Last week, my husband and I were driving up I-5 on a grey, rainy Oregon winter day, en route to Seattle, when we suddenly ran right into a large, shallow, barely visible puddle of water stretched across the road. We were going about 65mph, and our low key road trip peppered with pleasant conversation instantly took a sour turn.
A creepy sense of disconnection from the road took over and we started to hydroplane. The back of the car snapped clockwise 180 degrees until we were almost facing traffic and the car shifted course diagonally. It looked as if we would slide right into the cement divider. I instinctively pressed my head against the headrest and tensed my body in preparation the crash. “…Sorry babe.”, Clayton muttered as he calmly gripped the wheel trying to avoid the impact. Overcorrection. We miss the wall by what seems like inches but the car jerks and starts spinning counter clockwise and shifts toward the middle of the road. At this point I am completely disassociated. I feel nothing but ice as I see two semi-trucks speeding down the highway. If we didn’t get out of the road, it was going to be a disaster. We rapidly slid to a halt, perpendicular to the road, and Clayton pulled the car to the shoulder, put it in park, and flicked on the hazard lights just in time for traffic to surge past us.
It is strange to go through an almost serious accident and have it not actually happen. There is relief, shock, grief, confusion, and excitement, but no external evidence of the event besides your own experience. Neither Clayton nor I screamed or panicked while this was happening, but it sure felt like a big deal. Aside from the existential drama of such an event, this is what was going on inside our bodies:
The Fight-or-Flight Response
Our adrenal glands released adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol hormones in our bloodstreams as soon as the car began hydroplaning. Our bodies prepared us to fight for our survival by directing blood away from our digestive tract, skin, and most internal organs besides the heart and lungs, and diverting most of it to our brains, muscles, and extremities. Blood sugar levels skyrocketed and the liver released stored glucose into general circulation for more energy to help us stay focused, think fast, and move quickly. As our body temperature rose we begin sweating profusely to cool down and flush out the overload of hormones and toxins we just released.
“Are you OK?” My husband is squeezing my hands and examining my body to make sure I’m not hurt. He can tell I am still stunned and unable to speak so he rubs my hands and sits with me for a moment before he steps out into the roaring, blustery roadside to inspect the tires. “The car seems fine. We can drive to the next gas station and to take a closer look.”
According to the American Psychological Association, trauma is “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives.”
As we resume driving, my body begins to shake slightly and I start crying quietly. My body starts to emerge from shock and I ask myself what we could have done to avoid the accident. Clayton stayed alert and focused on the road while I finally fall asleep holding his hand. “What did you say to me right before we almost hit the wall?”, I ask when I wake up. “What? I don’t know. I don’t think I said anything.”
The Resistance Phase
The fight-or-flight response typical in these situations is usually short-lived. What happens next is called the resistance phase, a physical and psychological state that allows the body to continue fighting even after the effects of the fight-or-flight response have worn off. The body secretes hormones like corticosteroids that raise blood pressure and increase blood sugar levels to sustain energy for long term defense against the threat.
Prolonged use of these defense mechanisms is highly stressful to the body. If the stress response continues without periods of relaxation and rest to counterbalance it, the effort to sustain arousal slides into negative stress, and the body becomes prone to fatigue and irritability.
“This is the worst gas station I have ever been to! Hold that flashlight right so I can see what I am doing!”
My husband is one of the calmest people I know, but he lost his temper at the gas station. At first I was confused and hurt about his behavior. But then it clicked for me. While I had been shaking and crying for the last forty-five minutes, my husband stayed focused on the driving, trying to keep us safe on the wet, icy road. He hadn’t had the opportunity to release any of the energy his body generated while in the resistance phase. This had nothing to do with me. I sat there quietly and did what he asked me to do, and only intervened after he paid for the gas but forgot to pump it.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know why I acted like that. I shouldn’t have yelled at you. It had nothing to do with you. I was freezing and the air pump wasn’t working right and…”
“…and we almost died.” I finished his sentence. He took a deep breath.
We live in a distracting, high stress world. We rush to work, rush home, rush to our next destination, and generally rush towards doing as much as possible in one day. Then we almost have a serious accident and while we can’t help but pause for a second stunned by our own fragility, since there is no pressing issue we rush on to the next project. Many people underestimate how such an “almost” experience can indeed be traumatizing for our bodies and our psyche. Even if you avoided the actual crash or escaped the assault, that doesn’t mean you’ve haven’t sustained injuries. What’s more, these types of experiences aren’t that unusual in every day life, perhaps even more frequent in modern society that what our bodies are adapted to.
When we reached our friend’s home that night my husband looked like a zombie. He had a hard time following conversation and complained about muscle aches. The next day he developed a mild cold and back pain. I followed suit with a head cold and neck and shoulder tension. We spent the weekend with our dear friends and they were very supportive and checked in with us after we let them know what happened. It was comforting to share our experience and process with them.
Emotional stress can result in these physical symptoms:
- muscle tension
- nausea, etc.
If not dealt with, they can contribute to a myriad of problems such as:
- low immune system
- hormonal imbalances
- adrenal fatigue
- thyroid dysfunction
- irritable bowel syndrome
- high blood pressure
- chronic fatigue
- depression, and even
- autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus
These are not uncommon symptoms for modern people to have, which indicates to me that many people may be walking around with loads of unresolved trauma-induced stress.
Its too easy to brush events like these under the rug and move on. The speed at which we live our lives these days almost demands it. I can’t help but feel like we cheated death. I am so thankful to be alive and given a chance to continue to live beside my amazing husband. What a gift I was given! So tonight, instead of finishing my school paper, folding laundry, or typing up a new recipe for the blog I am choosing to write about this experiences for myself, for my husband, and for the sake of learning more about how to heal our bodies and acknowledge trauma even when it is hidden or invisible. In fact, the process of writing this down has been an incredibly healing experience for me already.
Have you had a traumatic experience that lead to problematic symptoms, even with no outward sign of injury, that you’d be willing to share? How did you cope with it?
I asked my friend Nancy Scott, a somatic therapist, “what are some ways we can help our bodies cope with the symptoms of a traumatic event?”. In Part 2 we’ll explore Nancy’s suggestions for ways you can help your body leave behind the stressful resistance phase and find emotional and physical resolution to trauma.