Emotional reactivity as a vulnerability for psychogenic nonepileptic seizures? Responses while reliving specific emotions

Nicole A. Roberts, Mary H. Burleson, Dhannia L. Torres, David K. Parkhurst, Robin Garrett, Lauren B. Mitchell, Cayla J. Duncan, Mallory Mintert, Norman C. Wang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Objective: Dysfunction in emotional processes is a hypothesized contributor to functional neurological disorders (FNDs), yet few studies have evoked real-time emotion during multimethod assessment incorporating subjective, behavioral, and psychophysiological indicators. This approach may reveal clinical and neurobiological vulnerability to FND and clarify how dysfunctional emotional processes serve as perpetuating factors. Methods: Eleven participants with video-EEG-confirmed diagnoses of psychogenic nonepileptic seizures (PNES) were compared with 49 seizure-free trauma control subjects (TCs) with or without clinically elevated posttraumatic stress symptoms (25 clinically elevated [TC-clin], 24 not clinically elevated [TC-nonclin]). Participants recalled and described memories evoking anger, shame, happiness, and neutral feelings. Results: Even though PNES patients and TCs reported similar amounts of emotional experience, PNES patients reported more difficulty reliving emotions and were less likely to complete the relived shame task. During and after reliving happiness, PNES and TC-clin groups showed respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) decreases, indicating parasympa-thetic withdrawal, whereas the TC-nonclin group showed RSA increases. Conclusions: Findings from this pilot study are consistent with previous research and clinical observations that emotional engagement may be more effortful for PNES patients. Patterns of RSA change, which may also point to greater effortful engagement, were similar in PNES and TC-clin groups, suggesting that traumatic stress reactions may play a part. At the same time, experience of greater difficulty or avoidance may be even greater among PNES patients. Especially when regulatory resources are already limited, accumulated effort, coupled with self-threatening contexts such as shame, may be particularly problematic for those with PNES and perhaps other FNDs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)95-100
Number of pages6
JournalJournal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)


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