Why Can't I Get Over This?
by Deborah Tucker, M.A.
Tom was in a frightening car accident six months ago. Although his injuries were not life threatening, his car was totaled, and he was trapped behind the wheel for a short time until the paramedics came. Stopped at an intersection, he saw the other car hurtling toward his as the driver lost control during a turn. There was absolutely nothing he could do, and he sat frozen in fear, waiting for the impact, as time seemed to slow to a crawl.
Afterwards, especially when he saw his car, Tom felt grateful to be alive. He knew the accident was not his fault, and that it was something very unlikely to happen again. He wasn't hurt too badly, and within a week or two there were no more physical signs that it had ever happened. His body had been able to heal very quickly.
For Tom, this made his emotional symptoms very hard to understand. He had always been a confident driver, but now he felt very tense every time he got into his car. Tom startled visibly every time another car made any sort of unexpected movement. He became afraid to drive on freeways, and if he was the first car stopped at an intersection, he became so anxious he thought he might pass out. Riding as a passenger was no better, and in some ways was worse.
To add to his problems, for the first time in his life, Tom began having nightmares that disturbed his sleep. Over and over he saw the other car coming at him, and there was nothing he could do. Sometimes, even when he was awake, he would "see" it happening again, and his body would react with extreme anxiety symptoms. This went on for months, with very little improvement, until finally out of desperation Tom decided to seek therapy.
Tom was experiencing classic symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Generally our minds are able to process most situations that we go through, even upsetting ones, and we notice that soon enough we are no longer so upset. We recover, and experience the traumatic situation as "being in the past". But sometimes, an event will happen in such a way, or be so overwhelming, that it seems to get "stuck". Rather than being able to talk about, work it through, and recover, the event just seems to "loop" over and over again, not diminishing in intensity.
Therapists who are trained in dealing with this sort of reaction to trauma can be of tremendous help, and often within just a few weeks the client may experience a dramatic lessening of symptoms. This is because as we learn more and more about how our brains process information, we now know how to help our minds "move" the traumatic information from the non-verbal, emotional areas of the brain that were so triggered during the traumatic event, to the verbal, more "rational" areas of the brain where we remember what has happened to us, but without a great deal of upsetting emotion.
(cont. on pg 6)