Can Anxiety and Panic Attacks Come from a Head Injury?

Tyler Fernengel

If you have anxiety or experience panic attacks, you probably think it’s all in your mind. If you’re like most people, you likely assume it’s psychological or emotional issues that are causing the problem. In many cases, however, the root cause lies in the biology of your brain. Head trauma—even mild head injuries that don’t make you lose consciousness and aren’t diagnosed as a concussion—are a major factor in the development of psychiatric illnesses, including anxiety disorders and panic disorder.

Head trauma—even mild head injuries that don’t make you lose consciousness and aren’t diagnosed as a concussion—are a major factor in the development of psychiatric illnesses, including anxiety disorders and panic disorder. Click To Tweet

Having multiple head injuries puts you at increased risk. Just ask Tyler Fernengel, a professional BMX rider who has had over 20 concussions during his extreme biking career. In one of those accidents, the 25-year-old’s bike broke in half and he did a face plant, damaging his orbital socket and cheekbone. Although the visible harm to his face healed, other internal, psychological issues worsened.

“The main issue is severe anxiety,” Fernengel says to Amen Clinics naturopath Dr. Kabran Chapek in an episode of Scan My Brain. “The absolute worst and hardest thing I had to go through,” the pro BMX rider says, happened when he was mid-conversation with some friends. “Out of nowhere, I couldn’t remember what I was trying to say. I went into a full-body panic.” He says it was like an out-of-body experience, something psychiatrists call depersonalization or dissociation.

Could it be related to all those crashes he experienced? And could your anxiety, panic attacks, and other issues be associated with head injuries from your past? Consider that brain SPECT imaging, which measures blood flow and activity in the brain, shows that 40% of Amen Clinics patients have prior head trauma. Surprisingly, many of them don’t recall getting hurt.

HIDDEN EFFECTS OF HEAD TRAUMA

When Dr. Chapek showed Fernengel his brain SPECT scan, he pointed out the aftereffects of all those head injuries. A healthy brain SPECT scan shows full, even, symmetrical activity. Fernengel’s, on the contrary, revealed numerous areas of low blood flow, a flattened effect on the frontal lobes, and a scalloping or bumpy appearance that’s associated with exposure to toxins. Dr. Chapek called it “one of the worst brains I’ve seen in a 25-year-old.”

Your brain doesn’t have to be one of the worst, and you don’t have to have sustained 20-plus concussions to experience brain-related conditions like anxiety, panic disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A single head injury or a series of sub-concussive repetitive blows to the head from activities like heading a soccer ball can be enough to create changes in the brain that make you more vulnerable to mental health conditions.

HEALING THE BRAIN AND OVERCOMING ANXIETY AFTER HEAD TRAUMA

In providing a comprehensive treatment plan for Fernengel, Dr. Chapek explained that “when it comes to the brain, it’s seldom one thing.” There are typically multiple factors involved. It’s common for head trauma to be combined with stressful life events, a chaotic upbringing, unhealthy daily habits, and/or substance use—all of which ramp up the likelihood of problems.

Fortunately, decades of neuroscience research show that the brain can change through neuroplasticity. And the Amen Clinics database of over 200,000 brain scans from tens of thousands of patients confirms that even if you’ve been bad to your brain, you can make it better. Here are some tips to help put the brain in a healing environment and calm anxiousness and panic.

  • Hyperbaric oxygen therapy: HBOT is a non-invasive treatment that involves breathing pure oxygen to speed the healing process and can be beneficial in recovering after a concussion or traumatic brain injury (TBI).
  • Avoid toxins: Reduce or eliminate your exposure to toxic mold, alcohol, and drugs to enhance brain health. This includes prescription benzodiazepines, anti-anxiety pills, which SPECT scans show are harmful to the brain.
  • Breathe: A randomized controlled trial found that alternating between slow, deep breaths and quick breaths lowered anxiety as well as depressive symptoms in people with depression.
  • Meditate or pray: Research from Johns Hopkins shows that daily 30-minute meditation practice may improve symptoms of anxiety, as well as depression. A study in the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine indicated a reduction in anxiety following 6 weekly 1-hour prayer sessions. Meditation can also be helpful during a panic attack because it triggers the body’s relaxation response, which counteracts the fight-or-flight mode experienced during panic attacks.
  • Supplement your brain: To calm an anxious brain, consider nutritional supplements such as GABA and magnesium. For overall brain health, take omega-3 fatty acids and a full-spectrum multivitamin/mineral.

Anxiety, panic disorder, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

14 Comments »

  1. Don’t forget to mention strokes. Brain injuries can lead to a stroke

    Comment by Lisa — March 28, 2022 @ 3:14 AM

  2. This is amazing to read. How true it is that breathing and meditation help so much with contring your anxiety issues related to past TBI experiences. I myself went through many years of therapy and training doing both Yoga and other daily excercises to control my own panic which led to my Seizures. As a result, for the past 15 years have been both Seizure and medication free. This, I was told by The Mayo Clinic, would be told would be impossible after my Right Temporal Lobectomy in 1992.

    Comment by Jill WINTERS — March 28, 2022 @ 4:15 AM

  3. Such great information…and finally, clarity for so many who have suffered demons in their heads forever , after sustaining life-altering head injuries. I believe that thousands more lives could be saved by this oxygen therapy…along with other treatment …as well as the elimination of benzodiazepenes. I saw personally what can happen to someone who suffers this way…his benzo addiction ultimately ended his life , far too early. They should never be prescribed …period. the brain has already been traumatized, and these drugs merely aggravate the trauma ..making life impossible…so very devastating for those left behind.

    Comment by Rachel Bailie — March 28, 2022 @ 5:03 AM

  4. Thank you, Dr. Amen. My grandson enjoys BMX riding and this confirms my instincts about the dangers.

    Comment by Linda Dotson — March 28, 2022 @ 5:03 AM

  5. Great article! But- forgot to mention neurofeedback, especially microcurrent neurofeedback to support brain injury recovery. I am a practitioner and I learned from Dr. Amen about taking a health history for head injuries. As he points out, you cannot just ask if someone had a concussion or head injury. Most will not remember or think it was too minor to mention. I just had a client yesterday who said no to head injuries. When I probed further about sports injuries and/or car accidents, he remembered five- 2 with loss of consciousness. He is young and healthy but suffers from brain fog. Dr Amen is the leader in this area. I recommend his products and services to my clients. Sports organizations can learn a lot from him!

    Comment by Linda Edwards — March 28, 2022 @ 5:33 AM

  6. I’m in my 50’s but I remember falling down stairs and slamming my head against a pavement. I hit my head several times after that. My personality changed after the first fall, and I’ve suffered with anxiety, depression, and cognitive problems all my life. Yet, within the last two years I had an MRI, and the neurologist said that she could see nothing wrong with my brain. I also had an EEG and the test results were normal.

    Comment by Margaret — March 28, 2022 @ 7:45 AM

  7. Your newsletters are so helpful, Dr. Amen! I am so thrilled to learn about the opening of a clinic in Hollywood, we have vacationed there and it serves an incredible population between Miami/Ft. Lauderdale all the way to West Palm Beach and even further. We are considering relocating to Naples, SW Florida. Will you have another location on the West coast? That would be awesome! Thank you for considering this for Naples all the way to Tampa and beyond. We need Dr. Amen!!! 🙂

    Comment by Paula Schmitz — March 28, 2022 @ 9:33 AM

  8. I have had both a neurologist look at my brain, post concussion and post covid and both diagnosed mild cognitive impairment as a result, which shows itself primarily in memory problems. However, my anxiety was dismissed as depression, despite that not being a symptom I have ever had previous to covid and head trauma, and despite me being on antidepressants and not exhibiting my other depression symptoms. I KNOW there is something more wrong. Post Covid, before the head trauma I was technically recovered but had bizarre memory and anxiety issues, all new. Then I fell and had a head trauma. No one is offering me any way to improve. I guess I am wondering in in addition to head traumas causing anxiety you have any early evidence of this with covid. Covid did something to our brains but we aren’t getting much support with or hope for ways to heal.

    Comment by Eileen S — March 28, 2022 @ 11:40 AM

  9. Is the Amen programs covered by insurance?

    Comment by Eileen Licata — March 28, 2022 @ 1:17 PM

  10. Do you helpBi-polar and do you take Medi-cal?

    Comment by Marie Harrison — March 30, 2022 @ 1:35 AM

  11. This points to the problem and some examples of managing the symptoms, but I wonder if you can actually fix your brain especially if the head trauma happened years ago.

    Comment by Tee — March 30, 2022 @ 10:09 PM

  12. I learned something from my concussion specialist when asked if I had lost consciousness I said no emphatically so it was asked again differently . I was asked if there was any part of the wreck that I didn’t remember? There was quite a bit I didn’t remember. I wish this question would be the lead question in emergency rooms and with drs. I’ve had multiple concussions from horses and sports and highly recommend getting help as it is not something to do on your own or with a primary care dr.

    Comment by Sara Garret — March 31, 2022 @ 9:54 PM

  13. To tell the truth, it is cool that you covered this topic because really often people are not aware of the real reason for anxiety and panic attacks, but it is really important to know the real root of the problem. Of course, it is a common theory that such psychological disorders are the consequence of emotional issues, but it is really important to think more deeply by becoming more knowledgeable in this matter. Honestly, head trauma is a really serious injury which can entail a lot of negative consequences which can be not obvious, but I think that it is obligatory to refer to the specialist in order not to be misled. Of course, the head trauma can be caused by various factors, but it is so cool that the situation is solvable. I think that one of the most effective methods is meditation or prayer because they have a healing effect and they can affect different spheres of our life, especially making us more conscious and calm inside.

    Comment by Marina Teramond — April 3, 2022 @ 12:13 AM

  14. This somewhat explains why people who have had prior concussions (like me) have panic attacks whenever they have a “light”tap or bump to the head =/ anyone else get hypersensitive to any contact to the head?

    Comment by Law — May 6, 2022 @ 11:31 PM

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