The what, why and how of brain zaps

brain zap featured image

Medicine has detailed terms and descriptions for almost everything. In fact, if you want to know the longest word in the most trusted English dictionaries, you’ll find it’s the name of a medical condition – pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis (usually shortened to ‘silicosis’).  

With such extensive terminology for most conditions, it’s a little surprising that there’s no official medical term or definition for a brain zap. Psychiatrists note that clinicians have often been unaware or dismissive’ of these symptoms. Yet patients are all too familiar with the disconcerting experience of brain zaps. 


What is a brain zap? 

A brain zap describes a strange sensory disturbance that can happen when you decrease or stop certain medications, usually those that treat depression, anxiety or ADHD. 

Brain zaps don’t seem to be harmful but they’re not pleasant. Many people find them strange, unexpected and distressing.

While brain zaps may be linked to chronic stress, they’re usually a temporary response to changes in medications that affect brain chemistry. As your brain adjusts, the brain zaps fade. 


Which medications can lead to brain zaps? 

All medications have side effects that you may (or may not) experience. Sometimes you notice side effects when you start taking a new drug, sometimes they’re a nuisance throughout and sometimes they kick in when you begin to decrease or discontinue the drug.  

Antidepressant withdrawal syndrome (AWS) is a well-documented response to changes in antidepressant medications. A 2019 review and meta-analysis found that 56% of people who try to decrease their dosage or stop taking antidepressants altogether experience withdrawal symptoms (and 46% of those describe the symptoms as severe). Along with brain zaps, AWS may also cause

  • Sleep changes
  • Anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Emotional volatility
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Changes in vision
  • Confusion
  • Tremors.  


Medications that have been linked to brain zaps, during either active treatment or withdrawal include: 

  • SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) 
  • SNRIs (selective serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors) 
  • Benzodiazepine medications  
  • ADHD medications  
  • MDMA (ecstasy), an illegal recreational drug
  • Some sleep medications
  • Some combinations of drugs.


What does a brain zap feel like? 

Good question! The experience varies considerably from one person to another and isn’t easy to describe. 

People have said a brain zap feels like

  • Burning or tingling in the body or brain
  • An electric shock that sends a shiver through your brain
  • Hearing your eyeballs move
  • Vertigo or dizziness
  • A fizzy feeling like you’ve been humming aggressively then stopped suddenly
  • Confusion, disorientation or a change in consciousness

Understandably, most people don’t enjoy brain zaps – 60% say they have a negative impact on quality of life. 


What can you do about brain zaps? 

We’re still researching the causes and best approaches to managing brain zaps. If you’re experiencing brain zaps, you might try: 

  • Talking to your doctor about: 
    • Changing to a medication that doesn’t lead to brain zaps
    • Tapering off more slowly if you’re trying to decrease your dose or cease taking a medication that causes brain zaps (never stop a psychotropic medication abruptly or without medical advice as this can be harmful)
  • Easing stress by:
    • Taking regular exercise
    • Reducing work hours
    • Improving sleep quality
    • Eating a healthy diet
    • Managing anxiety through therapy, lifestyle changes or medication. 

If you need help at any point while dealing with brain zaps or changing medication, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.


How can Neurofit Brain Centre help? 

Your brain is truly amazing in its complexity and capability. When change happens, your brain has a remarkable ability to adjust given time and support. 

At Neurofit, we believe that brain activity makes an active difference. Please book an assessment today. 



All information is general and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Neurofit Brain Centre can consult with you to confirm if a particular treatment approach is right for you.