Stress and brain injury: a matter of reduced resilience

man on a rope bridge

Stress is part of our normal everyday life and not necessarily a bad thing. Wikipedia defines stress as our body’s reaction in response to a demand. Which is still quite vague, but does explain how stress can both be detrimental and beneficial. Positive stress can, for example, help improve performances or with getting motivated.

I still need to feeling of positive stress to do my job well. As my writing improves when there is a deadline that I have to meet. Which is also why I always have the intention of finishing these posts early, but only get the ideas and writing going right before the deadline (I imposed on myself).

Then there is the negative stress. This is when we get faced with a demand or obstacle that exceeds our (perceived) ability to cope. This kind of stress can result in negative thoughts and emotions and can even impact your health adversely.

Stress and brain injury

I’ve noticed that ever since my brain injury, I experience negative stress more often. Daily life is already taxing enough on it’s on. Whenever I then have to deal with an extra demand, I lose my ability to cope. My resilience has been reduced. As a result, demands that I could handle before, now often have negative consequences.

Especially unexpected occurrences result in a major stress response. As soon I get the feeling that I have less, or even no, control I’m in trouble. My common sense gets replaces by tunnel vision on whatever is causing the stress. I can’t distance myself, get emotional, can’t focus and quickly deplete my battery. This will last for the entire day and sometimes lingers on for a couple of days.

Three examples

A change in my daily schedule
I don’t handle changes on the days itself well. Whenever the day deviates too far off my plans, like when someone wants to stop by unexpectedly or I have to do something totally different at work. I find it really hard to adjust myself to these changes and will get really anxious. Which is why you don’t do me any favour by hopping by on a spontaneous visit. At work I also had to explain that I can’t cope with sudden changes anymore, as I need more time to adjust.

Other people’s arguments
I get really stressed out when other people have heated arguments. Whenever I’m in the same room, I just want to leave the room as soon as possible. However as a result of all the emotions and stimuli my brain gets overloaded and my body will go into the ‘freeze’ mode rather than the ‘flight’ mode. In that moment I’m unable to get up and leave the room. I just can’t get myself to get up and walk away. My thoughts will be going in circles, waiting for the situation to change. I can only leave when the situation diffuses, which is also the moment in which I feel my own emotional and physical reactions.

Fire alarm
One of my most stressful moments was when my fire alarm went off in the middle of the night. Luckily there wasn’t a fire, but the machine was making a deafening sound. The only coherent thought I could think was ‘make it silent, make it stop’. Logical thinking was no longer an option. Which is why it took quite a few failed attempts (including hitting it with a stick and running around near naked in the hallway, not my proudest moment) before I finally had the presence of mind to move a table in order to reach the alarm and take the battery out.

I expect that most people will have a panicked response whenever they get woken up by a fire alarm. I also assume that in that case logical thinking will be hard for most people. However, I was unpleasantly surprised by how long I had to deal with the after-effects. After the silence finally returned, I spend thirty minutes sitting in shock processing it all. In the following days I went to bed with the fear of a repeat. Even as the alarm was turned off. For a couple of days I kept hearing that noise in my head and would often get out of bed during the night to check if everything was in order.


I learned that my resilience to stress and my coping skills have been greatly reduced since my brain injury. By avoiding certain situations and informing others of my limits, I have improved the situation somewhat. Nevertheless you can’t avoid negative stress all together.

In my case, I try to teach myself to focus on my breathing more quickly. Rather than stressing out over something, to concentrate fully on breathing calmly. It doesn’t always work and won’t help with a fire alarm, but hopefully this will help in negating some of the negative effects of stress. After that it’s a matter of being kind to yourself while you wait for the after-effects to disappear.

stress and brain injury pin

Have you done strange things in order to escape a stressful situation? Have you been able to explain to others how they can help in order to reduce your stress? What was a stressful situation that stayed with you?

4 Replies to “Stress and brain injury: a matter of reduced resilience”

  1. Reading the above piece gave me an “aha” moment

    I find myself with a racing heart while multiple frantic thought patterns contradict each other when working through a demand or “stress”. All instantly. Even if the stress is a perception of events to come.
    My hyper sensitive awareness to stressful situations makes me constantly avoiding many issues that could be resolved quickly. I spend most days looking for ways to defuse every stress in my life. But looking more closely at my family circle, my dependence on no stress causes riffs. I find myself allowing poor behavior from my children or taking the side that will stop the stress quickly rather than the side that teaches the best lesson. This can mean disagreeing with those around me only to avoid a larger demand. This adds a different load of stress in itself. A vicious circle I’ve been trying to break.
    Now my aha moment will help me to find and practice new tools to achieve my best self post head injury.

    1. I’m honored that my writing led to your aha-moment, thanks for letting me know!

      I hope that you’ll manage to break the vicious circle. Be kind to yourself though, as changing your habits is challenging in its own way.

      I love your ending and willingness to achieve your best self! That’s really well said. I wish you all the best with that!

  2. “I can’t cope with sudden changes”.

    Yes, me too, I understand.

    What gets me the worst though is when *I* make the sudden change. I used to be able to “turn on a dime”, so, you I like to do that. But when I do, man I pay for it.

    The freezing? I get that too. It is irritating and it makes things worse.

    One of my escape plans is to maintain able and calm breathing. Sometimes then I can snap out if it and get heck out of that situation.

    1. Yup, irritating and frustrating. 🙂 Focusing on breathing calmly is a great technique, thanks for sharing that!!

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