Mike sat in his car, stunned. There had been no horns honking warning him that the white pickup was going to run a red light as he pulled into the intersection. As he slowly looked around he noticed how the passenger door had folded into the other seat. Glass was scattered everywhere. His cell phone had popped out of the cup holder and lay on the back seat.

Feeling a wave of panic rise in him, he knew he couldn’t just sit there and wait for something else horrible to happen. At least his door might be working, he thought with relief. Ignoring the searing pain that shot down his left shoulder, he got out of the car and walked around the car inspecting the damage. In the distance he watched as a woman approached. She seemed to be waving frantically, gesturing for him to get off the road. The traffic had slowed but not that much as the rubber-neckers took a good look at the scene. He paid her no mind.

Then the shaking started, first in his arms then throughout his entire body. He thought he was going crazy and used all his will power to make the shakes stop. Sweat broke out and soaked his shirt. Mike knew he would feel very embarrassed if the woman saw him so out of control.

Common Reactions Following a Traumatic Event

Like Mike, maybe you too have experienced an accident or other form of trauma, which left you feeling out of control. Accidents, assaults, injuries and abuse can cause your body to act in unfamiliar and frightening ways if you don’t know what to expect.

The following is a list of common symptoms that we can experience shortly after a traumatic event.

1. Your body may shake uncontrollably. It is your body’s way to get rid of the shock.
2. You may feel very cold one minute than hot the next or even numb. It is another way that the body dispels the shock.
3. You may have an overwhelming urge to flee. It is your body’s way of attempting to defend itself from additional harm.
4. You may not appreciate how severely you are injured. The body wants to protect you from the emotional shock of what just happened.
5. You may not be able to think clearly. The body is in survival mode and all it wants to do is to flee, fight or freeze. Logically analyzing the situation may appear to the body as the best way to protect itself.
6. You may feel overwhelmed by feelings of sadness, fear, and guilt. As you come out of the shock of what happened, emotions arise.

First Aid Steps for Trauma

Knowing how the body reacts to trauma and how to best support yourself, or to ask for help from others, can eliminate or diminish many severe trauma related symptoms that can arise months or years following a traumatic event.

1. Call for medical first aid. If you suspect you sustained any physical injuries, call for help.

2. Ask someone to stay with you. Sometimes the most painful part of trauma is to feel isolated and unsupported.

3. Keep still and warm and, if possible, lie down.

4. Remind yourself that it is ok to feel numb or suddenly cold then hot.

4. Don’t try to stop the shaking even if it becomes very strong. Just let it happen and don’t worry that you are doing something wrong. If others around you be-come concerned tell them that this is helping you to get rid of the shock.

5. Take time off from work and home responsibilities. It can take longer than you think for the body and emotions to recover from a traumatic event. Following the release of the initial shock, there may still be times when you will feel extremes in temperature or more shaking. In addition, different emotions such as anger and grief may arise. By giving yourself the time and space to let these sensations and emotions move through you shortly after the accident or injury, you can significantly speed the healing process. This is the time to be gentle with yourself.

6. Ask for help with household chores or childcare. Trauma overwhelms the nervous system and you need to rest after a shock. Having a caring presence, who sees to it that your basic needs are met during this initial recovery time, can help you from feeling overwhelmed.

7. Make an appointment with a therapist who understands how the trauma impacts the body.

Seek Out a Qualified Therapist

While attending to your medical needs such as physical therapy, surgery, and other medical treatments can greatly improve your physical health, you may also need support to ward off the effects of the trauma that may not show up until months or years later. Without additional psychological support, it is not uncommon for people to become anxious, depressed, exhausted, and hyper-sensitive to sounds, sights and smells. Feeling isolated, trapped in nightmares that repeat again and again, and having fears about going near the scene of the traumatic event can make your life seem pretty bleak.

I offer a free 30-minute consultation during which we can check to see if I am the right therapist for you.

One Woman’s Story

Linda, not her real name, came to me six months after she was rear-ended. She could not consider driving herself anywhere and even being a passenger made her anxious. For six months she relied on her husband to take her places. While recovering from the back and shoulder surgeries was challenging, it was the loss of her independence by not being able to drive that was the most distressing part of her recovery.

In therapy, Linda and I worked to ease the residual effects of the accidents.We first explored how she felt in her body when she was relaxed. By looking at a beautiful photograph in the office, she could experience her shoulders dropping and the deepening of her breath. Then we experimented with noticing how her body could move between feeling relaxed then anxious and back to feeling relaxed. This set the groundwork for later sessions in which she recalled what happened in the car accident.

Trauma, by definition, is what happens in the body when we don’t get to complete a fight or flight response. By working slowly and with trust that her body knew how to move between feeling anxious and relaxed, Linda was able to face each scary part of the accident and surgeries. At each step she and I explored where the energy of the fight or flight response had gotten stuck in her body. For example, one thing that she didn’t have time to do at the time of the accident was to apply the brake. In session, she noticed how her leg and foot, all on their own and without her thinking that she should have applied the brake, went through the movement of pressing down on the brake. That movement released the tension that she had felt in her legs since the accident. By the fourth session, Linda happily announced that she was driving again.

But Wait….

I have already seen the best neurologist for my back injury that happened a month ago after the car accident. My back is starting to feel better. Why should I see a counselor?

After a traumatic event, it can take months or years for the more symptoms like severe anxiety and depression to show up. Our bodies find ways to hold things together for awhile, then something happens like seeing a car that resembles the one that hit us. This is enough to send the body into overwhelm and we start having nightmares about the accident or become depressed without motivation to care for our family. By working with a therapist shortly after the traumatic event, you can greatly diminish or avoid these severe symptoms that could show up later.

All I want to do is to stay home after I was raped. I can’t seem to get out to do anything.

It’s not uncommon to want to isolate after being attacked. The world can seem like a very scary place and you don’t know whom to trust. Therapy can help you to feel less depressed and anxious in a way that doesn’t cause you to feel more overwhelmed. By working slowly and gently, we can give your body and opportunity to “fight off” or “escape from” your attacker. Even though we can’t go back in time to when you were raped, the body restores itself when we give it another chance to defend itself. When your body “gets it” – feels itself as capable of fighting or fleeing- the depression and anxiety will lift.

Next Step?

If you are dealing with a recent trauma, find support either through friends and family or a professional who understands how the body is impacted by trauma. Talk therapy alone rarely is effective. Know that your body knows exactly how to heal and that you do not have to just cope with trauma symptoms. Recovery is possible!

Copyright Maggie Kerrigan 2008

Author's Bio: 

Maggie combines her technical medical knowledge, over 18 years of experience as a massage therapist and body-centered psychotherapist, and over 25 years as an adult educator to provide a solid foundation for her work.

Holding a Masters of Arts degree in Contemplative Psychotherapy from Naropa University, Maggie is a licensed professional counselor and adjunct faculty member at Naropa University. She is a graduate of the Hakomi Institute and of Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing© trauma training. Maggie is a member of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation.