Normal Stress Reactions after a Traumatic Event

By Christine Hammond, MS, LMHC 
 

As I was headed towards a parking lot after leaving a downtown office, I witnessed a woman be struck by a pick-up truck no more than 10 feet in front of me. She walked onto on-coming traffic on a road with a speed limit of 40 mph. The driver did not expect her to be there as there was no crosswalk or intersection in front of him. There was a slight drizzle outside and everyone seemed to be in a hurry before the skies unleashed the rain. Her body rolled onto the top of his vehicle and back down again as he slammed on his brakes.

There was no universal warning that something traumatic was about to occur. In fact, that day at work had been good and for once I was leaving on time instead of staying late to work on a project. The unexpectedness of the accident shocked me into a hyperawareness as I began to instruct others around me. One person called emergency numbers, several others secured a parameter around the incident, another stopped traffic, another spoke to the driver, and I knelt down to calmly speak to the woman.

In the moment, my emotions were completely shut-down despite the heightened senses that recorded every second. I was taking in massive quantities of sensory information but was not expressing any of it. Instead, the rational part of my brain took over and I could clearly see what needed to be done next. When the paramedics arrived and took over, I was instantly relieved. After giving a full report to the police, I finally went home.

The next day, not thinking about the incident, I went to work as usual. But as I approached the area when the accident occurred, my emotions were finally released and I began to sob uncontrollably. My emotional aftershock hit and I was visibly shaken, physically ill, and emotionally exhausted. This response is normal for anyone experiencing a traumatic event. Here are some other stress indicators as identified by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation:

  • Physical reactions: Common reactions include: chills, thirst, fatigue, nausea, fainting, twitches, vomiting, dizziness, weakness, chest pain, headaches, elevated BP, rapid heart rate, muscle tremors, shock symptoms, grinding of teeth, visual difficulties, profuse sweating and/or difficulty breathing.
  • Cognitive repercussions: Typical repercussions include: confusion, nightmares, uncertainty, hypervigilance, suspiciousness, intrusive images, blaming someone, poor problem solving, poor abstract thinking, poor attention/decisions, poor concentration/memory, disorientation of time (place or person), difficulty identifying objects or people, heightened or lowered alertness, and/or increased or decreased awareness of surroundings.
  • Emotional responses: Normal responses include: fear, guilt, grief, panic, denial, anxiety, agitation, irritability, depression, intense anger, apprehension, emotional shock, emotional outbursts, feeling overwhelmed, loss of emotional control, and/or inappropriate emotional responses.
  • Behavioral ramifications: Standard ramifications include: withdrawal, antisocial acts, inability to rest, intensified pacing, erratic movements, change in social activity, change in speech patterns, loss or increase of appetite, hyper-alert to environment, increased alcohol consumption, and/or change in usual communications.

My symptoms lasted a few days but it could last as long as a few weeks or month depending on the nature of the trauma. Having a supporting family was essential to recovery but in the absence of that, a professional counselor is very useful. The most important element was the normalization of my symptoms and learning that I wasn’t alone in experiencing them.

If you or a loved one has recently gone through a traumatic incident, there are trained professionals available to help. The International Critical Incident Stress Foundation as an emergency hotline to help individuals, groups, or organizations walk through the trauma.

https://www.icisf.org/sections/cism-teams/emergency-hotline/