TBI and Aggression – the comorbid mix

More thoughts on Aggression, for the series Then And Now – Managing TBI Issues Over the Long Term

As Google shows, TBI and Aggression are the subject of a whole lot of research and discussion. There are close to a million results when you search for +tib+aggresssion.

Physical aggression, verbal aggression… They’re two different things, but they still have some common origins. And how they manifest can depend on the individual, the nature of their injury, their environment and stressors, as well as a ton of other issues.

Aggression is one of the toughest aspects of TBI, for individuals, families, and society as a whole. Plenty of incarcerated violent offenders have a history of traumatic brain injury, so we ultimately all pay for those injuries, to one extent or another.

I’ve been looking through a great presentation from the Defense Centers of Excellence called Mild Traumatic Brain Injury & Co-Occurring Disorders: Scope of the Problem. It talks about the different issues that show up along with TBI among veterans seeking medical help.

From the presentation:

  • Of the veterans presenting to a polytrauma network site in Lew’s study (2009), 81.5 percent had more than one diagnosis and 42.1 percent had three co-occurring diagnosis, including pain, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and post-concussion syndromes.
  • In another study by Ruff and colleagues (2008), approximately 66 percent of veterans presenting with headache and TBI symptoms had cognitive deficits on examination, more severe and frequent headaches, more reports of pain, higher rates of PTSD, and impaired sleep with nightmares.
  • Veterans with positive TBI screens are more likely to have a diagnosis of PTSD, depression, and substance abuse disorder.

I’m not a veteran, but I can attest to the presence of plenty of issues that would qualify as additional diagnoses. The pain, headaches, insomnia, memory issues, post-concussion stuff, not to mention tinnitus, chronic fatigue, irritability, anxiety… all of this mixed in with a bit of PTSD. I could go on. In fact, it seems odd to even break it all out into separate diagnoses.  It’s all just TBI, from where I’m sitting.

Of course, it could also be other things. Just Plain Life has had its effect. I can’t lay everything at the feet of traumatic brain injury, I suppose.

Anyway, looking at the many things that come up in combination with TBI, I can see in my own life how it all connects and can really feed into my anger and aggression issues. TBI and its host of related issues can really put you on the defensive, which can translate to some pretty aggressive behavior.

I have noticed in my own life that the times when I have been the most aggressive, were the times when I was feeling the most vulnerable, helpless, exposed. I’ve felt overwhelmed and put-upon like nobody’s business. Like an animal backed into a corner, with nowhere to run. So much was going on, and I felt like I was getting farther and farther behind, unable to follow what’s going on, because everyone was going too fast for me to keep up, or they were not letting me get clear on what’s happening, so I was losing my grip on what’s happening.  And my head would get going about all the awful things that are about to happen because I’m not following what’s happening around me. And I would freak.

See, here’s the thing — TBI can put a huge strain on your overall system. Let’s not even think about the cognitive issues, for a minute. When you’ve got intense balance issues as well as problems with light and sound, and you’re prone to fatigue (which just accentuates the sensory issues), just getting through the morning can be a challenge. And the part of our bodies which requires a whole lot of energy is our brain. Even people with fully functioning, neurologically intact brains require a ton of energy to keep functioning normally. So, when you’ve got even more demands on you — physically — it can impact your cognition as well.

Here’s a diagram of how I see it happening in my own life:


TBI-Aggression Flow - Click to see a larger version

It’s all connected – body, mind, spirit – and when the body is taking a bigger hit from all the extra demands of just standing up and walking across a brightly lit room filled with loudly talking people, something’s gotta give.

Problem is, with TBI, one of the results of fatigue is an increased irritability. Heck, even without fatigue, with TBI, you tend to get an increase in irritability. And that irritability, coupled with any impulse control issues you might have, can lead to outbursts.

On top of that (if you’re like me) and you’re up in your head about your interpretation of what’s going on (which usually means something really bad and threatening, like people hate you and want to get rid of you — and is usually completely wrong), your impaired thinking process can result in some behavior choices that are not only inappropriate, but completely uncalled-for.

The outbursts can take an ugly turn, because now you’re not only struggling to keep up and defend against the perceived threat of an overwhelming situation, but you’re also defending yourself against the perceived threat of someone deliberately trying to get you. And when you’re threatened on that level, anything you do and say to defend yourself from everyone who is out to get you can feel 1000% justified.

Nobody else sees it that way, however. As far as they’re concerned, you’re just unstable and irrational and possibly dangerous.

Getting to the bottom of what’s going on and keeping the cycle from escalating can be quite a challenge. It would be great if we could say, “Okay, just stop this and this, and everything will be fine.” But it’s a complex interaction of factors that feed into the aggression mix. Comorbid factors. Stuff that happens as a result of TBI. Stuff that happened that led to the TBI. Trauma. Pain. Emotions. Everything.

Perhaps that’s the best protection, however — just the awareness of the fact that dealing with TBI-related aggression is not some easy-peasey piece-o-cake, and that it demands some pretty regular management strategies to keep on top of things. Managing comorbid symptoms and aggression are lifestyle issues — they are intimately related to how we live our lives as a whole — not just how we behave when we’re standing in line at the post office.

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