Trauma - The Aftermath of the Peel Street Car Collision
The recent tragedy of the car collision on the corner of Peel and Staunton Street has left many of us shaken and traumatized. Trauma is our response to events that threaten safety and survival for us or the people around us. This trauma response can occur whether you were physically present at the scene, have heard accounts from those who were, or have seen videos of the accident.
Trauma can be experienced in thoughts, feelings, behaviours, and body. Here are some of the common trauma symptoms for each category:
What happened to you at the scene?
Our first response to a traumatic incident is very primal and driven by our survival instinct. When experiencing a severe threat to our lives or the lives of others, our fight-flight-freeze system is activated.
If our brain has calculated our best chance of survival to be fighting the threat, we may find ourselves running toward the scene of the accident, driven to help in any way we can. In this state, we may also feel and express anger and aggression to protect ourselves and others. If our brain considers flight to give us the best chance of survival, we may rather find ourselves running away, trying to get to safety. This is usually associated with an overwhelming sense of fear. If our brain calculates that nothing can be done to save ourselves or others, this may trigger a freeze response, where we shut down and go into shock. We may feel numb and unable to think or move.
The activation of these responses is largely automatic and outside of our control. The system most likely activated during a tragedy like the car collision depends on various factors, including our past experiences with danger. Importantly, fight-flight-freeze reactions can even be triggered by descriptions and videos of the accident. The more familiar we are with the area, the stronger such vicarious trauma reactions can be.
Why do symptoms persist after?
The survival mode we experience during trauma is so significant that it remains stored in our brain and body. This mechanism is in place to help to protect us and enhance our likelihood of survival for similar threats in the future. However, the resulting symptoms can be overwhelming and debilitating. It is particularly common to struggle with intrusive thoughts and memories of what we have seen or heard, feel generally unsafe or develop specific fears around traffic, and experience anxiety attacks, sometimes out of the blue with no obvious trigger.
The intensity of the traumatic experience can overwhelm our coping capacity both physically and mentally. Significant parts of the scene can become triggers that are strongly associated with danger. We may be about to cross a road in a few weeks’ time just as a white SUV drives past us, and we suddenly find ourselves unable to breathe, our heart racing, and feeling overwhelmed with terror. Our brain has recognized a trigger that they encoded as a severe threat to survival during the accident and responds like the accident is happening again in the here-and-now. We go into survival mode before we have a chance to confirm whether the current threat is real.
How does trauma affect your thoughts?
Tragic events like the Peel Street car collision can shatter our assumptive world and confront us with our fragility and mortality. The assumptive world theory (Janoff-Bulman) proposes three fundamental beliefs that guide us as we move through the world:
The world is benevolent: This assumes that in general there is goodness in the world, meaning both the world as a whole and the people who populate it.
The word is meaningful: This assumes that in general there is a cause-and-effect relationship between actions and outcomes. It allows us to make sense of things that happen and gives us a feeling of predictability and stability. There is an element of justice to this meaningful world, whereby bad things can be avoided through the right behaviours.
We are worthy: This assumes that in general we are good people who are deserving of good outcomes in life.
These assumptions can be thoroughly shattered by unexpected, devastating events. We try to grapple with the unpredictability of life, the speed at which we can lose everything, and our evident lack of control to be able to protect ourselves. A world in which no one is safe, and bad things can happen to anyone, and therefore also to us and our loved ones. This is a reality that our brains tend to protect us from. When forced to confront it, the realization alone can trigger our survival system and feeling highly distressing.
How can you process what happened?
Unfortunately, the idea of time will heal does not always apply to trauma. This is, in part, because the brain has not necessarily been able to put a time stamp onto the traumatic event that allows it to remain in the past. Thus, every time we encounter an associated trigger, the brain may respond like we are back at the scene of the accident. Further, the shattered assumptive world may require us to adjust our assumptions in ways that integrate the traumatic experiences we have been through. We cannot go back to who we used to be, but we can come to terms with what has happened, adapt, and move forward in a healthy way.
As trauma occurs at four levels (thoughts, feelings, behaviours, body), it also needs to resolve at four levels. Working on our thoughts around Friday’s car collision is helpful, but not sufficient to resolve all trauma effects. We also need to process our complex feelings, recognize our trauma-driven behaviours, and release physically stored trauma. Trauma therapy can be beneficial to guide you through each of these steps, process the traumatic accident, and come to terms with what happened in meaningful ways.
Here are some of the more immediate things that can help to keep yourself balanced in the acute aftermath of the Peel Street tragedy:
Take note of intrusive thoughts, explore what these mean to you or how they have arisen from the traumatic experience. If you recognize that some of these thoughts are unhelpful or destructive, try to identify a more balanced view.
Explore how your assumptive world has been disrupted and what the consequences of this are.
Journal about your experience, emphasizing your thoughts and feelings. This can allow you to clarify and structure some of the more entangled or confusing thoughts in your mind. It is particularly beneficial for slowing down racing and repetitive thought patterns.
Give yourself permission to feel emotions that arise from the traumatic experience, even if you feel you “should not have them”. They are there for a reason, so they are worthy of acknowledgement.
Try to identify what your feelings are urging you to do. This can permit you to make more sense of why you feel the way you do.
Sitting with feelings can feel intense and overwhelming at times, so set yourself a time window that is comfortable for you and follow this up with some self-soothing activities.
Share your feelings with your loved ones or other people impacted by the trauma. This can feel supportive and validating, and can deepen your connection with others. Social support is one of the key protective factors in trauma processing.
Be aware of and try to replace some of the maladaptive coping mechanisms you may be using to ease your distress. These can make you feel better temporarily, but are not sustainable and do not aide the healing process. Examples are drinking alcohol, taking drugs, impulsive purchases, over-exercising, and comfort eating.
Draw information from your behaviours, especially when they differ from your usual actions. What do these behaviours tell you about what you currently need? The next step is to meet these needs in ways that benefit you.
Engage in healthy soothing activities to let your mind rest, your feelings calm, and your bodies feels safe. This can include small things like taking a bath, going for a walk, meditating, or playing your favourite music. For more ideas, please check out the worksheets here or here.
Grounding can help to bring your attention into the present moment, engage all five senses, and enhance your sense of safety and security. What can you see, hear, feel, smell, and taste?
Deep diaphragmatic breathing can activate your rest-and-recovery system, which is the counterbalance to our fight-flight-freeze system. As these systems are physiological, using physiology to change the activation is most effective. If you find it difficult to maintain focus, try a 4-4-8 rhythm: Inhale to the count of 4, hold your breath for the count of 4, and exhale to the count of 8. Counting can also make you feel more in control. For a guided 448 count, please click here.
Traumatic events disrupt our sense of physical safety. Deliberately create a safe space to help your body and mind calm down. This space can include items that give you a sense of comfort and safety.
Get professional help
It can be challenging to process traumatic events all alone as they are by nature overwhelming and intensely distressing. It can be tempting to avoid the incidents and its aftermath altogether. However, avoidance can make symptoms worse in the long run. Trauma therapy can guide the healing process, giving you a space to disentangle your thoughts, validate your conflicting feelings, calm your body and mind, and strengthen your coping and resilience skills. It takes into consideration how your trauma reaction to the Peel Street tragedy is uniquely shaped by your past experiences and current context. Most crucially, it helps you to make meaning of your experience, adjust your assumptive world, and find purposeful ways to move forward in line with what you need.
If you have been struggling with the trauma experienced in response to the tragic car collision on Peel and Staunton Street and wish to speak to a trauma specialist, please get in touch and book your appointment with Dr. Esslin Terrighena here. For more information on the benefits and effectiveness of EMDR Therapy for healthy trauma processing, please see here.