Some people are left with changes in emotional reaction or behaviour after a brain injury. These are more difficult to see than physical or cognitive changes. However, they can be the most difficult for the person and their family to deal with.
Not everybody will experience these problems and their severity will also vary.
This frequently occurs at a very early stage after the injury. It can be a coping mechanism for the person, who may be disorientated and very confused. It is most often a stage a person passes through, rather than a permanent change. Examples include: restlessness, pacing and pulling at intravenous tubes.
Explosive anger and irritability
If there has been damage to the part of the brain that controls emotional behaviour and the ability to tolerate frustration, emotions can swing to extremes. The stress of coping with even minor crises, such as misplaced shoes or a noisy vacuum cleaner, can be too much and trigger an angry outburst. If these stresses can be identified, it may be possible to reduce them.
Lack of awareness and insight
The ability to recognize your own behaviours and change them when needed is a sophisticated skill that can be affected by brain injury. This can affect someone’s ability to: be self-aware; have insight into the effects of personal actions; show sensitivity; or feel empathy. It also means that a person may not fully appreciate or understand the effect that the accident is having on their life, health or family.
Impulsivity and disinhibition
A person may lose their ability to control their actions or their speech. This problem often goes hand in hand with lack of awareness, and the person may not be aware of breaking any social rules or etiquette. There are strategies that can help to improve the situation, and prevent a person from developing unacceptable behaviours through habit.
This describes a person’s tendency to laugh and cry very easily and to move from one emotional state to another very quickly. Loss of control over emotions means the person may express their feelings inappropriately or at the wrong time. This can be very tiring and embarrassing for family members to deal with, but in time a person can begin to re-learn emotional control.
Someone may become self-centred. For example, the person may not show any interest in family matters and only be concerned with their own needs. Brain injury can affect a person’s ability to judge how someone else is feeling. The person may also become used to the huge amount of attention they receive while in hospital.
Apathy and poor motivation
Lack of motivation, or apathy, is a direct result of injury to the part of the brain that controls emotion, motivation and forward planning. Over time, lack of motivation can lead to social isolation and lack of pleasure. For example, a person may show no interest in hobbies enjoyed previously, or they may not get out of a chair all day. To help, activities can be broken down into small steps to avoid overwhelming the person.
Depression is a very common emotional reaction experienced in the later stages of rehabilitation—often when a person realizes the full extent of the problems caused by the accident. This can be seen as a good sign: the person is aware of the reality of the situation and is coming to terms with the emotional consequences. “Healthy” depression can be worked through in time, as adjustments are made. If a person feels emotionally blocked and unable to move on, professional counseling from someone who understands head injury may be helpful.
It is natural for people who have had a traumatic experience to feel anxious afterwards. Individuals may experience a loss of confidence when they are faced with situations and tasks that are difficult to cope with. However, problems can occur if difficult situations are continually avoided, or if those caring for them encourage dependence rather than independence. Talking about fears and worries is very helpful. Learning ways to stay calm under stress can also reduce the effect of anxiety on everyday life.
Inflexibility and obsessionality
Examples of this behaviour include: unreasonable stubbornness; an obsessive pattern of behaviour such as washing or checking things; or fear of possessions being stolen. The person can lose the ability to jump from one idea to another, and becomes “stuck” on one particular thought. This type of behaviour is often made worse by anxiety or insecurity, so it is helpful to reassure the person and and redirect their attention to more constructive ideas and behaviour.