Understanding & Communicating Your Emotions After Brain Injury

Laura Taylor and Jeff Kreutzer, The National Resource Center for Traumatic Brain Injury, Virginia Commonwealth Model Systems of Care
Understanding Your Emotions

Part I

After injury, survivors and their family members often experience a variety of strong emotions. Many people describe feeling frustrated, angry, or sad about changes following the injury. Others talk about feeling worried or scared about what will happen in the future. Some people notice that their emotions change quickly, “like a roller coaster.” Feeling misunderstood is also common. Strong emotions can weaken your ability to solve problems, handle challenges effectively, and get along with others. Recognizing, understanding, and controlling your feelings can be very difficult.

This is part of a series of articles focusing on intense feelings and how to manage them effectively. In this article, we’ll present Parts I and II. Part I covers understanding and identifying your emotions. Part II covers barriers to communicating about your feelings.  Part III, a separate article, will focus on ways to manage intense emotions effectively.

The first step in controlling your emotions is recognizing how you feel and noticing when your emotions get in the way. If you can figure out how you’re feeling early on, you can get your feelings under control faster and more easily. Then you’ll be able to feel better and reach your goals more efficiently.

Take a moment to think about how you feel. Below, check off the sentences that describe you:

  • I often feel frustrated.
  • I get angry easily.
  • I can’t do much to make things better.
  • I don’t like much about myself.
  • I worry a lot.
  • I have made many mistakes.
  • I worry about the future.
  • I’m lonely.
  • I believe I am at fault for many of my family’s problems.
  • I feel sad.
  • I cry over the least little thing.
  • People don’t understand me.
  • I feel overwhelmed.
  • My feelings change from minute to minute.
  • I get upset easily.
  • Very few people care about me.
  • I have many fears.
  • I feel like I should be doing more.
  • I’m disappointed in myself.
  • I wish my life could be the way it was before.
  • I am often grouchy.
  • Sometimes I feel I’m on top of the world.

Review the items you’ve checked and the ones you haven’t to better understand your feelings. The more items you’ve checked, the more likely it is that you are experiencing many different and strong emotions. Is there a pattern to the items you’ve checked? Show your checklist to someone you know and trust. Do you agree on the items that should be checked?

Once you recognize how you feel, you can take steps to help yourself cope with the emotions effectively. Talking about your feelings is an important first step to feeling better. But, many people have trouble talking about their feelings.

In Part II (below), we’ll talk about common barriers that keep people from talking with others about their feelings.

Part II

Talking about your feelings may be difficult. People often say they worry about what others will think of them. Others say they don’t know who to turn to or who they can trust. Think about what gets in the way of talking to others about your feelings. The following questionnaire will help you figure out the answer. Circle T (True) or F (False) to figure out the challenges you face in talking about your emotions.

T  F        1. My feelings change from day to day.

T  F        2. Nobody understands what I am going through.

T  F        3. I feel uncomfortable around other people.

T  F        4. I’m worried about what others think of me.

T  F        5. Nobody cares about me.

T  F        6. I have a hard time describing my feelings.

T  F        7. I don’t want to burden people with my feelings.

T  F        8. I feel uncomfortable talking about my feelings.

T  F        9. I don’t know where to turn for help.

T  F        10. I can’t hide my feelings like I used to.

T  F        11. I’m afraid to show my true feelings.

T  F        12. I don’t want to upset people by talking about my feelings.

T  F        13. I’m afraid to let my guard down.

T  F        14. I keep my feelings bottled up.

T  F        15. I don’t know how I’m feeling.

T  F        16. I don’t feel anything anymore.

Look over your answers with family, friends, or trusted professionals. Think about the main issues that are getting in the way of talking about your feelings.

  • Is it that you feel like other people don’t understand you or don’t care?
  • Do you feel uncomfortable around other people or uncomfortable talking about feelings?
  • Do you have trouble recognizing how you feel or describing your feelings to other people?
  • Do you worry about being able to trust others with personal information?

Each of these issues may get in the way of you talking to others about your feelings. Remember that talking to others about your feelings is a big step toward feeling better. Often, you need support from others to be able to deal with difficult emotions, so you can handle your responsibilities effectively.

Asking for help lets people know that you value their support and involvement and offers chances to build relationships. Talk to trusted family, friends, and professionals about your feelings and about ways to cope with strong emotions. They may be able to give you some good ideas about ways to cope with your feelings.

We’ve talked to lots of survivors and their families to find out ways they cope with strong feelings. Here are a few strategies that have worked for other people. Look over this list and pick out which ones you think will work for you and your family:

  • Remember that ups and downs are normal parts of life. Realize that your feelings are a common, normal response to your experience. Try to look forward to the ups!
  • Stop the cycle before your emotions get too intense. Watch out for early warning signs of intense emotions. It’s harder to calm down once they get out of control.
  • Intense emotions often come in response to stress. Monitor your stress level and take steps to control your stress. Some stress management strategies actually work well for dealing with intense emotions too.
  • Be hopeful and positive. Say positive things to yourself and others (e.g., “I will make it through this,” “I’m trying my hardest,” “I’m a good person”). Try to keep a good sense of humor.
  • Recognize the difficulties and challenges you face, and how hard you are working to make things better. Give yourself credit when you control your emotions and express your feelings in positive ways.

Emotional Adjustment Project

Virginia Commonwealth University’s TBI Model System includes a research project to better understand how to look at emotional adjustment after brain injury. Participants for this study need to have had a traumatic brain injury and be at least 18 years old. If you have questions about the project or would like to be involved, please call Jenny Marwitz at: (804) 828-3704 or toll free (866) 296-6904, or email her at jhmarwit@vcu.edu.

This column was written by Laura Taylor and Jeff Kreutzer from the VCU TBI Model System Family Support Research Program. The program teaches families how to deal with stress and intense emotions. For more information about the program, please contact Laura at 804-828-3703, toll free at 866-286-6904, or by email at taylorla@vcu.edu.

Posted on BrainLine July 25, 2008.

From the National Resource Center for Traumatic Brain Injury, Virginia Commonwealth Model Systems of Care. Reprinted with permission.

Comments (18)

Please remember, we are not able to give medical or legal advice. If you have medical concerns, please consult your doctor. All posted comments are the views and opinions of the poster only.

It’s different for everyone., me? I’m on the improve 6 months later. Making more full work days, but still going into the trash can if push too hard. Worst for me, dizzines, memory, or how about one blurry eye and loss of balance and thinking people are losing confidence in me, like I am impaired. It’s just a bit sad you can fight so hard and you just can’t fix it. The injured will relate to this.

I used to have something
i lost it
I used to be normal
now i'm not
i used to enjoy things
now I don't
I never thought this would happen
I never thought this would be me
I never thought I would struggle like this
I never thought my family wouldn't get me
I never thought I wouldn't get me
I wish for the days of when I could run and jump and laugh
why is it so hard to laugh?
I had
and I lost

I was overdosed on fentanyl in theatre, I flat lined was having hypertension episodes, all these symptoms i have and I'm the same im lost up to now ive lost 21yrs, I dont trust anyone. I carnt believe ive found someone exactly the same, Thank you

I can feel you im going through some thing I feel different.

mine was in 1971 - i was 9 yrs old. nobody knew much back then - schools /doctors ,etc. i was in 4 th grade and the school just thought i was lazy . the doctors did nothing because they did not know how to help. growing up i found myself feeling very lost and alone. then having a hard time working- could not do fast and accurate at the same time. latter i discovered how humiliating it is to see developmentaly disabled people on their first job go faster and better than i ever could. (i was in my 40s then . ) i wondered why me, and why am i still "here". now in my 56th yr. i am working with an advocate who knows how to help and is tying to get me housing, medical care related to TBI, and most important a full evaluation for the TBI. i know ive got it but i need to "prove it". so why 40+ yrs later- dont ask me / ask the universe

I've had two massive blows to my brain and skull each deadly wrecks, for which I still ponder the thought of why I am still alive?? I've researched for five years to put the pieces together and finally with the knowledge of this website more importantly the personal stories I can begin to reverse the confusion of all of the emotions, the losses of almost everything from job, children, lifestyle, love, personality. No doctor has ever done anything to do with this disorder/condition. But today I am bringing it to light in a way this condition will be recognized. Thanks for the hearts shared in every story!!

I feel family dont understand me.

I find this all very interesting I could and should write book on living with brain injury. As a navy veteran injured during the Iran hostage underway fleet 7 fleet. I have been seeing Dr at VA for 37 years off on. Without saying naughty words it has been very hard very very. I look forward to the day I die. This list is just a sample of some of the problem I have: insomnia, epilepsy, night terrors, and night seizures. CLUMSY word finding, spelling, basically a severe drop in IQ, anger, loss of hearing. Oh, pain. White matter disease started when I was 22 years old. This has been eating at my brain. Mini stroke. They just figured out why 37 years later. The list is much longer but it is too hard to share any more.

Omg! Omg! I feel empathy for the first time since my injury. I really don't understand why doctors are the worst, but they are. I don't need to say more. Thank you for saying it all.

The hardest thing to deal with, concerning my TBI, is that NO ONE- not family, not doctors, not friends, not coworkers- can accept what's happened to me. I was athletic, constantly traveling, attending every social event I could fit on my calendar, always volunteering, protesting/supporting social issues, constantly learning...now I so badly want to STAY HOME with the curtains closed (my beloved comfort zone/cocoon) because sunlight wicked hurts my eyes and head, I can't deal with crowds/commotion/visual activity/physical motion (all thing I loved!!), I get stressed out in the car due to poor driving/speeding (my TBI is the result of a motor vehicle accident- which no drivers are capable of appreciating), I get dizzy all the time (especially in the dark), I have a hard time concentrating to understand topics, and my other injuries still hurt me very much too. I constantly get told to "hurry up" when with others during social activities (especially when stairs or uneven ground are present). I constantly get spoken over/ignored/have my sentences finished in conversations (and then people turn to speak solely to my fiance, as if I'm mentally retarded or am just some idiot who can't speak to their liking). I get the weirdest looks ("Like, duh!") when I ask for someone to repeat or explain a talking point, because it was too complex for my injured brain to comprehend at their rate/speed of talking. I work in an atmosphere where work injuries are to be sucked up and, if you're out of work for any length of time, you're screwing the company yet, when the company refuses to let you have needed care, you cannot work nor maintain your personal life. Still- coworkers see you as a bad/law breaking person and cease any contact with you. People you gave to personally/physically/emotionally go running from your support circles by ceasing communication with you. People who talked to you every day and trusted you with their most personal/confidential of things suddenly drop you like a hot potato and never look back. It's exiling, isolating, disrespectful, hurtful and very emotionally damaging. It's so hard to have a TBI! People think, because you're not in the official handicapped sign wheelchair, you must be just fine and need to suck it u and get back to normal. They have no idea how many days  and nights I've cried myself to sleep wishing just that- wanting to get back to normal. No one wants to help though, especially doctors.

'Control my stress'? My stress is a normal and reasonable response to my life, living arrangements, no income, expensive rent = FMEGA fear of homelessness. Electrics are dangerous here, too hot (= worse neuro problems and even worse sleep), constant PAIN, fobbing off and passing me on by professionals.

But oh ha ha I'm meant to laugh am I? Not funny, but others seem to find it so = bullying, victimization, harassment and teasing. Words and others' behavior CAN and DO destroy me/others. But no BLOOD and it's always WE who are told there's something wrong with US, wrongly judged, not believed and punished for being 'too sensitive', 'too demanding', 'exaggerating' and we are labeled LIARS, greedy for money and malingerers = no wonder many of us commit suicide: trying to prove my innocence is WAY too hard = can't. No hope after nearly 10 years. And that's a joke, funny? Sick.

Loss of, but not total loss of, sense of humor. Serious. Told I was too negative and appear to be still, 41 years later.

Following the wreck, I returned to work, only to be told to, "go home, you are sick and need help. Don't come back until you get help". I misunderstood, thinking I needed a helper at work, that got me fired.

After 25 years of TBI, you have to find humour in your life!😉💐🎼🐬🐟🌊🏊☀️❤️💕🌴👄🎸🍖🍦🎻

I had a mild brain concussion a few days ago

I agree with the comment regarding losing one's sense of humor. Prior to my TBI I was a different person in more ways than none. My life consisted of humor and witty banter while after the injury I found nothing funny anymore. It took me a long time to realize that it wasn't so much a neurological issue, but possible depression stemming from my experience. In an experience so challenging and ill supported medically one tends to feel lost, misunderstood, and hopeless, but after a while that humor creeps back. I have no idea whether or not the person who complained of the same issue will ever see this, but if they do I want them to know that they should recognize that with a positive outlook the humor will return. Keep your head up.  

I have experienced every one of these issues in the past 23 years since the accident. Theoretically I agree that counselling is a wise choice but the problem with that is most 'professionals' are swayed by their standardized understandings and approaches. Sometimes just having somebody from outside your immediate family to talk with no expectations of you to return to the person you once were helps. On that note, if I can lend a caring ear to anybody struggling I'd be thrilled.
One of the suggestions you have offered is to "have a sense of humor" I seem to have lost my "sense of humor" since my brain injury...

Blessing to all of you!
If you can't perform some of your pass favorite hobby, please try to find another one.
Listen to instrumental music is really good too. I believe that you can command your inner self to create more neurons were it's needed..transform your new you using your mind. Be relax, meditate and don't forget the music