Emotional overstimulation

On this page we explain something about the amplified emotions caused by brain damage. We also explain what emotions are and which brain areas are involved in emotion. At the end of the page, two experience experts (Arnie and Rianne) explain what emotional overstimulation is for them.


Table of contents

1 Introduction to amplified emotions in brain injury and the brain areas involved
2 What exactly is emotion?
3 Altered emotions in brain injury
4 Emotional overstimulation
5 Vicious circle of overstimulation
6 Frequently given answers in a survey among people with emotional overstimulation
7 Example of Arnie, experience expert at Hersenletsel-uitleg
8 Example of Rianne, experience expert at Hersenletsel-uitleg


Amplified emotions and the brain areas

Everyone has emotions, but in a person with a brain injury they seem to be under a magnifying glass and are amplified countless times.
The suffering of others can be felt more strongly, but one's own emotions can also be experienced more strongly.

The location of the brain injury largely determines whether the inhibitory function of behavior and emotion is broken.

The frontal cortex inhibits, among other things, the deep emotions in the amygdala (almond core).

People with frontal lobe damage are therefore less able to inhibit their own emotions. In addition to inhibiting emotions, the frontal lobe regulates, among other things, problem-solving ability, social behavior, empathy, decision-making, impulse control.

The frontal lobe plays a role in specific behavior in brain injuries and brain disorders, namely: perseverance (not being able to stop) a thought or theme. 

Part of the frontal lobe, the cortex orbitofrontalis (near the eye sockets), belongs to an important group of brain areas in the cerebrum; the limbic system. The limbic system is formed by a group of brain structures in the cerebrum. They are involved in emotion, emotion regulation, emotional memory, pleasure and motivation. This concerns the hippocampus, the amygdala and the hypothalamus.


The little brain (cerebellum) is also involved in emotional processes. It has, as it were, a quality control over thinking.
It provides the other brain areas with certain predictions of optimal behavior. Increased emotions can also occur if the injury has occurred in another part of the brain. There are numerous connections, including via the brainbar (corpus callosum) that connects both hemispheres of the brain. It ensures that information can be exchanged from both sides.

To give an impression of how much information is exchanged: there are approximately 200 million nerve endings (axons), each of which connects to brain cells on either side of the brainbar.

Read more about the consequences of brain injury per brain region.


What is emotion

A common invisible phenomenon in NAH is heightened emotions. What exactly is emotion?
We find the following definitions on the internet:
An emotion is a sudden reaction of our entire organism to a stimulus, which is unconsciously and automatically controlled and directed outward. An emotion has physiological, cognitive and behavioral components (body, mind and environment).


An emotion (affect, feeling) Certain feeling as a result of a sensory perception and/or mental experience (including memories, thoughts, fantasies). The limbic system of the brain probably plays an important role in the development and processing of feelings.


We can thus confirm that an emotion is the result of a stimulus from outside and from within, which is controlled by our brain.

As the description above says, an emotion is nothing more than a perception or experience.

Rianne states: "However, we humans have a tendency to label things. With emotions such as cheerful, laughter and fun, we like to label them as positive and emotions such as crying, frustration and anger as negative.
However, this is not necessary. An emotion is separate from our appreciation and should be seen that way. Frustration or anger is common in NAH, this is completely normal and certainly not negative. By interpreting this as negative, people quickly become inhibited and ashamed of their emotion.

By describing an emotion such as joy, love and happiness as positive, many people feel that only that is appreciated."

By describing an emotion such as joy, love and happiness as positive, many people have the feeling that only that should be there."



Altered emotions in brain injury

Now we are going to discuss the topic of emotional overstimulation at NAH. Why do some people with brain injuries have so much sudden anger, frustration or sadness? Why do people with brain injuries often experience magnified emotions? Or are they more likely to get upset and are they even labeled as nervous or unstable? Why doesn't everyone who experiences overstimulation in life, also suffer from emotional overstimulation?

As can be read on this site, brain damage can affect multiple areas of the brain. There are also several brain regions involved in emotions.


Life with Acquired Brain Injury is 180 degrees different from life before the injury. This requires adaptability and acceptance. Some people can do this more easily and quickly than others, depending on the type of injury, location of the brain injury, age and personality.

A stimulus is controlled by the brain, but if the part that processes the stimulus has suffered damage, it is to be expected that the subsequent link, our response to the stimulus, has also changed.


People are easily dismissed as crybabies, unstable, difficult or 'drama queens'. This is often experienced as very hurtful and unfair, as the person with acquired brain injury has not chosen his or her injury and its consequences.
For example, crying is not always the result of sadness, but can be an expression of fatigue. Words of comfort are not always necessary and sometimes only make the situation worse.
It is best to ask what is causing the tears. Give people space, let the emotion be there and indicate that it is part of the acceptance process.


Emotional Overstimulation

The difference between an emotion and emotional overstimulation is difficult to explain, but clearly felt by those who have it.
With emotional overstimulation, the emotion can also cause sensory overstimulation, or an extra drop in the bucket that makes you physically ill.

If someone does not become overstimulated, but is emotionally out of balance, this is an emotional change due to brain damage.

Only people with brain damage who experience overstimulation in their lives can become overstimulated (i.e. ill) by an emotion.
Emotional overstimulation has exactly the same consequences as sensory overstimulation. It also has the added burden of emotions that cannot find a place.

The brain injured person is overcome with despondency, sadness, frustration and anger due to a normally minimal incident. Drama, serious drama, arises because the person is no longer able to distinguish reality from feeling. No action that can alleviate this exhausting situation can help, except time. Give and take the time to cry, to feel what is happening at that moment and then to calm down. People with brain damage benefit from talking, being able to share, even if there is no solution, talking about it brings relief.

What can also occur is frustration from the person with brain injury about the tragedy that has happened. What happened cannot be reversed and the extra frustration about what happened is also pointless. However, control is no longer there and this often results in self-rejection of the incident, people become angry with themselves that they have no control over their emotions, realize that the reaction is disproportionate but are powerless in expressing it."
"Emotional overstimulation takes over you, it's like a blanket that weighs heavily on you for days and affects your entire system. It's dark, raw, deep and uncontrollable." The only thing that helps best is time. Let it be as it is, give yourself or the other person space and know that this too will pass!
People with "emotional overstimulation" seem extra vulnerable. It looks like they have an open wound; easy to hit. Every time that happens, a small scar appears, a misunderstood and unprovable part of brain injury. Comments such as “cheer up”, “stay positive”, “you need to toughen up” can make the person with emotional overstimulation very insecure and worried.


Vicious circle of overstimulation

It's a vicious circle. Sensory overstimulation can make you emotionally unstable. Emotional overstimulation can cause sensory overstimulation to strike much more quickly. The emotions cause many thoughts that the mind cannot process.

Emotional overstimulation has to do with emotional vulnerability and/or being more sensitive to other people's emotions. Emotional overstimulation also occurs as an accumulation effect. Once overstimulated by sound, images or other stimuli, a person is no longer able to regulate emotions and can therefore become emotionally overloaded.


Note: Not everyone with sensory overstimulation also experiences emotional overstimulation.


Frequently given answers in our surveys

We interviewed 150 people who, in addition to their overstimulation, also experienced emotional overstimulation. Their answers were as follows:

  • There is an accumulation of sensory or cognitive overstimulation and then you feel emotionally unstable. (126 people)
  • There is an emotion that can feel like wild panic and you can no longer control it. (65 people)
  • Very quickly affected and unable to get out of this emotion independently. The emotion is spinning around in your head, so to speak. (50 people)
  • Being overcrowded and often terribly tired or having cotton-headedness. it can only express itself through an emotional response. This is then disproportionate and rarely has to do with the “content”. (46 people)


Arnie tells her story:

"Storm that won't calm down...

Several times I was surprised by something that I never had before my stroke. Yet I made no connection with that infarction. I only realized much later that it was a consequence of this.
Together with a colleague, I am working on a blog and Twitter project to put NAH more on the map. We have a lot of contact, especially via Twitter.

One evening I saw that her Twitter account had been protected. Strange, but that can always happen. A wrong key is easily touched. Yet this sowed the seeds for an uneasy feeling.

Nevertheless, I slept well and checked Twitter again in the morning. The account was still protected.
Since I was sure there was nothing wrong between us, I started thinking about why. I started thinking about what could have happened. When I couldn't reach her by phone, my thoughts went completely in the wrong direction. I ended up at the absolute worst, so to speak. These thoughts were based on nothing.
During the afternoon she sent me an email asking what was going on. Luckily, there was nothing wrong with her, which gave me a huge sense of relief. I thought the panic would be over by now, but nothing could be further from the truth. Despite her reassuring email, I couldn't stop panicking. It bothered me all day and there was no way to distract me. That storm in my head kept raging.
I now know where it comes from, but not how to prevent it.

It's only a matter of time before it comes back...

I always try, sometimes with help, to stay in reality."


Rianne tells her story:

"I tend to always pretend to be stronger than how I actually feel, which results in an overestimation of my environment. I was once asked to keep lists for myself, or a doctor, or therapists so that they can always being able to gain insight into my thoughts, daily schedule or questions. In itself a very understandable plan, but I feel enormous pressure from this, as if I have to prepare a meeting for my work.
I feel panic rising in my head and I'm crying like a toddler having a tantrum. My partner then tries to support me by comforting me and letting me tell my story, but quickly has the tendency to say ''shut up, don't cry''. Something that frustrates me enormously! Afterwards I continue to feel sadness, frustration and emptiness for a long time. “Why can't I do this?” “Why do I act like this?” This is a form of self-rejection that doesn't help me, the trick for me is not to make this personal.
After all, it is not my character that make me act this way, but an accumulation of emotions that find no outlet and no ability to put things into perspective, due to my injury."

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