We all know the story.
We’ve been there ourselves, or one of our loved on has. That person was fine when s/he left the house, only to call up hours later—perhaps much later than you expected—and says (perhaps mostly inaudibly): “Something horrible has happened.”
There’s an old adage that goes like this: any accident you can walk away from is a “good” one/”a blessing.” But that’s likely not how the person who was just in the wreck feels. In fact, psychologically, they may still feel as if they are in danger much later on, or in more severe cases, still in the car/at the scene. Though most would be happy their partner, friend, parent, or whoever is okay, is alive—that their state, and not the damage to what is really just pieces of metal (albeit expensive ones, especially if you don’t have collision coverage)—the victim may being feeling extreme guilty and toxic self-shaming/blaming. In all probability, they’re thinking about the fast yet impossibly slow, non-linear recollection of the crash. They’re traumatized, and experiencing complex feelings of guilt, shame, shock, nervousness, worry, fear, uneasiness, and/or even trouble comprehending that the event actually happened. This is one of the may reasons accident victims often go over the story again and again, playing out different scenarios (i.e., “If I would have just…/I could have…/If only…” Sometimes it’s hard to stop thinking about, especially if the person is prone to anxiety and depression, or prior survivors of PTSD.
This is where matters can become a real danger. In its more extreme state, anxiety and guilt can cause people to stop leading fulfilling lives due to Post Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD), which could have been present before the crash or due to it. Respectively, it is important allies note the changes in/more extreme feelings of their loved one in order to properly aid in recovery, which is not only possible, but highly probable.
So, why are such profound emotions so common for survivors of automobile accidents? Firstly, because emotional recovery is is essential and takes time, and secondly, because reactions to trauma are multifaceted, and include physical, emotional, and cognitive symptoms. In addition to the obvious reminder of one’s mortality and nearly obsessive initial thoughts about the event, which often occurs during traumatic experiences, Dr. Peter Levine explains: “In the case of a car accident, like so many traumatic events, the accident victims have no opportunity to complete natural instinctive survival reactions. [...] The part of the brain in charge of survival basically takes a “memory snapshot” of elements considered part of the danger of the accident, associations to the original event fuel fears, hyper-reactivity or disconnection.” Combined with guilt and other negative impacts on self-esteem, the self-effacing ”I should have…” analysis stems largely from frustration with the lack of direct survival instincts that could be applied during the crash. (For women, there is the additional internalized repression that may surface: as a hallmark slur that “women are bad drivers.” When I was in an accident, I seemed to endlessly recall a sentence in Joyce Carol Oates’ horrifying short story, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? until I’d recovered: ”The left rear fender had been smashed, and around it was written, on the gleaming gold background: DONE BY CRAZY WOMAN DRIVER). All of this is often a brutally painful experience. Levine further illustrates:
When something unexpected occurs in our environment that alerts us, our threat reaction is activated. When alerted, there is a “startle response.” We then orient our eyes, ears and our body position to locate the possible threat. If we determine it is dangerous, we instinctively move either toward it to confront it, as in the fight response, or away from it, as in the flight response. Later, as the freeze response literally thaws out, we tremble and shake as the nervous system releases and reorganizes. By giving the body all the time it needs, it can relax and shake off the excess energy left from the traumatic experience. Biological completion helps unlock the jamming in the nervous system and allows the client to integrate the experience so that they can move on and be freed from the after-effects of trauma.
What Are The Most Prominent Reactions To Traumatic Events?
(Should NOT last more than two weeks at the most)
- A marked, ongoing feeling of uneasiness and lack of safety, even when not in an automobile
- Feelings of dissociation, or lack of connectivity to other events or people in their lives
- Continual nightmares, trouble sleeping, or resistance to going to bed
- Daytime fatigue; over-sleeping
- Excessive irritability, worry, or anger/becoming hyper vigilant
- Ongoing memories of the accident “playing on a loop”/flashbacks, bad memories, or hallucinations when extreme
- Not being able to recall parts of the event
- Emotional difficulty riding in or especially driving vehicles
Remember: everyone responds differently when faced with a terrifying situation. Try to encourage your friend to take time to heal while reminding them that everything is okay now, and suggest that they continue to keep up their daily routines, take care of themselves, and not be afraid to seek support from friends and family. It MAY be time for your friend to seek professional help is the symptoms persist for more than two weeks; if they worsen; if they seriously affect functionality; or if your friend attempts to completely avoid automobiles or anything else that is a reminder of the accident.
It’s also greatly important that you are not too hard on yourself! Being a supporter is a challenging role as well. You are allowed to have your own reactions, but make sure you check those that judgmental and will make the victim feel guilty. They have no place in the healing process, as they are harmful and not helpful.
What should I AVOID Saying/Doing In Order To Aid In The Recovery Process? What SHOULD I Say/Do?
- Do not blame the other person for the accident (If the person engages in self-blame, you may respond with something like, “That’s why it’s called an accident.” Reiterate that personal safety is more important)
- Do not probe the victim for details about the crash or force the person to discuss the accident if s/he is not ready. This can add to the guilt and traumatic effect already being grappled with.
- Allow the victim to talk, and don’t try to relate your own stories, which can be triggering. The survivor probably wants to get the “story” out of their head in an attempt to make it “real” and cope with it. Recounting your own frightening tales of accidents can make the person feel less safe—or even worse, talking about how you have never been in an accident, but imagine it would be frightening, can make the person feel exceedingly guilty, ashamed, or lesser. Being a great friend in these situations means being a great listener.
- Tell your friend to try to visualize everything, which was fine, before the crash, and “freeze” it there. Simply picturing life and omitting the triggering event has been shown to have healing properties.
- Reiterate that the accident is over, and they are safe and loved. Communicate that you understand healing takes time, and be patient (but observant of the time frame) as well. This is probably the best thing you can do!
Addressing the impact of the accident is the first major step toward recovery. Remember that you are helping someone who is also helping themselves. Stress that there are elements one can control in life and others one cannot, and make sure to go back to one of the most basic and initial reactions people have upon receiving that dreaded phone call: “YOU WILL GET THROUGH THIS. WHAT MATTERS MOST IS THAT YOU ARE OKAY.”
- Gendlin, Eugene. Focusing, New York, Bantam Books, 1998.
- Heller, Diane & Laurence. Crash Course: A Self-Healing Guide to Auto Accident Trauma and Recovery, California, North Atlantic Books, 2001.
- Levine, Peter. Waking the Tiger, California, North Atlantic Books, 1998.
- Saperstein, Robert and Dana. Surviving an Auto Accident: A Guide to Your Physical, Economic and Emotional Recovery, California, Pathfinder Publishing, 1994.