How a Head Injury Can Affect Your Mental Health

Shot of a doctor using a digital tablet to discuss a brain scan with a senior patient

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Suffering from a head injury is a terrible experience, and unfortunately, our brains don't always heal from head injuries the same way as other body parts heal from trauma.

Breaking a limb might be painful, but once a doctor has set it and provided you proper care instructions, chances are that your broken bone will recover. Heads and brains, though, are a bit different, and traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) are the leading cause of disability and mortality for people aged one to 45.

Head injuries can be caused by anything from falling down to a car accident, and can range hugely in degree of damage caused.

For people who undergo and survive a traumatic brain injury, statistically there is a 60% chance of making a full recovery, and a 25% chance of being left with a "moderate degree" of disability.

Those disabilities include a range of cognitive and behavioral challenges. Those are pretty significant statistics, so it's important to understand as much as possible about the problems that head injuries can lead to.

Ahead, we'll unpack the reasons behind head injuries having such an impact on mental health, what problems TBIs can lead to, and how to get the help you need for ongoing issues.

Why Can Traumatic Brain Injuries Lead to Mental Health Issues?

In cases of mild head injury, 1 in 5 people experience mental health problems afterwards, and psychiatric disorders following traumatic brain injuries are scientifically considered "frequent."

TBIs can lead to mental health issues because your brain is responsible, more than any other part of you, for your behavior and your thinking and feeling abilities.

Once injured, your brain may not be able to return to the same level of functioning as it was able to prior.

Mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, while they can be related to other body parts such as our guts, primarily stem from our brains, and other problems, like executive dysfunction, are wholly related to the brain.

The Mental Health Problems Head Injuries Can Lead to

Because our brains affect so much about our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, there are a wide variety of mental health issues that TBIs can lead to. These are the most common ones, and there is some overlap between them.

PTSD

Head injuries are more likely to lead to post-traumatic stress disorder than other (non-head) injuries are. While any injury can be traumatic enough to change our behavior afterwards, it is particularly common for PTSD to occur after head injuries.

According to the DSM-5, these are the main symptoms of PTSD:

PTSD can be a short experience lasting only days or weeks, or it can go on for months or years.

Depression

Head injury leads to a significantly increased risk of experiencing depression. About half of all people who get a head injury will experience depression in the year after their injury.

Depression in this situation can be caused by physical damage to the brain after injury, but it can also be caused by an emotional response to it or its surrounding situation, or by unrelated factors.

There are many symptoms of depression, but these are some of the most common ones:

  • Avoiding social activities
  • Changes in appetite
  • Decreased productivity
  • Despair and guilt
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Lack of motivation
  • Low self-esteem

Anxiety

Anxiety affects up to 30% of TBI sufferers. Outside of anxiety on a clinical level, it makes perfect sense that all of the other mental health issues caused by head injuries could make a person worried about their life. But anxiety can also be present in those who haven't experienced it before, and can be directly related to the head injury.

It's also worth noting that anxiety, like depression, may not present immediately after the injury, but rather can appear months later. These are some common symptoms of anxiety:

  • Physical symptoms like rapid heart rate, increased breathing rate, sweating, trembling, and shortness of breath
  • Extreme feelings of fear
  • Irrational worry
  • Isolation
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Suicidal thoughts

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Mood Swings and Lack of Emotional Regulation

Mood swings and the inability to regulate the emotions are believed to occur after head injuries because the injury can damage the parts of the brain that control behavior and emotional regulation. An inability to regulate one's emotions, or stay in the same mood, is called emotional lability.

These are some of the symptoms of mood swings and lack of emotional regulation:

  • Sudden laughing out of the blue
  • Sudden crying out of the blue
  • A sharp change from a happy mood to a sad or angry one
  • A sharp change from a sad or angry mood to a happy one
  • Inappropriate emotional response, such as laughing at an upsetting story

Aggression

Behaving aggressively is a common occurrence after a head injury. For those who experience aggressive behaviors after a TBI, about one quarter are verbally aggressive only, and that is the most likely form of aggression for a TBI patient to express.

The aggressive behavior is likely to not be the TBI patient's choice or intention, but is the result of an inability to control emotions or behavior due to damage caused to the brain. Anywhere from 11% to 34% of TBI patients will exhibit aggressive behavior after their injury.

Insomnia

Insomnia is a common occurrence in people who had suffered from a traumatic brain injury.

Over 60% of people who experience a TBI have mild insomnia short term, which often resolves over time. Some people are left with long term insomnia. Insomnia is an inability to fall or stay asleep.

Cognition and Executive Function

Possibly the most straightforward of all TBI-related mental health issues is how it can impact cognition and your ability to perform everyday tasks. Long lasting, if not lifelong, cognitive deficits are frequent after head injury.

They occur from damage to the brain, with the brain being the part primarily employed for cognition. Executive function is impacted because it too is reliant on a solidly working brain. Executive function includes your memory, ability to perform tasks, move from one task to another, and pay attention.

How to Deal With TBI-Related Mental Health Issues

As you can see, there are many different mental health issues that can be caused by head injuries. The best thing you can do if you have experienced a TBI is to continue following the care instructions from your provider.

If you have been told that you should be OK on your own, but you continue to experience mental health symptoms, you can either return to your previous provider or find a new one.

In addition to the physical care needed from head injuries, mental health care is key. If you have not sought out mental healthcare in the past, you'll be best served by taking that step now, especially if you continue to experience mental health difficulties in the months following your head injury.

A Word From Verywell

Traumatic brain injuries range in seriousness from a mild concussion to a brain bleed, but all head injuries have a level of innate seriousness. If you have recently experienced a head injury and you have not yet seen a doctor, you should take that step without delay.

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