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.
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.