Why does stress bring back my TBI symptoms with a vengeance? It feels like a knife reopening a wound. What goes wrong in the brain after injury that makes this happen?
Stress occurs when there is a gap between the current task demands and the resources you have to meet those demands. Your brain interprets this as a threat. Acute stress — as in immediate physical danger — produces a physical reaction (the fight-or-flight response) that includes increased pupil dilation, perspiration, increased heart rate and blood pressure, rapid breathing, muscle tension, and increased mental alertness. However, less immediately threatening or prolonged stressors, such as ongoing money problems, too many things to get done in one day, even something like unexpected company, will produce these reactions. They may occur to a lessor degree, but ongoing stress reactions, even mild ones, will result in your body preparing for a long-term protective response.
Fatigue, concentration lapses, irritability, and lethargy result as the stress continues without relief. You probably recognize these as some of the TBI symptoms you feel coming back with a vengeance. Having experienced a TBI makes you both more susceptible to these symptoms, and these symptoms make it more difficult for you to effectively use whatever coping or compensatory strategies you may have developed to manage your TBI symptoms.
Learning to manage stress is important for all of us, and of particular importance to the recovery process after TBI. Techniques such as relaxation, time management, goal-setting, organization, cognitive-behavioral techniques, and lifestyle modifications can all be helpful in managing stress. It is recommended that you get some help and support in figuring out which of these techniques will be most useful for you from a mental health provider, a case manager, a life coach, a support group, or even a good friend if the stress levels are not overwhelming or seriously affecting your life. There are plenty of resources available for stress management, and a lot of information online, but sifting through it and tailoring it for your particular needs may be challenging without some support.
Dr. Celeste Campbell is a neuropsychologist in the Polytrauma Program at the Washington, DC Veterans Administration Medical Center. She has a long history of providing cognitive psychotherapy and developing residential behavioral management programs for children and adults.