Oct. 27, 2011 at 10:43 AM ET
That sinking feeling in your gut? Don’t worry: it’s probably appropriate for our times. It may be due to your foundering finances, your slippery hold on employment, or the sudden realization that you love “Glee” just a bit too much.
For the medical record, however, a nagging anticipation that something wicked this way comes is a listed warning sign for at least eight illnesses or conditions.
Heart attacks, aortic dissections, adrenal gland tumors, some seizures and severe allergic reactions all share one clairvoyant-sounding symptom: “an impending sense of doom.”
One form of epileptic seizure may offer the best case study to explain this amorphous, dark disquiet, this brand of bad-health ESP. That’s because these seizures – abrupt surges of electricity activity within the brain – occur in a lower, middle swath known to fuel this apocalyptic vibe.
“The temporal lobe involves the emotional circuitry of the brain,” says Dr. David Ko, chief of neurology and director of the EEG Lab at the Los Angeles County + USC Medical Center. “Some patients with temporal lobe epilepsy get this psychic or emotional component.
“They get this panicky feeling that something really bad is going to happen,” says Ko, who co-authored a recent article, that touched on this eerie symptom. “Some people have describe it as being like an impending sense of doom.”
Such seizures are not sparked by actual stimuli. And, he adds, they are far different from panic attacks – anxiety disorders that include feelings of approaching calamity but which typically peak after 10 to 20 minutes. Seizures sparked by temporal lobe epilepsy “have a discrete beginning and end, one or two minutes,” Ko says.
But why would heart attacks or instances of abrupt bleeding into and along the wall of the aorta (the main artery pushing blood out of the heart) lead to this same Doomsday sensation?
“If you’re having any chest pain, you get very anxious. The circulatory system is part of the (brain’s) emotional system,” Ko explains. “If you think you are having a heart attack, the heart starts racing, your blood pressure goes up.”
This sends neurotransmitters – chemical messengers -- surging toward receptors in the temporal lobe, igniting a vague but an urgent alarm: “Uh oh….”
Allergic reactions – including those caused by certain foods or wildlife stings – can similarly set off the body’s “fight or flight” neural-response, and light up those same communication pathways.
At least one famous work of literary fiction tapped into this irrational feeling of looming disaster, Ko notes. In his famous book, “The Idiot,” 19th century Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky created a main character who suffers from epileptic seizures.
“That character had that sense of doom,” Ko says. “Dostoyevsky is a well known person who had epilepsy. He wrote about his symptoms. And obviously, his work is very dramatic and (the general mood of his tales) is not a pleasant one.”
Bill Briggs is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com and author of “The Third Miracle.”