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The Art of Brain Injury: A Hot Mess of Emotions

Updated: Mar 17, 2022

There is nothing like an injured brain to create emotional chaos that feels uncontrollable. Common themes I’ve heard over the years of working with people with brain injuries include:

“I keep crying for no reason!”

“My family tells me I’m a lot angrier now.”

“I didn’t have anxiety before but I’m anxious all the time now.”

“I go from 0 to 90 in a split second.”

Emotions are complex and the reasons for the increased emotions are as unique as your brain. There are some common reasons why you feel all the emotions, all the time.

Self-regulation of emotions takes A LOT of brain energy.

We (hopefully) learn to control our emotions as a child. Two-year old kids are known for their temper tantrums. The tantrum is really an inability of the brain to be able to self-control the emotions they’re feeling. Faced with something they don’t understand, like leaving the park when the don’t want to, the brain doesn’t have the ability to rationalize and the melt-down ensues. After a brain injury, there is a lot of energy going to healing the brain, reconnecting neurons, and just trying to figure out how to survive. Often there isn’t enough left over to help self-regulate. Sometimes, that part of the brain has also been injured, and it may take time to remember how to regulate.

Impulsivity is not all about actions

The frontal lobe is all about thinking and actions. When the frontal lobe has been injured the stop-feature may also be injured. Impulsivity often affects actions and emotions. The brain’s ability to rationalize and perform an action, the very thing we need to be able to control anger and emotions, has been impaired. When people with a well-developed frontal lobe function are confronted with something difficult, our brain takes stock (in a millisecond) of our environment, who is around and the appropriateness of showing an emotion or performing an action. This takes A LOT of neurons and brain power. If the frontal lobe isn’t working as well, that emotional regulation may not be intact. Enter the huge emotions, sadness and anger, that may feel like they come “out of nowhere” but actually are a direct result of the frontal lobe not being able to filter.

Now what?

Putting a filter back into your brain isn’t necessarily easy but can be done.

Get a visual reminder

There are several ways that you can retrain your brain to manage your emotions differently. One of them, and this especially works with anger and frustration, is to have a visual reminder. The brains visual system works differently than our emotional center and having a visual “stop” can be a great tool. Have a trusted family member or friend hold up a stop sign. Put a sticky note up all over your house with a reminder to check your emotions. Put a note on the home screen of your phone as a reminder.

One caution: if you are using a family or a friend for the visual reminder, be sure it’s a signal that soothes and doesn’t frustrate you more. I have had couples hold up pictures of their dogs or family members hold up a picture of a favorite memory. The association is important when retraining your brain.

Verbal Clues

The auditory system of the brain is also a different system than the frontal lobe emotional function. Having a trusted friend or family member tell you to breathe or cue you to visualize a safe space (the beach, the mountains, your room) can help you decrease the emotional reaction and retrain the brain to respond in a way that makes sense.

Get in touch with your body

It may feel like your emotions are out of control in a millisecond, but often there are events leading up to that reaction. You may have had an unpleasant interaction with a friend or doctor, and you start feeling tightness in the chest. That’s your cue that your emotions are getting big. Other body signals include an upset stomach, a tight or hot neck, or a hot head. The key is to become aware of these body reactions and stop the chaos before it starts.


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