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Head Injury and Anxiety Relationship Proven

Head Injuries can cause anxiety. Those of us with TBI suspected as much, but now it's been proven. Learn the latest research about head injury and anxiety at HealthyPlace. Concussions do cause anxiety, and here's why.

Head injury and anxiety (and other mental health-related consequences like depression and posttraumatic stress disorder [PTSD]) are related, and neuroscientists are increasingly understanding and able to explain why. What they are discovering is that concussions can cause new anxiety, and they can worsen existing anxiety. This relationship between head injury and anxiety is important.


A head injury that is diagnosed as a concussion results from an impact to the head and is considered a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI). They’re only “mild” in that they’re not immediately life-threatening. However, concussions are serious and can have long-term consequences to our mental health--including our anxiety.

Symptoms of Anxiety After a Head Injury

Whether you’ve experienced anxiety for some time before your head injury or anxiety is new to you after sustaining the injury, the symptoms can be similar. Anxiety symptoms post-TBI can include, but aren’t limited to:

  • A vague, unsettled feeling that doesn’t subside or subsides only to return
  • Restlessness, feeling keyed-up or on edge
  • A feeling like you’re going to jump out of your skin
  • An inability to be still
  • Racing thoughts
  • A headache or burning sensation (a symptom of brain injury and/or complications, headache should be evaluated by a doctor)
  • Excessive worry about other symptoms of brain injury
  • Fear of re-injury and of returning to what caused your concussion
  • Generalized anxiety, including “what-ifs” about your future with a brain injury

Proven Connection Between Brain Injury and Anxiety

Until recently, many professionals didn’t officially acknowledge a connection between anxiety and head injury because there was no definitive proof that they could see that brain injury could cause anxiety. Anxiety was sometimes attributed to “just worrying too much” and dismissed. To be sure, many felt that it was logical that a connection existed, but without proof, they couldn’t act on it.

I think that most people who experienced anxiety after a brain injury, myself included, would be able to verify that the relationship between head injury and anxiety does exist. Finally, research is catching up with what TBI survivors have known all along: concussion damage the brain in a way that causes anxiety.

The brain can be damaged in different ways (Brouhard, R.), all of which involve shearing, tearing, or twisting of tissue, and at the neurological level, axons, and dendrites. When there is damage in parts of the brain that are implicated in anxiety, existing anxiety might worsen and new anxiety might develop.

In 2015, researchers were able to see brain damage that caused anxiety by using a type of MRI called diffusion tensor imaging to compare the brains of concussion patients who experienced anxiety with concussion sufferers who did not (everybody’s concussion effects are unique).

Not surprisingly, the imaging showed damage in brains of the people who experienced anxiety. There’s an area of the brain called the vermis, and the functioning of the white matter in this area was seen to be impaired (Cara, E.).

Those of us who’ve experienced both have probably always known that there’s a relationship between head injury and anxiety. Finally, neuroscientists are seeing it for themselves and learning why. This could lead to new and better treatments for concussion-related anxiety.

Sources

Brouhard, R. (2017.) The Difference Between Concussions and Traumatic Brain Injuries. Verywell.

Cara, E. (2015). People Who Suffer Depression and Anxiety after a Traumatic Brain Injury May Have Damaged White Matter. Medical Daily.

 

 

APA Reference
NCC, T. (2018, March 15). Head Injury and Anxiety Relationship Proven, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, June 20 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2018/03/proven-the-relationship-between-concussion-and-anxiety



Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps, and five 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.

Francesca Eyre
says:
June, 19 2019 at 3:16 am
I was a fit female. I had a bike accident in may during a 300km race and have a blank of 12 days. I was in hospital, broke facial bones, have fractured a disk in my spine, incurred a concussion and I now have huge anxiety. I run a hotel so this has never been an issue before. I feel as if I'm going nuts, do.i accept and wait or is this normal? This was nearly 2 months ago. can they diagnose something? This is totally out of character for me
June, 19 2019 at 11:27 am
Hi Francesca,
What an ordeal you experienced and are continuing to experience. I'm sorry that you're going through this. Anxiety after a brain injury is very common. While the healing process tends to be a waiting game, there are things you can do. One of the biggest things is rest. I'm sure that's hard to do when running a hotel. Rest doesn't have to mean lying down in a dark room for hours. It's just important to give your brain a break from thinking, stress, bright lights, and noises periodically throughout your day. Two months is actually not much time at all when it comes to healing the brain and reducing the anxiety that accompanies concussions. Taking even five-minute breaks every hour or two (I really do know how difficult that is, but if you schedule it in it becomes more doable) helps the brain (and accompanying anxiety) recover. Close your eyes and breathe deeply, concentrating on the feel and sound of your breath--and when your mind wanders, simply return to the breath). You can also practice mindfulness, just noting what you see, hear, and feel without judging it, and again, when your mind wanders just return to your senses). Walking helps, too, as does eating nutritiously and avoiding junk foods and fast food. Given that you're a cyclist you probably know that. All of the activities I mentioned work for both concussion and anxiety. As far as diagnosing, I didn't have luck with that. Doctors looked for structural damage, bleeding, etc., and when they couldn't find that they couldn't do anything else. My anxiety was seen as separate from the injury. Granted, that was 15 years ago and things might have changed. Researchers are learning more and more about brain injury and its impact on the whole person, including mental health. It might be worth it to talk with your regular doctor about what you're experiencing and see what he/she has to say. It's frustrating that recovering from all aspects of a concussion, including anxiety) takes so much time. Be patient with yourself in the process. Your anxiety doesn't have to stay this way.
Louise Tanner
says:
December, 10 2018 at 6:30 am
What an informative article. There really isn’t enough information out there about the link. I fell and concussedmyself 3 months ago and even though the symptoms have been horrendous, I am now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, although I do still have blips with regards to anxiety! It is such a relief to be able to reason with myself that it’s a ‘normal’ occurrence after an accident. Thank you
December, 12 2018 at 12:32 pm
Hi Louise,
I'm so glad that you're seeing the light at the end of what can be a long, dark tunnel with concussions/brain injuries! I'm hoping that many people read your comment so they can be encouraged that the brain does heal. I still have anxiety blips, too (14 years after the injury), but knowing what they are and knowing what to do about them really minimizes them. When they happen, they're just something I notice in the background rather than episodes of anxiety that interfere in my life. So know, too, that even if blips appear from time to time, they don't have to bother you. Keep on healing! :)
Eamonn
says:
October, 23 2018 at 1:33 pm
Hi Tanya, I've just read your post as I suffered a concussion in march and had PCS for a few months following. I experienced awful anxiety and even 7 months on the anxiety is still very strong and debilitating. This post has just confirmed to me what i have believed about the links between TBI and Anxiety as before it i would say my baseline levels were "normal'. I am yet to read further post but thats exactly what i'll be doing as the information surrounding PCS/concussions are so limited in the UK, you can't help but feel like you're going it alone. Thank You and Best regards. Eamonn
October, 24 2018 at 5:19 pm
Hello Eamonn,
I'm sorry about your concussion, PCS, and anxiety. I'm glad that this information was helpful (and your comment reminds me that I want to write more on this, as it's such a common problem but so little is known about it so too many people feel alone and stuck). Be patient with yourself, as the brain needs time and TLC to heal. Anxiety can linger for quite some time after other symptoms have settled down. That doesn't mean that you're doomed to live with it for the rest of your life. You can return to your baseline.
Maria Houston
says:
March, 28 2018 at 8:51 pm
I was hit by a baseball bat when I was 3 years old. Lots of bleeding and stitches. I've had OCD and depression ever since. I'm now 59 years old. There's got to be a connection. Can anyone relate? Maria
Zach
says:
March, 27 2018 at 12:01 pm
What would you recommend to someone who is experiencing anxiety from a concussion?

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

March, 28 2018 at 9:42 am
Hi Zach,
Resting helps many effects of concussion, including anxiety. At the very least, try to restrict screen time (TV, computer, phone, video games, etc.) as these can be irritating and agitating. Doctors typically recommend this, but many don't realize the importance of restricting screen use in helping anxiety. Calming your brain in other ways, such as deep breathing, mindfulness, meditation, yoga (but avoid poses that cause headache, dizziness, or nausea). In general the first step with concussion-related anxiety is to soothe the brain. Take care of your physical health to help your mental health. Soothing the brain soothes anxiety. There are other steps you can take, but taking on too many things at once actually increases anxiety. Above all, be patient with yourself. The anxiety can absolutely get better, but when a concussion is involved, it sometimes takes longer.

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