Pay no attention to that drastic mood swing

Probably one of the most annoying things about TBI is the power and speed with which moods can change. You’re going along, doing your thing, and all seems well. But all of a sudden, you’re flipping out – for no reason that anyone can tell.

Our TBI Flies have something to say about this. Meet Jenny, a perfectly normal, nice gal who has a bit of a mood swing problem.

Jenny is Happy

Jenny is NOT HappyJenny is Happy again
Green seems to think it’s cool that Jenny’s happy again – “so long as she’s happy” right?

Not necessarily. It’s important to understand why folks get bent out of shape with TBI. Depending on the person — and this is not true for all TBI folks — anger can become rage and rage can escalate to violence with the kind of speed that will make your head spin.

Green Fly above seems to think it’s all a convenient excuse for bad behavior. Green obviously doesn’t know a whole lot about TBI-related anger.

You see, anger comes with TBI for a number of reasons, the big one being that pesky constant restlessness that takes over your brain, as though all our synapses were on high alert, looking for a new way to make the connections it was used to making before the injury. That constant restlessness can lead to fatigue — our brain is something like 2% of our body’s weight, but it consumes 20% of our body’s energy. And when we get fatigued, TBI folks can get irritable.

When you get irritable, if you interpret that as that there’s something wrong with you — you’re defective or flawed or a bad person — it can mess with your mind and make you do and say things you would normally not do. It can make you mean. It can make you cold. It can make you aggressive. That sick, sinking feeling that you’re behind and you’re just not going to be able to catch up… that sick, sinking feeling that you’re damaged beyond repair and you’ll never be the person you once were… that sick, sinking feeling that you and everyone around you is completely screwed and you will never be able to dig yourself out of the hole you’re in… that can make people do some pretty desperate things — including lash out at the people around them, doing and saying whatever the hell comes to mind, regardless of any consequences.

When you think you’re damaged beyond repair, you think you don’t have a lot to lose, so you can sometimes do and say things that will cause you to lose the things that mean most to you — love, respect, dignity, grace under pressure — and each episode of high drama chips away at the inner reserves you have, till you end up walking around like a shell of the person you once were.

The people around you may not realize it, however. They may not see any reason to think you’re any different than you were before, and so they react to your outbursts with understandable irritation and puzzlement. And when they don’t factor in what’s going on inside of you, it can be easy to consider them stupid in their own right(s) and treat them like the blind idiots you know they are. They’re so blind, they can’t see what’s going on with you, and they earn your contempt, through and through, by simply treating you like you’re capable of dealing with things like you did before you got hurt.

It’s a vicious cycle that I believe contributes to the downward spiral that can often accompany TBI. Even mild traumatic brain injury can result in this dynamic — sometimes it’s even more likely, than if there was a severe injury, because people outside your head literally cannot tell that there’s anything amiss with you. And they may vehemently deny that you are any different than you were before, or that you’re any different than everyone else around you.

This kind of dynamic is all too common. But it’s somewhat preventable. Keeping chilled out and rested and learning to handle your anger is an important step in this. Also, realizing that everything you feel isn’t necessarily true. And sometimes the things you feel most strongly are the ones that are farthest off the mark. In my case, the more extreme the mood swing, the less likely it is to have merit. The most intense, drastic fluctuations in my moods are clearly neurologically fed, not psychologically justifiable. And the better I am at dealing with the flares of emotion that come out of nowhere — accepting them for what they are, but not feeding them any energy — even ignoring them, if at all possible — the better off I am.

Of course, when I’m tired and stressed, the chances of me being able to do that drop pretty sharply.

So, it’s important to pay attention up front to what’s going on, so you don’t create the kinds of conditions that lead to rage:

  • Fatigue
  • Frustration
  • Telling yourself stories about yourself that convince you you’re damaged and inept and worthless
  • Telling yourself stories about yourself that convince you that they are idiotic wastes of space who don’t deserve courtesy or respect
  • Continuous stress that you feed, in order to keep the steady supply of stress hormones pumping so you feel “sharp”
  • Etc.

Keeping an eye on things can go a long way towards helping. Of course, you can always laugh at yourself, too. Not ridiculing or belittling, but understanding that this too shall pass, and there’s no point in getting completely BENT over stupid shit that is gone almost as quickly as it appeared.

Author: brokenbrilliant

I am a long-term multiple (mild) Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI or TBI) survivor who experienced assaults, falls, car accidents, sports-related injuries in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. My last mild TBI was in 2004, but it was definitely the worst of the lot. I never received medical treatment for my injuries, some of which were sports injuries (and you have to get back in the game!), but I have been living very successfully with cognitive/behavioral (social, emotional, functional) symptoms and complications since I was a young kid. I’ve done it so well, in fact, that virtually nobody knows that I sustained those injuries… and the folks who do know, haven’t fully realized just how it’s impacted my life. It has impacted my life, however. In serious and debilitating ways. I’m coming out from behind the shields I’ve put up, in hopes of successfully addressing my own (invisible) challenges and helping others to see that sustaining a TBI is not the end of the world, and they can, in fact, live happy, fulfilled, productive lives in spite of it all.

7 thoughts on “Pay no attention to that drastic mood swing”

  1. I was just wondering what kind of tools you can use to help fight these mood swings? I am a undiagnosed brain injury survivor.(too many car accidents and blows to the head from helping calves nurse from their mothers). We also have a son who suffers from a gun shot wound to the head, it happened 3 years ago and he will be turning 16 in December. I have the support of a loving wife who has helped me see that I have a brain injury and is helping us both through life. We are a christian family and I draw a lot of strength from our Lord and hand my mood swings over to him but we are struggling to get our son to accept that he has moods swings and how to deal with them. Anyone have any tools in which to help us help him????


  2. Dennis –

    That is a tough one. It can be pretty difficult to convince a brain injury survivor that the issues they are having are their own. So often, our brains tell us that we’re fine — it’s the rest of the world that’s having problems. In my own case, it can be very confusing when people “put me on the spot” about my behavior. I don’t realize I’m doing it, and then I get very defensive and tend to lash out at people who are genuinely trying to help. People have to go slow with me, or I fly into fight-fight response, and that stops me from being able to think clearly at the time. This is true of both family members and co-workers. The worst is, when my boss is lecturing me about my behavior and it takes me by surprise and I end up behaving even more unpredictably. (I’m working on that – I like my job and want to keep it 😉 )

    I think there are a number of ways you could address your son’s (lack of) acceptance of mood swings. Some of them are in reaction to what he does, and others are preventative. I have found that reactions to what I do after the fact can be very counter-productive. By the time the mood swing has erupted, it’s a little late for people to be discussing things with me, and I’m probably at a place where the chances for good quality thought and conversation are diminished.

    A reaction response could be doing a “check in” with your son and asking him how he’s feeling and what he’s thinking… give him and yourself a lot of time to just check in. No judgment, no punishment, just observing what’s going on and asking what’s happening at the moment. It could be that he’s frustrated about something that happened that day, or he’s tired. He could be upset about something he’s not telling you about. He could also be having hormonally affected mood swings. If he’s 16, he’s a growing boy becoming a man, and his body is changing from the inside-out. This is stressful for us all, even without brain injury. The added “complications” of a rewiring brain can make things even more touchy. But if you can discuss things with him in a calm, loving, Christian manner, he may learn to do his own “check-ins” and monitor his own moods over time.

    The key (for me) has always been not being too hard on myself over this – understanding that this is something that comes with brain injury. Your son has had a gunshot wound, which is obviously a brain injury — that makes it easier to explain his situation to him. With me (and with many others) getting used to the idea that all those bumps on the head — even the ones that left us woozy and foggy and messed up — were actual brain injuries was the first step. With your son, it’s obvious. But it may not be obvious to him that he has problems, unless you explain to him what’s happening — again, in a calm, loving manner that doesn’t make him out to be a monster. The “monster trip” doesn’t help. I should know — I dealt with that for decades, before I could get out from under it.

    Another way to respond is to have some sort of humor — try making a joke (but not AT him – I don’t think that will help). Try to get everyone to lighten up. That can help a lot. I had a friend once who had a little sign in their kitchen – “Angels can fly, because they take themselves so lightly.” You might try having some light-hearted response to his volatility.

    A BIG way that is helpful, which I learned from my neuruopsych is to “not make it mean anything“. That is, don’t interpret his mood swings as being a personal attack or a sign that you and your wife are bad parents. If you make his mood swings mean that A) He’s a bad son who doesn’t have proper control over himself, or B) You’re bad parents who haven’t trained him up in the way he should go, or C) He’ll never get better, or any of the other stories we tell ourselves to make sense out of our lives, you add pressure to the situation — sometimes without cause. But if you just let him have his mood swings at the moment, and you don’t make it mean that there is something wrong with him or you, then your minds are clear (and hopefully your hearts are too), so you can respond in positive ways with him.

    You could also take steps address the root causes, which may be fatigue and confusion, or being overwhelmed. If your son has been staying out late, and then he gets home and gets online or on the phone and he is not getting much sleep — while going 200 miles per hour, as teenagers will — then I’m not surprised he has mood swings. I do, too. Sticking with a routine and holding him to a curfew may help. Also, helping him manage his time and activities by talking things through with him, can help him manage the overwhelm. My neuropsych spends a lot of time just talking to me about my daily life and activities — talking things through, so I can create better neural pathways for handling my life.

    Also, diet can be very important — watch what he is eating around the times when he has mood swings. Brain injury can cause physical issues with metabolism, and that can include blood sugar. Is is blood sugar low when he’s flipping out? You’ve probably seen the Snickers commercials showing people turning into someone different (and much meaner) when they haven’t eaten. You and your wife can watch to see if he’s hungry, when he’s having mood swings. It could also be that he’s eating too much junk food, and the blood sugar spikes and drops are taking a toll on his state of mind. This is something you and your wife can keep an eye out for, when he’s at home. When he’s out and about, it’s less easy.

    I’m sure your family really believes your son is lucky to be alive. And people around you may think the same thing. One thing that makes it difficult is the lack of information in the general public about brain injury — that can add more pressure, especially from peers who may be less tolerant of his differences. That may add to his stress, on top of growing up. It’s not easy. I know this from personal experience. And I think it is great that you and your wife are willing to take this on and work with your son to help him, instead of just deciding he’s a bad seed and giving up on him.

    Here are some links you can follow to learn more – — these are great tutorials about how to understand and help kids who have experienced brain injury. There are many tutorials about may subjects, and suggestions for interventions. I have found them helpful, even for me as an adult. — this is great in-depth information from a group that helps folks with brain injury. It is specifically for family members. Also, there are other sections on the site for survivors, as well. I have found Give Back to be a lifeline for me. This info was so helpful to me at the outset — I think my recovery would have been much different, if I had not found them.

    I’ll wrap up now — best of luck to you and your wife and your son. All things are possible with faith and just sticking with it. Brain injury is such an individual thing – I made a poster to look at that reminds me of this — you may find it helpful as well —

    All the best


  3. Cool! You mean to tell me, IT REALLY IS ALL ABOUT ME? AWESOME!!!! ;o) guess, in some ways it pays to be brain injured? lol


  4. Reblogged this on Broken Brain – Brilliant Mind and commented:

    Drastic mood swings are very much a part of TBI recovery. Learning to understand them and handle them well has been a big part of my own recovery. And understanding that emotional volatility didn’t make me “crazy” or deficient or broken, was a big positive change for me. It made all the difference in my recovery.


  5. It’s been said, “Any brain injury is a traumatic brain injury”, because even if it doesn’t originate from trauma, it results in it. I agree with that assessment.


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