Can Anxiety Disorders Come from a Traumatic Brain Injury?

Thursday, March 10 2016 Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Can anxiety disorders come from traumatic brain injury (TBI)? Why would a TBI affect your mental health? Learn how TBI affects more than the brain at HealthyPlace and start healing the anxiety TBI can cause. Don't wait--read this.

Can anxiety disorders come from a traumatic brain injury (TBI)? Anxiety disorders can be challenging, and it’s natural to want to know what causes them. Anxiety disorders, like all mental illnesses, are disorders of the brain. The brain is an organ of the body, and it can experience disease and/or injury just like any other organ. Traumatic brain injury can cause serious damage inside the brain. Depending on what part of the brain is damaged, TBI can lead to mental illness. Anxiety disorders can, indeed, come from a traumatic brain injury (Relationship Between Head Injury and Anxiety Proven to Exist).


Because March is Brain Injury Awareness Month, this is an opportunity to consider the impact brain injuries can have on mental health and mental illness. According to ScienceNordic,

If you suffer a head trauma, your risk of developing certain mental disorders increases significantly – in some cases by more than 400 percent.1

Anxiety disorders are among the “certain mental disorders” that can come from a brain injury.

The Anxiety Disorders and Traumatic Brain Injury Connection

Life can feel frustrating and difficult after a TBI. Just as a broken leg doesn’t work right in moving you from place to place, an injured brain doesn’t work right in its many and complex tasks. Among other things, an injured brain can be an anxious brain. The Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System reports that approximately 58% of brain injury patients develop anxiety (The Link Between Traumatic Brain Injury and Combat PTSD).

Depending on where and how the brain is injured, the connection between TBI and anxiety disorders can be deep and multifaceted. Anxiety itself is brain-based, so damage to certain areas of the brain can cause anxiety disorders.

Also, the very symptoms of brain injury can be so disruptive, so bothersome to someone’s life, that they cause anxiety. The symptoms of a traumatic brain injury include:

  • Concentration difficulties
  • Memory problems
  • Organizational and/or planning issues
  • Decision-making difficulties
  • Being easily overstimulated by crowds, noises, etc.
  • Increased susceptibility to pressure and stress
  • Fear and worry that others will judge you as stupid, incompetent, unreliable
  • Worry about making mistakes
  • Anxiety about the brain injury symptoms themselves

Hope for Anxiety Disorders that Come From Traumatic Brain Injury

The human body possesses an amazing ability to heal. To be sure, many times brain injury involves permanent damage. However, a degree of healing does occur, and people have remarkable capacity to transcend their difficulties, to adjust, and to fix what can be fixed (Brain Change And PTSD: Proof Recovery Is Possible). Anxiety is very treatable (unfortunately, it’s not always quick and easy, but it is, indeed, treatable).

Some things that people can do when faced with anxiety disorders that come from traumatic brain injury include:

  • Rest, rest, rest – that’s how the brain--and with it, anxiety--heals.
  • Attend to your environment (reduce noise, keep light levels low).
  • Practice self-care.
  • Establish a routine to reduce the need for decision making/concentrating and to lower stress.
  • See medical doctors and follow their instructions, medications, etc.
  • See a therapist to help deal with the anxiety.

My own experiences with anxiety came from a brain injury. I was anxiety-prone before the TBI, but the actual anxiety disorders developed post-TBI -- ditto bipolar 1 disorder. Here, too, I had mild symptoms before the injury, but the brain injury exacerbated them. I know first-hand that TBI can contribute to mental illness. That also means that I know that people can transcend their troubles, rising above even mental illness and brain injury. I am sincere when I write that there is hope for anxiety disorders that come from brain injury.

 

Sources

  1. Head injury can cause mental illness. (2014, January 3). Retrieved March 21, 2018.

References

Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps, and four critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges. She speaks nationally about mental health, and she has a curriculum for middle and high schools. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

View all posts by Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC.

Can Anxiety Disorders Come from a Traumatic Brain Injury?

Sarah
says:
March, 13 2016 at 11:56 pm

Hi, I am so happy to have stumbled upon an article like this. About two years ago I developed bacterial meningitis. It wasn't a TBI, but it was an acquired brain injury and all of what you described is what I experienced. I, too, have bipolar 1. Upon going into my coma I was in a full swing manic episode. After I woke up from my coma I was still manic. Slowly, yet surely, my cognition declined. My concentration and memory and processing were all severely distorted. This was especially frustrating for me because I have always been creative and always been a writer; those passions of mine became almost completely absent in my life. I also became somewhat emotionally blunted; did you experience anything like that? The anxiety only ever really came to me at night when I tried to fall asleep, even though I never really had a hard time falling asleep. The whole awareness of having brain-injured-like symptoms is extremely scary and anxiety provoking once you've come to realize the reality of your situation. I have been going to cognitive therapy for almost a year and it has been very beneficial for me. Thank you for sharing this.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

March, 14 2016 at 12:20 pm

Hi Sarah,
Thank you so much for your feedback and for sharing a bit of your own experience. Whether brain injury is traumatic or acquired, it's still brain injury. I'm glad that there's an increasing awareness about the seriousness of brain injury, but there's a long way to go. Too often, people suffer in silence, sometimes because they don't know what to do, sometimes because it's hard to admit these various functioning problems, and sometimes for different reasons altogether. It's frustrating how it changes our functioning, isn't it? I felt for awhile that I lost significant IQ points, that my problem-solving ability was destroyed, and more. And sleeping difficulties were new problems for me, too. Anxiety and its racing thoughts loved to be active at night. I'm very glad, and not surprised, to hear that cognitive therapy has been helpful for you. Others who read your comment will be encouraged. While I do notice lasting difficulties, they're minor and I've learned to compensate for them. Exercising my brain through reading, going to graduate school, attending therapy both in and outside of a hospital were all very helpful for me. The brain injury, bipolar disorder, anxiety are now things I deal with but aren't who I am (for awhile, I felt that these things were my identity). There's hope and healing for everyone, as you are seeing!

susan
says:
March, 14 2016 at 2:33 pm

Hi i have pretty much all the things on the list ...my concentration is really bad and my memory....and im really anxious....but i have learned to never say much at all ....I was told that when i was a toddler my mum and dad were arguing and i was crying and dad hit me and i went in to the wall....do you think that could be the cause of a brain injury....(dad wasnt violent often)....

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

March, 16 2016 at 12:57 pm

Hello Susan,
Any type of blow to the head can potentially be damaging. Not all are, though. Concentration and memory difficulties and anxiety can be bothersome and interfere in daily life. If you have concerns and/or you would like to improve these things, it would be a great idea to see a doctor. A doctor can potentially evaluate brain functioning as well as discuss anxiety medication with you. A therapist can be beneficial as well, once a doctor has done a physical examination. Consider seeing a doctor and therapist taking action for your quality of life!

Faye
says:
March, 16 2016 at 12:49 pm

This is a great article - the connection between TBI and anxiety. Specifically focusing on how TBI can cause an "anxious brain". I am curious about whether there is research about whether a chronic anxiety disorder can influence structural changes in the brain that can manifest a TBI? I read the article quickly and maybe this point was addressed and I missed it. Can you provide any information about the idea of Chronic Anxiety first, and the possibility of causing a TBI? Thanks much.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

March, 16 2016 at 1:12 pm

Hello Faye,
Your question is great. I have seen research and read articles about TBI causing anxiety disorders and about anxiety and the brain itself -- the brain with an anxiety disorder looks different in fMRI tests than a brain without anxiety. I have not read anything about an "anxious brain" causing damage like that found in a TBI. Of course, that does not mean that there isn't research and writing out there, only that I'm not aware of it! If there isn't research, there should be because that's a really valid question. Brainline.org is a site that provides a wealth of information about TBI, including TBI, anxiety and stress. This takes you directly to the anxiety and stress page: http://www.brainline.org/landing_pages/categories/stress.html. Don't give up on your question!

Faye
says:
March, 16 2016 at 2:07 pm

Tanya, thanks so much for your reply. So far, we know, through countless research, there is no separation between the mind and body (mind-body connection); and that emotional illness can affect the body in tremendous ways(influencing physical illness, pain, etc), and physical illness can alter neuro-chemical changes, influencing psychiatric symptoms (depression, anxiety PTSD, etc). It seems like a plausible theory that chronic psychiatric conditions could affect structural changes leading to additional conditions that can possibly become an "organic" disorder. There is fairly recent research out there about how chronic, long-term, use of the anti-anxiety medication - Xanax, can possibly cause structural changes/damage to parts of the brain that controls memory, high level cognition and behavior; increasing susceptibility to Alzheimer's Disease (for those with a family hx or propensity to already develop the disease). This research is new, and not meant to cause any alarm. Many of the excellent articles on Healthy Place, reinforces the ability to reverse damage, and lower likelihood of developing disease. I went off on a little tangent. But my point was to show the interconnectednes of the mind and body. And ultimately, the idea whether chronic psychiatric conditions or symptoms (anxiety, depression, etc) could cause structural changes in the brain to the level of developing a TBI/organic condition. I have chronic depression and anxiety, so I am very interested in this theory. Thanks for discussing this.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

March, 16 2016 at 3:53 pm

Hello again Faye,
Very interesting! I love that new questions are being asked, old ones are being asked again, and research continues. You are so right about the mind-body connection, and the impacts of this connection are greater than people realize (or, rather, greater than what has been proven empirically -- yet). As far as reversing damage,etc., I am a firm believer in the human ability to heal and to find and maintain deep wellbeing. To do so means a positive (but not naive or Pollyanna) approach that honors both the mind and the body. Chronic conditions can be difficult (an understatement), and sadly there are't quick fixes, but with time people can overcome great obstacles and adapt to what can't be overcome. That's part of the brain's networks, too.

John
says:
March, 16 2016 at 10:08 pm

I think my brain injury came from 30 years of beer drinking. The anxiety became chronic. I have been going to CBT therapy and have reduced beer drinking significantly. Now I am trying to focus on just today and forget the past and quit worrying about the unknown future. Exercise has helped.

Karen
says:
May, 15 2017 at 9:01 am

I went to an herbal practitioner and chiropractor and they helped me immensely. I am on herbs for Anxiety- Valerian. She also prescribed certain vitamins and minerals.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

May, 15 2017 at 5:04 pm

Hi again, Karen. Just reinforcing my thanks for providing your input. (I also responded to your above comment. :) )

Karen
says:
May, 15 2017 at 9:06 am

Isn't it ironic that you have an advertisement for Latuda, a bipolar medicine and you mention you had bipolar disorder. Why does our culture promote medicine likes its candy or perfume. I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and put on HORRIBLE medicines Lithium, then Symbyax (which was $300 and I had to pay $100). Made me a zombie. Horrible. I was tired and I couldn't think. My herbal practitioners said I had Eating Disorder NOS which looks IDENTICAL to Bipolar Disorder. I used to eat bags of cookies and chips and candy and veggie burgers and veggie hotdogs. My put me on a diet of fish, eggs, nuts, fruits and vegetables. Thank the LORD for alternative medicine. I am so sick of pill salesmen LMAO.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

May, 15 2017 at 5:02 pm

Hi Karen,
Thank you for your comment. Medication is an important--and often heated--topic. It's great that you shared your experience with medication and what works for you instead. HealthyPlace doesn't promote or condemn medication because it's such an individual thing. It's a decision that each person has the right to make with his/her doctor (and doctors should always be consulted because medication, including stopping medication, can be dangerous. Between posts, comments from readers, and even ads, we hope to arm people with a wealth of information so they can be an active part of their treatment process and are able to have informed conversations with doctors. Thank you for being part of the conversation!

In reply to by tpeterson

Karen
says:
May, 16 2017 at 8:07 am

Yeah right. How come you don't discuss herbal practitioners and chiropractors on this website? What about fish oil? Oh that's right, Nemo doesn't give kickbacks.

earl j seeley
says:
June, 6 2017 at 11:45 am

I have tbi which led shortly after injury 2 months to severe anxiety attacks when I overextended myself.....put on 1mg of lorazapam 3 times a day....but the more I read about lorazapam it looks like like alot of problems down the road.....been on it for 6wks.......should I try to gradually get off it now,,,?????? im 72 yr old ....thank you......

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

June, 7 2017 at 2:32 pm

Hi Earl,
There is still so little known about what to do for brain injuries. That alone can be anxiety-provoking and incredibly frustrating. I went through something similar. I'm not a medical doctor, and HealthyPlace in general isn't in a position to make recommendations -- that could be very harmful. The safest and most effective way to make medication changes is to talk to your doctor. Be open about your experiences and concerns. If you feel like your doctor isn't fully listening (some are great at collaborating with patients, but others not so much), it's okay to find a doctor who does listen and talk to you about pros and cons. It's good that you're thinking about the present and the future. Doing so will help you thrive.

Barbara E.Young
says:
August, 7 2017 at 8:54 am

Having a very difficult time,20 years ago brain injury from car accident,,, 17 year's finally started getting memory back due to a lot of bad thing's that happened.Everything they try a med other than zanax,,, I'm complety not myself and can't function. Year's didn't even feel pain levels. I'm desperate because their trying to give meds other than zanax.. Side effects are complety out if control and suicidal tendencies come taken them.zanax has been the only one that make's thought process100%.Basically down to just sleeping at night,seems the only thing that stops the brain so get sleep.20 year's latter I've finally reached the point more like I was before head trama,, and head trama has occurred more than once!

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

August, 8 2017 at 4:47 am

Hi Barbara,
Thank you for sharing this bit of your story. It will be comforting to others in a similar situation to know they're not alone. Brain injuries can wreak havoc on lives (I know firsthand!). Everyone is different, of course, so this is just my own experience: medication made everything worse for me. Finally, doctors found a good combination of low-dose medication that works. Doctors are supposed to be partners in care. They have medical knowledge, and you know your own brain and how you respond. If Xanax has worked and the new stuff doesn't, you have the right to speak up (and definitely communicate about the suicidal tendencies that the new meds cause). If these doctors don't listen, you also have the right to find a new doctor who will listen. Be true to yourself and what works for you!

Todd
says:
January, 13 2018 at 5:39 am

I was struck, and nearly killed by an automobile when I was 2 years old. As a younger child I was outgoing and extroverted. AS I freshman in high school, I developed severe anxiety. Twenty years later, here I am on this website still looking for answers. Why are they so hard to find? Why do I feel like people like me are swept under the rug and taken with a grain of salt? I've had enough and just want to feel normal, not sedated, and not crazy! Please help

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

January, 15 2018 at 7:42 am

Hi Todd,
Part of the answer to your question, "Why are answers so hard to find?" is one that you are probably well aware of: No one knows enough about the brain. Of course I can't know what it is like to be you, so I won't minimize your experiences by trying. I will say, though, that my own experience with TBI has been frustrating, especially because no one has really known what to do. There are doctors, researchers, and other professionals out there trying. They're even making progress. It's so complicated that the process seems agonizingly slow.
I have a feeling that you might have come across TBI information while seeking answers. I'm wondering if you've seen this brain injury referral site: http://www.headinjury.com/. It has a referral number plus links. If you call the number, the people might be able to point you in the right direction to find help. Also, HealthyPlace has a list of hotline numbers and referral services. While none are TBI-related, you can call about anxiety and other mental health concerns and tell them about your brain injury and past experiences. They can very likely give you some numbers of professionals in your area that could help. You can feel normal again, or at lest define a new normal that is very good, not sedated and crazy. Don't give up!

In reply to by tpeterson

Anwaar
says:
February, 5 2018 at 9:40 pm

I had a 200 lb metal ceiling drop on the top of my head. It compressed my spine. Several weeks later tbe headaches started. Dull and long lasting. Then I noticed that I was becoming confused about simple tbings in my life, such as trying to remember my daughter's name when I go to call her. A few dizzy spells and loss of time. Like once I was in the kitchen talking to my wife and then...poof...Im getting up off the bed and going to the bathroom. Still to this day I cant remember leaving the kitchen to even go upstairs. It felt like the time I was under anesthesia at the dentist. Like 2 different timelines were pieced together with a big gap missing...like someone changed the clock and tried to tell me so much time past but it doesnt feel like it did. I sometimes have to get out of the house because it LITERALLY looks like the ceiling is falling. I feel like im losing it. Help

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

February, 7 2018 at 9:02 am

Hi Anwaar,
What a terrible experience. Have you visited a neurologist who specializes in brain injury? Sometimes you have to travel to see one, which is inconvenient and complicated with insurance. If you can do so, it is well worth it. Also, have you visited with a therapist or psychiatrist? Some of what you describe does fit with PTSD, although I certainly wouldn't tell you with certainty that PTSD is the issue. It just might be worth checking out in person where you can receive a thorough evaluation.

These resources might help. The first is an article about PTSD and traumatic brain injury. It's from the VA, but it applies to everyone, not just military. https://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/problems/traumatic_brain_injury_and_ptsd…
These sites may also be helpful:
www.brainline.org
http://www.tbinrc.com/ (National Resource Center for TBI)
http://www.traumaticbraininjury.com/

Hopefully these are a good start to help you recover. And of course, try to see a brain injury specialist and a mental health professional if you can. Finally, you might also find a brain injury support group helpful. You can learn information, ideas, and resources. Check with your doctor, mental health professional, or search online for brain injury support groups in your area.

As debilitating as brain injuries can be, you can recover some functioning and learn how to cope with permanent issues. Treating accompanying issues, such as possible PTSD, will improve your quality of life, too. Stick with it and be patient. It's hard, but possible and worth it.

Linda Hatter/ Carl Hatter
says:
March, 27 2018 at 6:58 pm

Head injury for my son since 1989, cam anyone give a med.that works, he's been on all. Thanks

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Linda Hatter/ Carl Hatter
says:
March, 27 2018 at 6:59 pm

Extreme anxiety all the time.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

March, 28 2018 at 10:02 am

Hi Linda and Carl,
To keep seeking help and improvement after almost 30 years is amazing, and your son is fortunate to have your support. You likely already know all of the resources available, but I'll share one just in case: https://www.biausa.org/ It's the Brain Injury Association of America. They have a lot of information, although they don't recommend medications.

Brenda
says:
April, 11 2018 at 4:55 pm

Had a head injury back in 2016. I fell backwards from a chair and hit my head on a rock. Was dizzy for days. Had a ct scan and xrays done. Nothing major was found,but my family doctor said I had a slight concussion and mild whiplash. Since my fall my anxiety kept getting worse by the month until I started to have anxiety attacks. So I was wondering if its possible that my fall caused my anxiety to get worse.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

April, 13 2018 at 10:51 am

Hi Brenda,
While I can't give you a diagnosis, I will say that it is indeed possible. I've read research reports about the connection between head injury and anxiety, and I know from personal experience that head injury can cause anxiety. So it's definitely possible. This can't take the place of medical checkups and advice, of course. Unfortunately, while researchers are finding connections, they haven't found solutions to TBI-induced anxiety. Time helps. So does treating your injured brain with continued rest, nutrition, hydration, shielding yourself from bright light and noise, and reducing screen time (TV, computers, mobile devices). Doing things to reduce your anxiety helps, too. Things like deep breathing, mindfulness, exercise (with a brain injury, you don't want to jar your head, but walking or swimming are good), and doing things that occupy your thoughts and attention in positive ways. Seeing a therapist can be helpful, too. Even though it's been almost 2 years, it's not too late to do these healing activities and reduce anxiety.

StreetSpirit
says:
June, 23 2018 at 2:00 pm

Wow two years later , and posts are still being addressed. Thats pretty darn awesome. .. My story is similar to most on here. I went into a diabetic coma almost 20years ago now. I had the whole out of body thing happen, and even visited other dimensions i guess. I was raised a christian, but didnt have a religious expirence, no angels no god no guide .. NOTHING. I was under for 2 weeks, then upon walking up i have had severe anxiety ever since. It is so bad where i just liver alone with my cat. See very little of my family, and have the smallest social interconnection if only absolutely necessary. This is like living my own personal hell, and thats where you go when you die i believe. So what ever your belief is is your next life..

June, 25 2018 at 7:20 pm

Hi StreetSpirit,
Thanks for joining the conversation and sharing your insights. I'm sorry to read that you've had anxiety ever since your coma. How disheartening. This might be a silly question, but I'll ask it anyway. :) Have you consulted a doctor who specializes in diabetes? Blood sugar levels are crucial to brain functioning, and it's possible that something was off in the time you were in a coma. The cause of anxiety can be hormone and neurotransmitter surplus or deficiency, blood sugar levels that are just slightly off, and nutritional deficiencies. It's not too late to investigate this. Also, talking with a mental health professional about your spiritual experiences can help you process them and explore different possibilities. Above all, you can turn your personal hell around to be a personal "paradise."

Lou Virgilio
says:
July, 15 2018 at 2:49 pm

Hello there. I actually never thought I’d write something like this but for some reason it feels like I should or need to. In 2002 while riding my bicycle to the gym on a beautiful sunny day I was hit from behind by a Ford Explorer. Besides many broken bones I had a fractured scull with 3 brain bleeds. The worst was in the frontal lobe. I spent months trying to get back to myself and fought the fact that life changed probably forever
. I lost all sense of taste and smell due to the frontal lobe injury. I worked with many doctors with medication due to outbursts of anger, personality changes, impulsive behavior and depression. Anxiety hadn’t kicked in at this point. I tried many different medications until I got to Lamictal. That seems to do what I need without side effects. All went well for years but in the last few years anxiety has built Closed in places, crowds, social events, fear of getting lost while driving although I drove a truck for a living !! All of this just doesn’t make sense. The “what if’s” are crippling sometimes. The butterflies build in my stomach and it becomes difficult to deal with some situations. My doctor prescribed Klonopin so for years I don’t go anywhere without it “ just in case “. Medical marijuana is now an option in NJ and I know Klonopin is addictive so it may be the way to go. My wife always tries to support me and feels that Lamictal is needed but really doesn’t understand my anxiety feelings so any medication for that she feels is unnecessary. In fact I have to hide it when I take it. This snow balls into more anxiety. So here I am 16 years later, retired and living a dream. Sometimes a good dream and sometimes in a dream like state. All is good, I stay healthy, work out 5 days a week , eat and sleep well. If I could only kick this anxiety!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Thanks for your website and giving a shoulder to cry on. Enough of the “ Poor Me “ stuff. Be healthy.

July, 18 2018 at 2:12 pm

Hi Lou,
I'm sorry to read of all you've been through. You seem to have a fantastic outlook on life and are still embracing it. You can have this great attitude and do the things you're doing and still be frustrated with anxiety. You're not wallowing in "poor me" -- just venting. Given the nature of anxiety, the brain, and brain injury. there is a chance that the anxiety might be here to stay, at least the physical/structural/neurological component. This doesn't mean you have to give into it and give up! I'd never advocate that. You might consider shifting your perspective about anxiety and developing ways to live well in spite of it's presence. It may be there, but you don't have to get caught up in it. This concept helped me a great deal with my own anxiety after my brain injury. Two approaches to doing this are mindfulness and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). These two articles briefly introduce mindfulness and ACT. If you'd like to do so, you can take a look. Even if you choose a different path, keep living well!

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Stop Avoiding Anxiety https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2015/07/stop-avo…

Using Mindfulness for Anxiety: Here's How: https://www.healthyplace.com/self-help/anxiety/using-mindfulness-for-an…

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