Emotional problems after traumatic brain injury can be tough to deal with.
In this article, we’ll discuss the major types of emotional issues you might face after a brain injury, and show you some effective ways to cope with them.
Let’s get started!
Emotional Problems after Traumatic Brain Injury
Damage to certain parts of the brain, particularly the frontal lobe, can have a devastating effect on a person’s emotional well-being.
Depending on the severity, an injury can plunge someone into a deep depression, make them more angry and irritable, and even completely alter their personality.
It’s important to recognize that these changes are not the person’s fault, they are only a side effect of their injury. Therefore, it is crucial for friends and family to be patient and help their loved one cope with the emotional problems after traumatic brain injury they are experiencing.
1. Severe Mood Swings (Emotional Lability)
Some people after traumatic brain injury have difficulty regulating their emotions, a condition known as emotional lability.
While everybody experiences emotional highs and lows, what separates emotional lability from normal mood swings is how fast the changes occur.
A person suffering from emotional lability might get angry easily but quickly get over it. Or they will go from being happy one moment to being sad almost immediately after.
There is usually no specific event that triggers these sudden responses, and the emotional outbursts might not accurately reflect how the person feels.
For example, the person might start crying uncontrollably out of the blue, or laugh hysterically when someone tells them bad news.
Most of the time, emotional lability resolves itself over time and the person will return to normal after a few months.
But sometimes the mood swings are so frequent and severe that it prevents normal social interaction, and waiting a few months is not an option.
In that case, it might be helpful to try some medications that can help stabilize your mood. You can also try psychological counseling to learn specific coping methods.
What Should Family and Friends Do During Emotional Outbursts?
If you witness an emotional outburst from your loved one, follow these steps.
- Remain calm. Do not react emotionally yourself, as that only escalates the situation.
- Talk to them gently. If possible, take the person to a quiet place to help them calm down and regain control.
- Acknowledge their feelings. Don’t mock the person or imply that they are crazy for reacting this way. Instead, give them a chance to vocalize what they are feeling.
- Redirect attention. Once the person regains control, try not to let them dwell on their outburst too long, as that can lead to feelings of embarrassment or shame. Let them know it wasn’t their fault and that your opinion of them has not changed.
2. Flat Affect
On the opposite side of the emotional spectrum is “flat affect”
Flat Affect refers to a total lack of emotion after a brain injury. It can also refer to the lack of ability to show emotion through facial expressions.
Flat affect is sometimes a symptom of depression. This means that as the depression is treated, the ability to feel emotion may return.
But it also can be a completely separate condition and require a more specialized approach.
A professional neuropsychologist can treat these conditions and help you become more aware of emotions and better at expressing them non-verbally.
Anxiety is another common emotional problem after traumatic brain injury.
Sometimes the anxiety is mild, a feeling that something is wrong without knowing exactly why.
And other times the onset is so sudden and overwhelming that it results in a panic attack.
Treatment for Anxiety
Each form of anxiety requires a different treatment, so you should consult a mental health professional before taking any anxiety-reducing medication.
But besides medication, you can make a few lifestyle changes that will help reduce feelings of anxiety. A psychologist can work with you to identify the root cause of your anxiety and suggest different techniques to manage it.
For example, if too much stimulation triggers an anxiety attack, try to reduce the amount of noise and distractions in your environment.
Or if your anxiety is triggered by a lack of action or plans, add structured, scheduled activities into your daily routine, such as exercising, volunteering, book clubs, and brain injury support groups.
These activities can give you something to look forward to during the week, which for many brain injury patients offers a relief from anxiety.
Depression after TBI usually begins to manifest in the later stages of recovery, after the person has become more aware of their condition.
Symptoms of depression include:
- Overwhelming feelings of sadness and worthlessness
- Changes in sleep or appetite
- Difficulty concentrating
- Social withdrawal
- Extreme fatigue
A lot of these symptoms are also direct effects of brain injury, so just because a person displays some of them doesn’t automatically mean they have depression.
Generally, you can distinguish between brain damage and depression by how long it takes for the symptoms to manifest. If they show up soon after injury, they are probably not a sign of depression.
Treatment for Depression
A combination of anti-depressant medication and counseling from a psychologist familiar with traumatic brain injury can be very effective for most people suffering from depression, according to several studies. Sometimes counseling is enough by itself and medication is not necessary.
Aerobic exercise and structured activities (like the ones mentioned above in regards to treating anxiety) can also reduce depression.
Finally, always remember that depression is an illness, and not something you can defeat through sheer willpower alone.
If you are experiencing depression, start treatment right away. There’s no benefit in waiting and letting things only get worse.
5. Angry Outbursts and Short Temper
Studies have shown that around 70% of traumatic brain injury patients report struggles with anger.
For family members and friends, it can sometimes be a frightening experience to witness these anger outbursts. The person might yell, use foul language, throw objects, and slam their fists into the wall.
Outbursts like these are caused by several factors, such as damage to the brain’s impulse control center, frustration with their new limitations, and fatigue.
How to Cope with Anger Problems After Traumatic Brain Injury
First of all, it’s important to recognize that these problems are caused by your injury. They are not your fault and you are not a bad person because of them.
However, even though your anger is not your fault, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any ways to manage your emotions anymore.
Here are a few effective ways to regain control of your mood and behavior:
- Understand your behavior. Recognizing the things that tend to trigger your anger can help you manage your mood better. For example, if you notice frustration when you’re hungry, try setting an alarm to remind you to eat. This will help you avoid hunger and stay in control.
- Diet and exercise. Your diet and exercise play a huge role in your emotional health, with or without a brain injury. If possible, try doing some form of physical exercise for at least fifteen minutes a day. It might surprise you how much calmer you’ll feel.
- Let people in. Don’t try to hide your difficulties or manage your emotions all on your own. Let your friends and family know about your emotional problems after traumatic brain injury and ask for their help.
- Apologize to people if your outburst was directed at them, and let them know you are working on getting better. Not only will this prevent lost friendships, but it can also help you build trusting relationships with others.
Advice for Family and Friends
- Please remember that the person’s anger is not really directed at you, but at their brain injury.
- Don’t argue with the person with a brain injury during their outburst. Wait until they cool down before engaging.
- Once the outburst is over, gently suggest other outlets for their anger, like leaving the room when they feel angry.
Dealing with Emotional Problems after Traumatic Brain Injury
Emotional issues are some of the toughest TBI side effects to deal with. They affect the most important relationships in our lives, and if left untreated, can even prevent a person from making progress in their recovery.
That’s why it’s so important not to ignore these emotional problems after traumatic brain injury, but to find effective ways to overcome them. Every person who suffers a brain injury should consider adding psychological therapy to their brain injury rehabilitation.
We hope the coping methods in this article will help you get one step closer to finding emotional healing after brain injury.