Traumatic Stress

We all respond to the trauma of an accident differently, based on our personality, physiology, background, and circumstances of the accident. Many people experience symptoms of acute and posttraumatic stress disorder. Other mental health issues to watch out for include depression, substance abuse, and anxiety.

As your body and brain attempt to adjust to the traumatic shock of causing unintentional harm, a variety of troubling symptoms might appear. These signal that you have been through a major trauma and need to exercise all your coping skills. We use the term “acute stress” to describe these symptoms when they occur in the first few weeks after your accident. If they last longer than one month, it is called “posttraumatic stress” and therapy is needed.

  1. Feeling numb, disconnected, detached, or dissociated from the world around you or from yourself.
  2. Sleep problems — having a hard time falling asleep, staying asleep, or staying awake. You may have nightmares.
  3. Flashbacks, thoughts, images, and memories of the accident may dominate your inner life or interrupt and intrude on other thoughts and activities.
  4. Sadness, grief, or depression. This may be pervasive or it may come in waves.
  5. Fear, including fears you know to be irrational. You may want to avoid certain places or situations. You may feel jumpy and startle easily. You may be “hyper-vigilant;” for instance, you might need to check and recheck to make sure something or somebody is safe.
  6. Memory problems, including an inability to remember certain aspects of the accident.
  7. Irritation — you may feel more impatient, have a “shorter fuse,” be quicker to anger.
  8. Physical symptoms, like digestive issues or back pain.
  9. Difficulty being loving, tender, or sexual.
  10. A sense that you can never know happiness again, that you are a “bad” person, and that the world is a “bad” and unsafe place.

If acute or posttraumatic stress is interfering with your daily functioning, or if it is causing you distress, we recommend psychotherapy. Today there are several excellent approaches for treating PTSD. You can and should care for yourself and allow your friends and family to support you. For instance:

  1. Be kind to yourself. The pain you feel is evidence of your humanity.
  2. Keep in mind that you will not always feel this way, that you can find a path to peace.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help — from doctors, counselors, clergy, friends and family. Definitely seek help if: (a) you feel suicidal, (b) you worry you cannot control your anger, (c) distress related to your accident interferes with your life for more than one month.
  4. Do not abuse alcohol or drugs. You can ask a doctor to prescribe medication to help you cope.
  5. Do not neglect your overall health — try to eat sensibly, drink plenty of water, and exercise.
  6. Be wary of advice that does not feel right to you. There are many paths up this mountain to peace, and you can select the route that feels right for you.
  7. Check out our Resources page to learn more about posttraumatic stress.
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