You’re supposed to get right back on the horse after you fall off, right? Not so fast.
If you follow that old adage after an accident, you are much more likely to develop anxiety disorders, phobias or even post-traumatic stress disorder. According to
Dr. Peter Levine, Ph.D., much-acclaimed expert in the field of stress and trauma, a lot of the emotional pain and suffering that traumatized people go through can be alleviated if we can help support them to
“discharge the shock energy immediately after the incident”.
Much of the cause of traumatic disorders is the result of failure to discharge the shock energy, the fight or flight physiology that is activated to help us run for our lives in a life-threatening situation.
When we witness an accident, such as someone tripping and falling, falling down stairs, falling off of a bike, or a minor car accident,
we have an impulse to rush to the person and try to help them up well before they should get up,
according to Dr. Levine. In his book, Healing Trauma, A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body, Dr. Levine, Ph.D. goes on to say that what people need after a fall, is to let the shock reaction dissipate, to allow the shaking and trembling that naturally occurs to resolve. It may take a few minutes to a few hours depending on the individual.
Through Dr. Levine we have learned that this is the way that all animals resolve shock reactions. In the moment of the fall, a person doesn’t know if they will be seriously hurt, and in that moment, they may even fear death.
- Keep a person still, warm and laying down if possible.
- Stay with the person.
- Normalize the trembling and other shock discharge symptoms.
People can be self-conscious about their body shaking and feeling “out of control” and might try to stop the process because of this in addition to any feelings of embarrassment they may have about the accident.
- Interrupt the process by saying too much, telling the person not to cry, don’t be scared, settle down, etc. The person should be allowed and encouraged to experience what their body needs to experience in order to get back to its normal state in the time the body needs.
If the person is injured and needs medical attention, that, of course, is the priority. Stay with the person at least until help arrives or even after because there is often a bonding with the injured person and that support can assist in the healthy resolution of the trauma.
Three Phases of Shock Recovery and
How You Can Help
If the accident isn’t serious, encourage the person to experience their body sensations, such as, the feeling of the adrenaline rush, numbness, shaking, trembling, feeling hot or cold. You can let them know that it’s a good thing that they are shaking, that the shaking means that they are releasing the shock.
It’s very important that a person is not alone to go through this according to Dr. Levine. The presence and support of a caring person is essential to facilitate this process. This can take 5- 30 minutes or longer. The longer the time allotted, the better. Each person is different and it can happen in waves or cycles.
Continue to encourage the person to be restful and quiet. A lot of people will be in a form of denial and will want to keep doing things and moving. The problem with this is that the shock physiology won’t always discharge. If not attended to it can take weeks, months or even years to resolve which can cause a lot of suffering.
Many people don’t recognize that they are having symptoms at the time. If you can get them to sit and focus on the physical sensations in their body, that will be helpful to them.
It is more likely in this phase that a person will have stronger emotional responses. They will realize that they have brushed with death. They may just need to have support so they can allow their feelings to be felt without judgement.
Fear, anger, guilt, grief and anxiety are common with almost everyone. Shaking, chills and strong emotions may continue and that is also normal. They just need to be allowed to emerge, not be stifled in any way.
We need to talk to another person about the experience in order to check for residual shock energy and to get closure, a resolution to the narrative. This may be activating for some. They might start feeling anxious, break into a sweat, feel cold or hot. If that happens, stop talking about it, focus on the inner experience and allow the sensations, feelings, trembling to complete. After that, the person will more than likely want to talk about another aspect of the event and will have more distance.
There may be more activation, more physical symptoms, more discharge, and so on. Whether it’s back tension or nausea, just have them focus on it and move back and forth between the uncomfortable sensations and the places where they feel more comfortable and more open, back and forth, (called pendulation) which takes a person through the shaking and trembling to resolution.
This action will help the person be more resilient and stronger so that the next time they experience an event like this, they will be able to handle it in a resilient way. You’ll know it’s complete when there is very little activation when it is brought up. Depending on the type of the trauma and the person’s history, it may still be necessary to get professional help. If a person has had previous trauma any subsequent trauma can reactivate a person’s entire history and they will need therapy to resolve all of the trauma. In this case seek a psychotherapist who is well-trained in treating emotional trauma.
About Barbara Edelman, MSW, LCSW
I am a Licensed Psychotherapist in Saint Louis, MO. I am certified in EMDR and specialize in treating Anxiety, Depression, PTSD and Trauma in adults and adolescents and helping my clients to develop a sense of peace, comfort and connection in their lives and relationships.
If you have anxiety or depression or think you may have unresolved trauma and would like to work with a Saint Louis area therapist who specializes in trauma, please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation at 314-780-4906 or email me now to schedule a time.
For more information on this topic and Peter Levine’s work see the book and the link below.
Peter Levine, Ph.D. is the author of the best-selling book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma — which was published in 24 languages and sold over 250,000 copies — as well as four audio learning series for Sounds True including the book/CD, Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program in Restoring the Wisdom of Our Bodies and Sexual Healing, Transforming the Sacred Wound. He is the co-author of Trauma through a Child’s Eyes: Awakening the Ordinary Miracle of Healing and Trauma-Proofing Your Kids: A Parents’ Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy and Resilience. He recently released with Maggie Phillips the book/CD Freedom from Pain: Discover Your Body’s Power to Overcome Physical Pain.