This Yoga-Based Therapy May Help Drug-Resistant Epilepsy, According to Research

Epilepsy affects over two million Americans at an estimated cost of $15.5 billion annually. In spite of pharmacological advances, approximately 36 percent of individuals do not respond to drug treatment. This can cause considerable distress for patients and loved ones living with this unpredictable disease. A new study published in Neurology suggests that mindfulness-based therapies may help to improve quality of life and reduce psychological symptoms for those with epilepsy.

A group of researchers proposed that mindfulness principles including attention, awareness and acceptance might improve quality of life for adults with medically uncontrolled epilepsy. This included reducing the incidence of seizure episodes, better coping with symptoms and reduced depression and anxiety.

To test this hypothesis, 61 adults diagnosed with epilepsy were randomly assigned to either a social support group (n=31) or a social support plus mindfulness group (n=30). Groups were balanced for participant age and gender.

To be included in the study patients were required to be 18 years of age or older with a diagnosis epilepsy resistant to antiepileptic drug (AED) treatment. Those with organic psychological or psychotic disorders, psychogenic non-epileptic seizures, learning disabilities or severe cognitive disabilities were excluded.

Data collection for both the mindfulness and social support groups began six weeks prior to the intervention to establish baseline rates of participant seizure activity as well as quality of life and psychological functioning. Participants then attended one, 2-½ hour group session, twice per week for four weeks. Follow-up data were then collected to assess differences between the two groups.

Both the mindfulness group and the social support group received psycho-education on epilepsy, seizures and epilepsy management during the first session. Those in the social support group continued to receive information and social support regarding epilepsy treatment and lifestyle management for the remaining three weeks. 

Meanwhile, participants in mindfulness group also received lifestyle management training and explored mindfulness practices and skills including mindful breathing, listening, observing and a body scan, as well as examining their attitudes about their illness.

Attendance in both groups was generally high, suggesting that mindfulness and social support programs are feasible for individuals with epilepsy. Of those who agreed to participate, all but one individual in the social support group completed the follow-up evaluation.

The primary outcome of interest was whether or not there were differences in self-reported quality of life scores between the two groups after the four-week program. Analyses revealed that participants in both groups showed marked improvement in quality of life scores. Those in the mindfulness group reported significantly greater improvements in quality of life ratings compared to social support only group members, however.

Adults in the mindfulness group also reported greater clinically significantly reductions in anxiety and decreases in depressive symptoms compared to those in the social support group. What’s more, after the intervention mindfulness group participants demonstrated higher verbal memory scores than those in the social support group. Lastly, both groups exhibited fewer seizures at the end of the four-week course compared to baseline.

The authors concluded that both the social support and social support plus mindfulness interventions appeared to benefit patients by increasing their knowledge of epilepsy as well as enhancing their adjustment to living with the disease.

While the importance of social support is clearly significant, this study also suggests that particular qualities of mindfulness such as acceptance of negative emotions associated with seizures and body awareness may have contributed to lower levels of anxiety and increased quality of life ratings in mindfulness group.

While this study did not examine the long-term effects of mindfulness-based interventions on life quality, mood and seizure management for those with drug-resistant epilepsy, this study holds promise that individuals who engage in mindfulness activities such as meditation and perhaps yoga, tai chi and Qigong may yield the benefits of these practices through greater body awareness, improved mood and an increased acceptance of the day-to-day experience of living with a seizure disorder.

More research will be needed to see whether or not these types of mind-body practices may support or even amplify these results.

Read more: Yoga, mindfulness and breathing exercises for med school students and their patients.

grace bullockB Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500 is a psychologist, research scientist, educator, author, yoga and mindfulness expert and creator of BREATHE: 7 Skills for Mindful Relationships. Her mission is to reduce stress, increase health and wellbeing and improve the quality of relationships. She offers classes, workshops, writing and research that combine the wisdom of applied neuroscience, psychophysiology, psychology and contemplative science and practice. Her goal is to empower individuals, groups, leaders and organizations to reduce chronic stress and increase awareness, attention, compassion, mindfulness and effective communication to strengthen relationships, release dysfunctional patterns and unlock new and healthy ways of being. Dr. Bullock is a Certified Viniyoga Therapist and Faculty at the Integrated Health Yoga Therapy (IHYT) Training program. She is the former Senior Research Scientist at the Mind & Life Institute and former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. For more information see

Tang, V., Poon, W.S. & Kwan, P. (2015). Mindfulness-based therapy for drug-resistant epilepsy. Neurology, 85: p 1-8. 

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