Learn / Traumatic Brain Injuries and Your Mental Health

Traumatic Brain Injuries and Your Mental Health

Kayla Gill
 July 4th, 2022|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

Key Points

  • Even a mild case of traumatic brain injury can lead to serious mental health issues.
  • Anxiety and major depressive disorder are common outcomes.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy is the most widely used treatment.

Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) can be extremely serious. Unlike most injuries, they can directly alter brain function, and have a severe impact on your mental health. Some patients even develop addictions following TBI, whether or not they have a history of substance abuse.

Even a relatively mild concussion can cause long-term symptoms. And because those symptoms won’t necessarily appear right away, it can be hard to see the connection between TBI and subsequent mental health issues. After sustaining any type of head trauma, it’s important to see a doctor and learn about your options for recovery. Depending on your exact experience, you may benefit from getting treatment at a residential rehab.

Mental Health Symptoms of a Physical Injury

Although they’re caused by physical trauma, TBIs are strongly related to mental health and addiction issues. Because these injuries can affect brain function, mood and behavioral changes are common symptoms of traumatic brain injury.1

In some clients, head trauma can lead to serious mental health conditions,2 like depression or anxiety. This is even true for people with mild TBIs, like concussions. According to one study, “both moderate to severe and mild TBI are associated with an increased risk of subsequent psychiatric illness.3 Whereas moderate to severe TBI is associated with a higher initial risk, mild TBI may be associated with persistent psychiatric illness.”

The connection between TBIs and mental health conditions goes both ways. Many TBI patients experience emotional changes, regardless of their prior health history. People with a preexisting mental health diagnosis may also be at a higher risk for traumatic brain injury.4 No matter what your mental health history looks like, you may be especially vulnerable to certain issues after a TBI.


TBIs are correlated with major depressive disorder.6 One study found that this condition “occurs with sufficient frequency to be considered a significant consequence after TBI.” And unfortunately, these symptoms may get in the way of your recovery. Many people with depression have trouble finding the motivation to get the help they need.


Anxiety disorders are quite common after traumatic brain injuries.7 TBI is associated with a number of anxiety disorders, including (but not limited to) the following:

  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Phobias
  • Panic disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

In some cases, these conditions are simply emotional responses to the event that caused traumatic brain injury. For example, you might develop PTSD after being in a serious car accident. However, they may also result from changes to the brain itself. Experts have found that anxiety is “a strong predictor of social, personal, and work dysfunction” in people with TBIs.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD commonly co-occurs with traumatic brain injuries. This might be true because of the prevalence of TBI among military veterans,8 who are at risk of PTSD for additional reasons. However, research has found that civilians with a history of head trauma are also at risk for developing PTSD.9 If you’re experiencing the symptoms of PTSD, whether or not you have a history of TBI, consider attending a program that offers trauma-informed care.

Choosing the Right Therapy for TBI Recovery

Treatment for TBI depends on your exact symptoms, and on their severity. Because these injuries may affect any area of the brain, different clients have vastly different needs during recovery. Most people benefit from a combination of physical and psychotherapeutic interventions for traumatic brain injuries.10

If you’re experiencing mood or behavioral changes, or other mental health symptoms, the following types of therapy can be especially helpful:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is the most widely used mental health intervention for people with TBI.10 In this type of treatment, you’ll regularly meet with a therapist to discuss your emotional experience. During each session, you’ll identify challenging thought patterns and emotional responses, and learn practical tactics to help you navigate them. These skills empower you to approach difficult emotions and situations with equanimity.

Mindfulness Practices

Mindfulness techniques may be helpful for TBI,11 especially for people with both cognitive and psychological symptoms. Preliminary research shows that therapies like meditation, yoga, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) are highly effective in treating a wide variety of symptoms. These techniques can help you come into the present moment, accept your emotions as they are, and find a sense of peace. More research is needed into this form of treatment in the context of TBIs. If you do engage in meditation as part of recovery, it’s important to combine it with other healing methods.

Pharmaceutical Treatment

Depending on your symptoms, you may be a candidate for pharmaceutical treatment for mental health issues following a TBI.12 If you decide to try taking medication after a brain injury, it’s important to stay in close communication with your prescribing doctor. Any prescription can have side effects, and you could be at risk for developing serious cognitive or even physical symptoms due to your health history. Some medications, including tricyclic antidepressants, may not be safe for people with a history of TBI.

All Points North Lodge offers specialized programming and facilities for both active and former professional athletes.

TBI and Addiction

There is a high rate of substance use disorders among people with a history of TBI.13 Although more research is needed into the exact link between these two conditions, data supports the idea that addiction can make people more vulnerable to brain injuries, and vice versa.

Drug and Alcohol Use Can Cause TBI

Like other mental health conditions, substance abuse can increase your risk of traumatic brain injury.12 One study suggests that problem drinking is an especially common risk factor for these injuries, because it interferes with physical coordination. Drinking post-TBI can lead to severe mental health symptoms.

Any history of addiction can have an impact on your recovery from these injuries. One study found that people who had already entered recovery for substance misuse, and then sustained a traumatic brain injury, were at an increased risk of addiction relapse after their TBI.13 And since new symptoms can appear long after the original injury, it’s important to make a long-term plan for your recovery.

Neurological Changes Following TBI

Evidence suggests that people who sustain early-life TBIs are at a greater risk for developing substance use disorders.14 Head trauma can impact brain development, and it sometimes changes the way you respond to certain stimuli. In particular, research shows that the “regions of the brain associated with the perception of reward” may be directly affected by brain injuries.

If these areas of your brain are changed or damaged, you’ll be more vulnerable to addiction. A wealth of neuroscientific research confirms that drug use hijacks the brain’s reward system.15 According to neuropharmacologists Wilkie A. Wilson, Ph.D., and Cynthia M. Kuhn, Ph.D., “when addictive drugs enter the brain they artificially simulate a highly rewarding environment.” This modifies brain chemistry, provoking behavioral changes. Habitual drug use causes “the reward system to modify the brain to crave the drug and take action to get it.”

Professional athletes may also be more vulnerable to developing addictions16 following TBI. According to one study, athletes are “more susceptible to the intoxicating effects of substances and may get in trouble more easily due to the disinhibiting effects of the brain injury.” Because addiction often starts as an attempt to self-medicate mental health symptoms, early treatment may help you avoid more serious consequences.

If you have a history of either drug abuse or brain injury, be sure to inform your doctor when you seek treatment for either condition. Healing is absolutely possible, but you may need specialized care during recovery.

Rehab for Professional Athletes

Traumatic brain injuries are common among athletes.17 Experts estimate that 10% of all TBIs “are due to sports and recreational activities.” And if you’re a professional athlete, this type of injury can directly interfere with your ability to do your job.

Fortunately, several luxury rehab programs are designed to meet your unique needs. Orenda at Futures offers the Orenda Athletes Track, in which clients can continue physical training during residential treatment. This empowers you to recover without sacrificing your long-term career goals in the process. At this facility, “a team that has provided training and physical therapy to MLB, PGA, and more helps athletes heal and train while receiving comprehensive care for mental health and substance use disorders.”

You may be eligible for one of these specialized programs even if you’ve already retired from professional sports. All Points North Lodge treats both active and former professional athletes. Their experts continue offering support even after clients complete inpatient treatment. With their guidance, clients can start planning for long-term recovery from the moment they enter rehab. For some, that recovery plan may need to include medical care alongside mental health treatment.

Orenda at Futures’ Athletes Track allows clients to continue physical training during residential treatment.

Other Symptoms of Traumatic Brain Injuries

If you develop mental health symptoms after a TBI,18 you may be at greater risk for additional symptoms. Specifically, mental health issues could be a warning sign for functional limitations, like memory loss and difficulty performing regular activities. Your healthcare team may be able to recognize those signs in advance, and help you prepare for challenges.

TBIs may be classified as mild, moderate, or severe.19 According to the CDC, symptoms may last as little as a few hours, or they may linger for the rest of a person’s life. These injuries are especially dangerous for children and older adults. For children, TBI symptoms can affect brain development and result in long-term cognitive issues. Older adults are often misdiagnosed, and fail to receive the care they need as a result.

In mild cases, common symptoms of a traumatic brain injury5 include, but are not limited to:

  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Blurred vision
  • Fatigue
  • Mood or behavioral changes

Moderate or severe TBIs present with the same symptoms, and may also cause the following issues:

  • Seizures
  • Nausea
  • Pupil dilation
  • Loss of coordination
  • Agitation

If you exhibit any of these symptoms after a head injury, no matter how minor, it’s very important that you consult a doctor.

Long-Term Recovery for Body and Mind

Traumatic brain injuries can have long-term health impacts. And if your brain functions differently than it did before, it can be difficult to imagine what healing will look like. Recovery might not mean returning to life as it used to be. Instead, this is your opportunity to get to know yourself again, and decide how you’d like to move forward.

It’s extremely important to get comprehensive care after a TBI. Physical and mental health are always connected, especially if you’re healing from a brain injury. By working with a skilled team of doctors and therapists, you can decide on a plan of care that feels right for you.

If you’re concerned about the impact of an injury on your mental health, talking to a treatment facility can be a good place to start. Search our collection of luxury rehabs for program information, photos, reviews, and more.

Frequently Asked Questions About Traumatic Brain Injuries and Mental Health

What are the mental health symptoms associated with traumatic brain injuries?

Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) can lead to various mental health symptoms, including mood and behavioral changes, depression, anxiety disorders (such as social anxiety, phobias, panic disorder, OCD, and PTSD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These symptoms can occur regardless of your prior mental health history.

Can traumatic brain injuries lead to addiction?

Yes, traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) are associated with a higher risk of developing substance use disorders and addiction. Addiction makes people more susceptible to brain injuries, and vice versa. Substance abuse, including problem drinking, can increase the risk of TBIs and worsen mental health symptoms. Early treatment and specialized care are important for individuals with a history of addiction or brain injury.

What types of therapy are effective for TBI recovery and mental health symptoms?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is widely used for people with traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) and mental health issues. It helps identify challenging thought patterns and emotions and provides practical tactics to navigate them. CBT is only one kind of available talk therapy; your treatment provider can help you decide which therapies are best for you.

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