says some of these triggers for brain zaps include:

  • Exercising

  • Changing the eyes' focus

  • Flu

  • Stress

Research published in 2022 found that people who stopped taking antidepressants cited moving their eyes or heads as a brain zap trigger.

How to Treat Brain Zaps

We hate to break it to you, but brain zaps aren't treatable. The good news is that you can prevent them, and we'll discuss how next. In the meantime, we have some more good news for people currently experiencing brain zaps: They will pass. "Brain zaps will typically go away on their own within a few days," Dr. Dimitriu says.

Scientists are still determining the best ways to help people treat brain zaps. The 2018 study mentioned above indicated that some people tried omega-3 fatty-acid supplements, but the authors couldn't recommend this method for soothing brain zaps because there isn't any evidence it works.

Dr. Pickett echoed these sentiments about omega-3s and other supplements. "Some people have reported relief of zaps with omega-3 fatty acids, B-complex vitamins or magnesium, but there has been no research to suggest that these interventions are effective," she says. 

Dr. Pickett says limited research suggests that getting enough sleep, exercising, and spending time outdoors may help reduce the impact of brain zaps on your daily life. However, more research is needed (and exercise can even be a brain zap trigger, while trouble sleeping is another potential side effect of antidepressant withdrawal).

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How to Stop Brain Zaps

Without proven treatment for brain zaps, your best bet is to avoid them altogether.

"Stopping an antidepressant rapidly or without medical supervision is never a good idea," Dr. Dimitriu says. "In cases where it is necessary, I will sometimes use a 'bridge medication,' like fluoxetine (Prozac), at a low dose for a few days to soften the landing. Fluoxetine has a long half-life, so when people stop that medication, they can often experience a very gradual reduction in drug levels, no brain zaps."

Remembering to take your medications as directed is important too, since even missing a dose can cause brain zaps.

"Setting an alarm or using a medication app can help to remind patients to take their medication every day at the same time," Dr. Pickett says.

Next up: 'I Ate Yogurt Every Day for a Week—Here Are the 3 Biggest Changes I Noticed' 

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