Five steps to process trauma or shock

It was the Monday morning after a lovely weekend: sunshine, fish and chips, time out with a good friend. I loaded up the car (petrol tank ¾ full) and set the satnav for the scenic route. I’d be home in plenty of time for the meeting.  Life was good*, as I bombed along at 70mph.

The first hour was fine, but then the road surface seemed bumpy. When the entire car started to shake, I pulled over, and felt the steering go as I did.  Where I’d been in motion, now I was forced to stop. That agency & control I felt, were gone. I was stranded, on an A road, in a phone blackspot. The traffic I was part of passed by without me. I felt very alone.

That week, I’d written but not published a blog on trauma, wondering if it was too ‘heavy’. Part of my brain noted the irony - now I had a mini trauma, would I take my own advice?

When things go wrong

The interruption of my plans was hard to accept. I felt anger, frustration, disbelief: it was unfair, why me?! My mind sprang onto blame: was it my fault? I’d said I wanted to stay: had I somehow influenced the course of events? Was I unlucky? (this was my second car calamity this summer).

These questions came from the perspective that I was in control, that I made things happen, that I was at the centre of the world. In reality, a dropped screw got into my tyre and burst the rubber, that’s all. It happens every day - to someone. Today was my turn.

A matter of luck?

Every time we get into a car, there is the chance one of the components will fail: either in the car, or the road (sink holes) or other drivers (exhaustion or illness). I was lucky that I could pull over. Lucky that no other cars were involved. I was lucky that the HGVs thundering past all saw me in time. I was lucky that a motorway patrol passed within 10 minutes, parked their van behind mine and created a safety cordon with cones.

But I didn’t want to be lucky, I wanted to be safe. How could I manage that? By finding the fault. Because faults can be corrected. But the truth is, we can’t create a fault free world: we can minimise risk, but we live in a network of conditions that are largely beyond our control. And If I stop to consider that, I might never get in a car again.

Facing our vulnerability

At the time, I chose to diminish or discount the accident, rather than face what might have happened. The body supports that: I was in shock, my feelings numbed with a burst of adrenalin. My brain coped with practicalities and for 24 hours I was fine – people seeing me in that time might think so.  But later the next day, I felt vulnerable and tearful. I don’t like feeling like that, so I tried to distract myself (shopping and food). But I knew those feelings were telling me something and, until I listen, they would persist. They said: you had a close call, not every car journey ends well. You survived, for now.

Taking my own advice: five steps to process trauma:

1              Witness that it happened. Don’t minimise or dismiss it: it happened. 

2             Perhaps this wasn’t your fault. Perhaps it wasn’t about you: not everything is.

3             Hang on in there. Remember, when you’re going through hell, keep going

4             Why? Because things change over time. Thoughts, feelings, they all change.

5             Know this will affect your body as well as your mind. Be careful.

Now I get to practice what I preach. Wish me luck.