A concussion is more than a physical injury. Although a concussion is brought on by an impact that jolts the brain, its effects can be felt long after the initial impact in the form of mental health issues.
About 1 in 5 people experience mental health symptoms up to six months after mild traumatic brain injury. It’s important to recognize that you may struggle with mental health as a result of a concussion. That way, you can get the support you deserve for well-being.
In this blog post, we’ll discuss the mental health issues that commonly result from a concussion—and don’t worry, we’ll give you plenty of tips for giving your brain the care it needs for recovery.
Which mental health issues can concussion cause?
Some of the common mental health issues that result from concussion are depression, anxiety, PTSD, and mood disorders.
- Depression: Depression brought on by concussion may be a result of the brain’s behavioral inhibition system being triggered. This system tries to protect you by monitoring and making note of loss. When overactivated, it can leave you feeling discouraged.
Concussion symptoms like fatigue, lack of motivation, loss of autonomy, and other issues can become compounded under this reinforced feeling of loss, and make a depressive episode more acute.
Take a deeper dive into depression and brain structure.
- Anxiety: Post-concussion anxiety can feel like restlessness, rumination, and hypervigilance. Concussions can bring on symptoms like sensitivity to stimulation (like bright lights, loud noises, crowds, etc.)
Changes to your cognition and physical capabilities brought on by concussion can leave you feeling overwhelmed and anxious in once-familiar situations.
- Mood disorders: Some people experience irritability, anger, and mood swings following a concussion. These can either be the result of physical or psychological changes in the brain, or emotional responses to the changes in life brought on by brain injury.
Others experience apathy or grief after injury. Not only can it be difficult to adapt to a new lifestyle, but many face fatigue and attentional limitations that make it difficult to enjoy what they used to.
- PTSD: The symptoms of concussion and PTSD bear many similarities. It can also be difficult to distinguish the two because concussion can often happen in the context of traumatic events.
This is especially relevant for athletes, veterans, or anyone who has been in an accident. Brain injuries often take place in stressful and physically violent situations—whether it’s a crash, explosion, collision, or otherwise.
Why can concussions cause mental health issues?
The reasons concussions can cause mental health issues are tied to a few factors:
The first of these involves the structural and functional changes to the brain. Areas of the brain responsible for your emotional regulation and responses may not be connected in the ways that they used to. These functional changes can also show up as memory and attention issues, fatigue, and brain fog, which can be frustrating to deal with.
Mental health issues are often also heightened by sleep disturbances. Sleep has a profound impact on well-being, and unfortunately, sleep disruptions are common following a concussion. Often, depression and hypersomnia, or oversleeping, go hand in hand. And insomnia, or the inability to stay asleep, is often paired with anxiety.
Emotional suffering also bears a lot of impact on mental health. Loss of identity that can come with no longer being able to play a sport, participate in certain activities, engage in a familiar community or team, or simply function as one used to can lead to heavy emotions.
Finally, mental health issues can be exacerbated by negative coping strategies like substance abuse.
How long after a concussion can mental health issues arise/last?
In one study, patients were surveyed at 3, 6, and 9 months following their concussion injuries. At 6 months, 21% of patients reported experiencing mental health issues including depression.
All of this goes to show that care is needed beyond the emergency room. Continuous support that promotes positive mental health can greatly benefit someone recovering from concussion.
WHO IS AT RISK OF CONCUSSION-RELATED MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES?
People engaged in intense physical activity where they are at risk of falls, jolts, or collisions are most at risk for concussions and related mental health issues. These include:
These groups are at risk of experiencing greater emotional suffering in addition to the physical impacts because these roles are often tied to a sense of identity that can change with injury.
Beyond these groups, anyone can experience concussion-related mental health issues, too, following an accident such as a car collision.
12 WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR MENTAL HEALTH AFTER CONCUSSION OR BRAIN INJURY
The great news is that it’s absolutely possible to improve your mental health following a concussion. Just like your brain can physically heal with the right exercise, your mental health can improve with consistent care.
Here are 12 ways you can take care of your mental health:
- Work with a physical therapist: A knowledgeable specialist can provide assessment, design a tailored recovery plan that includes slow, progressive steps, and help keep you accountable for doing your exercises.
- Try psychotherapy: Therapy is an incredible tool for unpacking the emotional suffering that can come with a concussion. You don’t have to struggle alone. A therapist can help you navigate identity loss, grief, and acceptance.
- See your doctor regularly: As we learned, care needs to extend beyond the initial emergency room visit. Your brain is undergoing structural changes, including while it recovers. It can be difficult to know whether a symptom you’re dealing with is physical, mental, or emotional. Checking in with your doctor can help you identify the areas of physical health that may be affecting your mental health.
- Create a support group: Having professional support is great, but don’t underestimate the profound impact of a social circle. Especially when dealing with new functional limitations, it’s important to ask for help and lean on trusted friends. You might choose to connect with others who are on a recovery journey and who understand what you’re going through too.
- Set realistic goals: Reaching your goals releases a dose of positivity in your brain in the form of dopamine. But in order to get that boost, your goals need to be attainable. Starting small can give you the momentum you need to slowly increase your goals and expand your capabilities. Pace yourself and forgive yourself if you overextend.
- Boost your practice with wearable technology: There are a ton of great wearable technologies that can help keep you on track with your goals and exercises. Apps for fitness, brain health, meditation and more let you monitor your own progress and practices. These keep you in tune with your body and mind on an ongoing basis, making them more accessible than frequent visits to a specialist.
- Make use of positive feedback loops: Wearable technologies often use some kind of gamification to keep you engaged with your practice. They give you a feel-good reward when you reach a goal or milestone, and provide continuous encouragement as you recover.
- Meditate: Meditation is good for your physical and mental health. There’s even research to show that meditation increases white and grey matter in the brain, improving your brain health, memory, attention, and more. On top of that, it’s a great tool for getting in touch with your emotions and regulating them. It can even help with sleep.
- Improve your sleep: Sleep disturbances are common with concussion, but there are strategies that can help you sleep better. Getting your circadian rhythm on track includes practices like getting sunlight early in the day, and staying off screens in the evening. Practices like yoga Nidra can also help you relax before bed and get deep, restful sleep.
- Eat brain-boosting foods: Dark leafy greens, fatty fish, and nuts are just a few foods that promote good brain health. Eating a consistent and healthy diet with variety does wonders for your body, brain, and overall mental well-being.
- Get the right kind of exercise: Concussion recovery is all about finding the balance of getting exercise without overexerting and further injuring yourself. Gentle aerobic and cardiovascular exercises have proven to be effective for recovery—so try starting with regular walks or yoga at first.
- Play and be creative: Most importantly, do things that bring you joy. Art, music, movement, and spending time with others can help you tap into your happiness. Not everything has to be a goal or project—take time to simply enjoy yourself too.
YOUR MENTAL WELLNESS IS A MUSCLE—STRETCH IT OFTEN
When recovering from a concussion, you may face mental health challenges. But the good news is that there’s a path to improving it. Stay hopeful and pace yourself!
To be effective, concussion recovery requires some specific practices—like finding the right level of exertion. Fortunately, there are experts, technologies, and daily practices that can support you.
It’s an ongoing commitment to take care of your mental health bit by bit every day, but your well-being is worth it.