Understanding Epilepsy

When you hear the word seizure, what is the first image that pops up in your mind?

The Grand Mal — technically called a tonic-clonic — has been the face of epilepsy seemingly forever.

That’s what I assumed all seizures looked like, until I started having my own.

How does a seizure happen?


Your brain is constantly sending messages to other parts of your body through the nervous system, a network of billions of neurons. They travel via an electrical current.

But if something suddenly disrupts the network, (brain infections like meningitis, trauma, birth defects, tumors, drug abuse, developmental disorders, stroke, dementia, genetics, and more) nerve cells start misfiring and create a huge surge of electrical activity in the brain. This is a seizure. Some people refer to electrical storms as brainstorms.

There are two main groups of epilepsy, and each has multiple types of seizures.

With generalized epilepsy, seizures start in both sides of the brain at once. A tonic clonic would be a good example. In focal epilepsy, seizures start in one side of the brain, but can also spread to other areas. In some cases, doctors cannot determine where the seizures begin.

Depending on where seizures form, the surge in electrical activity can cause strange behaviors like screaming, laughing, convulsing, staring, jumbled speech, déjà vu, jamais vu, funny tastes, sounds and smells, undressing, running out the door, and more.

It is important to note that epilepsy is not a mental illness, and not everyone who has a seizure will develop epilepsy. It often takes multiple tests, including an EEG, which detects electrical activity in the brain. Video-EEG testing is done in a hospital Epilepsy Monitoring Unit.

An EEG helps doctors determine if seizures are “nonepileptic.” These are caused by physical or psychological conditions, not abnormal electrical activity.

Data and facts shared on this page are from the Epilepsy Foundation.