If you haven’t experienced PTSD from a traumatic experience, you might wonder what a traumatic reaction might feel like. What I give below is just a teeny window. Note that what I write about is NOT PTSD but shares some of the same features on a very small and temporary scale.
Imagine the following:
You are sleeping peacefully but at 3:30 am by a horrible metallic crash just outside your home. You recognize the sound as a car crash. What follows that sound is continued crashes, spinning tires, shifting gears, more smashing sounds, shifting gears, then your house rocks when the vehicle hits your porch. You grab your glasses and stumble to your feet, find your pants and start for the phone to dial 911. Without yet seeing what is happening, you imagine that someone is choosing to smash another vehicle in order to get revenge. In a flash you imagine someone very angry who may be dangerous. You try to dial 911 but its dark and you are not yet awake. On the 3rd try, you get it right and the operator comes on the line. She asks several questions (who are you, spell your name, where do you live, what is your nearest cross street, what is your telephone number, what is the emergency, is anyone hurt, etc.). You struggle to answer these questions because of the distress of the situation and the tightening knot in your stomach. You hang up and look out the window. The sound of the offending vehicle dies away. You look outside and see a smashed car crossways the road. It is dark so you cannot tell if anyone is in the vehicle, if anyone is hurt, if danger is outside. You feel paralyzed and sick to your stomach. Should you go outside and see? What if the violent person is still out there?
Soon, the police arrive and neighbors pour out of houses. You venture out to learn that a drunk driver lost control and smashed into a parked car. the driver ended up on your neighbor’s grass and the repeated smashes were the result of his attempt to get back onto the street. Each neighbor describes what they heard or saw. The police arrive and take their reports and photographs. As neighbors share stories and laugh (even the one whose car was destroyed), you feel your stomach relax and you return to you bed for what is left of the night.
The next day, you go to work a bit more tired than usual. You tell a colleague or two about the experience. You perform your duties without significant difficulty. BUT, at moments of silence, you keep hearing the noises of the smashes, spinning tires, more smashes. You feel your stomach tense. You feel embarrassed that you struggled to communicate to the 911 operator. You feel embarrassed about your hesitation to go outside. You feel somehow that you would have failed to protect your family if they were really in danger (due to paralysis). You remember 2 other times you didn’t respond well to a crisis. The next night, you find yourself wound up and unable to sleep.
Again, this little vignette does not make a PTSD diagnosis. Those who have experienced terrible traumas (e.g., sexual assault, witnessing sudden death or forced to participate in a killing) would likely feel this event is simplistic. They are right and yet, you might see how the body/mind may respond to a crisis or the perception of a crisis.
- Experience of danger
- Inability to get away from it
- Horror response
- re-experiencing intrusive memories
- Attempts to shut down the intrusive memories and emotions
Notice in this situation, some of these PTSD symptoms are not present and not likely to form. the problem resolves quickly and, more importantly, the shared conversation with neighbors afterwards reduces much of the isolation that is often common in traumatizing experiences. And yet, notice that sounds of the accident keep coming back to the person. In addition, this person feels some level of guilt and shame about the response to the event. This feeling can increase isolation and negative ruminations about personal failures.
Given this situation and it’s randomness, the person is not likely to remain distressed. Symptoms such as these tend to fade quickly. If, instead, the scenario contained sexual violence by a loved one, confusing physical responses, threats to one’s life if you cried out, you can quickly see how the symptoms would not easily fade but would grow in intensity, frequency and duration.