Nearly 800,000 people in the United States suffer from a stroke each year. Approximately 34 percent of individuals hospitalized for a stroke are under the age of 65. Although the cause may differ, there are some common psychological and emotional changes that can happen after experiencing a stroke. Some of the most common psychological difficulties include a feeling of apathy, depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress, and irritability.
Up to one-third of stroke survivors will experience depression symptoms following a stroke. These symptoms can include low or sad mood, changes in sleep patterns, changes in appetite, feelings of hopelessness, and even thoughts of suicide. Many individuals may also experience increased irritability which can cause a great deal of difficulty in their day to day lives.
Anxiety and posttraumatic stress are also very common after a person experiences a stroke. Experiencing a stroke can be a very stressful and scary event. Many survivors worry about having another stroke or may even feel traumatized by the experience. Anxiety can have many forms including: panic attacks, constant worry about having another stroke, or social anxiety and not wanting to be around people. There are many valid reasons a person may have anxiety after suffering a stroke.
Family members can also be affected by the psychological and emotional effects of a stroke. Sometimes family members notice changes in personality. For example, their loved one may be more irritable or have little to no interest in doing the things they once enjoyed. Nearly one-third of stroke survivors will experience apathy, which is separate from depression. In these cases, the individual denies feeling depressed but may not want to initiate activities and may have a more “unreactive” mood. Support groups can be a great resource for family members as well.
Suffering from a stroke can be a life changing experience and adjusting to a “new normal” can be challenging. Oftentimes there are lasting physical and cognitive changes, such as memory loss, difficulty concentrating and changes in physical abilities. Rehabilitation can help to decrease the degree of disability associated with stroke and sometimes the individual may need help learning to cope with these changes to regain independence and improve their self-esteem.
Research has shown that there are very likely biological reasons for depression and anxiety after a stroke; it is not solely an adjustment reaction. If you or someone you know is suffering from post-stroke depression or anxiety, ask your provider about treatment options. Understand that it is not your fault and with help you can feel better. Treating post-stroke depression or anxiety is very important. Treatment can help improve mood, quality of life, overall health, adherence to prophylactic behaviors, and limit the degree of disability.
(Lea Berentson, PsyD, is a licensed psychologist at CHI St. Alexius Health Archway Mental Health Services. She provides mental health services to youth and adults struggling with a variety of mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, trauma, anger management, grief, self-harming behaviors, and personality disorders.)