As I was headed towards a parking lot after leaving a downtown office, I witnessed a woman get struck by a pick-up truck no more than 10 feet in front of me. She had walked into on-coming traffic to cross the street where there was no intersection or light and didn’t see how quickly the truck was approaching on the 40mph road. The driver, who did not expect her to be there, had no opportunity to break-in time. I remember vividly noticing the slight drizzle outside and the rush it was causing – everyone seemed to be in a hurry before the skies unleashed the rain, driving them to make unsafe choices they otherwise might not have. After the impact, her body rolled onto the top of his vehicle and back down again as he slammed on his brakes much too late.
There was no way of knowing that between the few paces from the front of the office building to my own car something traumatic would occur. In fact, that day at work had been pleasant and productive. So much so that for once I was leaving on time instead of staying late to work on an unfinished project. The unexpectedness of the accident shocked me into a hyperawareness, leaving no time to properly process what had just happened and launching me into action. Without even needing to think 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 and comfort her until the ambulance would arrive.
In that moment, my emotions were completely shut-down – even despite the heightened senses that recorded every second and would later be burned into my memory. I was instead taking in massive quantities of sensory information but not expressing any of it. The rational part of my brain took over and though I could clearly see what needed to be done next, it prevented me from realizing how deeply this incident would affect me. When the paramedics arrived and took over, I was instantly relieved, but still disconnected. And after giving a full report to the police, I finally went home.
The next day work was already back at the forefront of my mind while I made my way back across the parking lot towards the office. But as I approached the area when the accident occurred, my emotions finally released and overwhelmed me completely. I began to sob uncontrollably, the aftershock hit, and I was visibly shaken, physically ill, and emotionally exhausted. This response is normal for anyone who has experienced, or is experiencing, a traumatic event. Here are some other stress indicators as identified by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation:
My symptoms lasted a few days, but for others facing their own trauma, it could last as long as a few weeks, maybe even a month, depending on the nature of the experience. Having a supportive family was essential to recovery, but in the absence of that, a professional counselor is very useful. The most important element to recovering properly was the normalization of my symptoms and learning that I wasn’t alone in experiencing them. All of the symptoms listed above are perfectly normal and expected responses to processing a traumatic event, and should not be ignored, shamed, or met with anger and impatience. Make sure to give yourself the time, space, and support you need to heal and move on without the weight of the trauma moving with you.
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 has an emergency hotline to help individuals, groups, or organizations walk through the trauma. A link to this hotline is provided below.