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April 10, 2015

A Crash Course in PTSD

Keith Jackson

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©Getty Images/DKosig

I knew it was going to hurt as soon as the car pulled out across my path. The only questions in my mind were: how much would it hurt, and how expensive would it be to repair my beautiful, brand new Ducati motorcycle?

The second question suddenly seemed less important as the situation I was in disintegrated rapidly, and the first question became a more terrifying, "OK, the pain is going to be monumental, but is this now actually 'game over'?"

I had expected to glance off the side of the car, slide off the bike, and walk away with a few bumps and bruises. Unfortunately, the impact was more severe than that. I was knocked across the road into the oncoming traffic and smashed into the front of another car at a closing speed of about 70mph. I did not walk away. In fact, that wasn't even the worst part of my day.

For some cruel reason, although rendered motionless, I was denied the anesthetic and memory-wiping luxury of unconsciousness. I can remember almost every detail of that second, explosive collision as if it happened in high-definition super slow-motion. I'll spare you the graphic details of the abdominal injuries I suffered and the surgery needed to reconnect various bits of me that were separated by the impact. But, in addition to the broad scar that runs from my breastbone to my groin, I have one that feels like a narrow sliver of glass in my mind.

My physical recovery was slow and uncomfortable. But it wasn't until I left hospital that I started to develop new symptoms: not physical ones I could quantify and understand, but anxieties and fears that took me by surprise. I felt vulnerable just walking down the street. I had an irrational fear of assault and of not being able to prevent a punch or kick to my stomach from ripping me open again. I had incredibly vivid nightmares and waking flashbacks that would leave me drenched in a panicky sweat.

Several months later, during a follow-up appointment at the hospital, I collapsed in a toilet because of the strength of a flashback. It was triggered by something as trivial as a smell. I caught a whiff of the same disinfectant or detergent I remembered from when I was still on the ward.

I never mentioned these episodes or fears to anyone. But, as I picked myself up from a grimy restroom floor, I knew I needed some help. I was sure I’d be told to just "pull myself together," but an entirely sympathetic doctor explained my reactions were common after such a serious accident. I was experiencing a mild form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

I felt embarrassed by the diagnosis, thinking, "How could my accident compare with the experiences of anyone who had seen military combat?" The doctor explained that trauma comes in many forms and many degrees. He offered to refer me to a specialist counselor, but just having a clear explanation of what was happening was enough for me to start making sense of the emotions and confusion, and so reduce their impact and frequency.

My return to work was difficult at first. I could talk about the physical side of the accident and recovery, but I kept my mental well-being to myself. People are, understandably, not quite so comfortable dealing with that.

You may be working next to a colleague hiding a similar story, or you may have someone on your team who needs a little extra help but doesn't know how to ask for it. I felt a personal connection with our article How to Manage a Team Member With PTSD. I hope, whichever side of the fence you approach the issue from, you can take some valuable tips from it.

Question: How do you think you would react if a team member revealed they were experiencing PTSD? Join in the discussion below!

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7 comments on “A Crash Course in PTSD”

  1. I've also experienced PTSD and will definitely have empathy and understanding. I will also let the other person know that my office space is a 'safe space' for them. Understanding without intruding and showing interest without being selfishly curious/nosey is a massive gift to a person with PTSD.

    1. Hi Mika,
      Thanks for sharing. I think that is an excellent idea to offer your office spaces as a 'safe space' and just allow the other person space to talk if need be.

      I wonder what it would be like if you reached out from time to time to check in with the person who has PTSD to see how they are doing. Do you think the occasional, how are you doing, would be a good thing?

    2. Hi Mika,
      Thanks for your comment. And it reassuring to know there are understanding people out there.
      A friend of mine who read the blog made a good point about trauma. She said: "There is no hierarchy of trauma. None is worse than any other. If it has traumatised you then it has traumatised you regardless of how 'bad' it was."

  2. Hi Keith,
    Thanks for sharing your experience. I think it is very important that anyone who has experienced 'trauma' (be that in the battle field, a major accident or some sorting emotional) be can triggered.

    Many people are not even aware that they have, in NLP terms, 'achors' that trigger an emotional response. Yet, once you become aware that you have been triggered, you can reassure yourself (if you have that awareness) that you are not in that same stressful situation as before and that you are alright now.

  3. Hi Keith:
    Good day. I recently bumped into your article. Though it has six years since you wrote it, I have decided to reach out to you from a humanitarian point of view. The dictionary indicates that another word for "humanitarian" is "considerate". At first, as I typed, I thought it ridiculous and changed my mind, but you know what? Be it six years or six months, it is always important to be considerate. A simple, "How are you coping?" or "How are you feeling now?" etc are considerate and soothing words. How are you Keith? I hope that you have bounced back well fand are that are doing much, much better.

    1. Hi Handel,
      Thank you for your comment, and for your generosity of spirit in asking about my welfare. I am doing very well, both physically and mentally. It's not an experience I shall ever put out of my mind 100%, but today I have the power to frame it to suit me. In fact, it's something I now consider almost a blessing. It's probably a state of mind best described in our article on Post-Traumatic Growth, which resonated strongly with me. Kind regards, Keith

  4. PTSD causes your brain to get stuck in danger mode. Even after you're no longer in danger, it stays on high alert. Your body continues to send out stress signals, which lead to PTSD symptoms. Studies show that the part of the brain that handles fear and emotion (the amygdala) is more active in people with PTSD.

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