Coping: Managing the emotional maelstrom
Accidentally harming another human being is one of the most distressing experiences
most of us can imagine. Those of us who have caused accidental death or injury (CADI's)
experience a wide range of emotional and cognitive difficulties. The first stage in healing is
to learn to cope with these feelings, so that you can feel better, think more clearly, and
function more effectively.
I would hallucinate while doing the dishes. All of a sudden it wasn't bubbly dishwater but
bubbly blood coming out toward me. I was afraid of being left alone. I was afraid of the
children leaving the house. I was hyper-alert, hyper-vigilant. [S., accidentally killed a bicyclist
in a car crash]
I had recurrent thoughts of the accident and a sense of reliving the experience. Although I
felt very emotional, I was unable to cry. Sleeping was almost impossible. Death felt like the
only way out of my situation. [N., accidentally killed a motorcyclist in a car crash]
I stayed in my room for a whole month. I cried. I said, "Why did this have to happen?"
Images would come to my head. I would see the blood on her." [T., accidentally shot and
seriously injured his girlfriend]
If your accident occurred recently, you may experience some or all of the symptoms of
"Acute Stress Disorder." Unresolved distress can become "Post-traumatic Stress Disorder"
(PTSD), a common response to trauma. PTSD can appear within a few months of your
accident, or it may appear years later. Although exact statistics are not available, I estimate
that at least 25% of CADI's develop PTSD. Many more have some troubling symptoms.
Reactions to trauma
In the first few days or weeks after your accident, you may experience some of the following
symptoms. These signal that you have been through a major trauma. Over time, the
symptoms often go away. If they persist, or if they interfere with your daily life more than you
want, you can obtain treatment.
1) Feeling numb, disconnected, detached, or dissociated from the world around you or from
2) Sleep problems -- having a hard time falling asleep, staying asleep, or staying awake.
You may have nightmares.
3) Flashbacks, thoughts, images, and memories of the accident may dominate your inner
life or interrupt and intrude on other thoughts and activities.
4) A high stress level, which can interfere with daily life and create physical problems such
as an upset stomach.
5) Sadness, grief, or depression. This may be pervasive or it may come in waves. Guilt and
shame may be closely related.
6) Fear, including fears you know to be irrational. You may want to avoid certain places,
settings, activities, or situations. You may feel jumpy and startle easily. You may be "hyper-
vigilant;" for instance, you might need to check and re-check to make sure something or
somebody is safe.
7) Memory problems, including an inability to remember certain aspects of the accident.
8) Irritation -- you may feel more impatient, have a "shorter fuse," be quicker to anger.
9) Difficulty being loving, tender, or sexual.
10) A sense that you can never know happiness again, that you are a "bad" person, and that
the world is a "bad" and unsafe place.
What you can do:
1) Be kind to yourself. The pain you feel is evidence of your humanity.
2) Keep in mind that you will not always feel this way, that you can find a path to peace.
3) Don't be afraid to ask for help -- from doctors, counselors, clergy, friends and family.
Some hold back because they feel that they deserve to suffer, but what is the point of turning
yourself into another victim of the accident? Definitely seek help if: (a) you feel suicidal, (b)
you worry you cannot control your anger, (c) distress related to your accident interferes with
your life (work, home life, relationships, mood, thinking, health, etc.) for more than one
month. Here are a few ways to find a qualified therapist in the United States.
4) Do not abuse alcohol or drugs. You can ask a doctor to prescribe medication to help you
5) Do not neglect your overall health -- try to eat sensibly, drink lots of water, and exercise.
6) Be wary of advice that does not feel right to you. There are many paths up this mountain
to peace, and you can select the route that feels right for you.
7) Review the Links and Good Books sections of this website for additional information
about acute and post-traumatic stress.