How to recover emotionally from a physical accident
Accidents happen in a split second. They’re shocking. The aftermath of a physical accident can take SO LONG in comparison to that moment. Even an accident that could be deemed ‘not serious’ can affect us beyond the healing of any damaged tissues. Why is this? It’s because when we are talking about recovering from physical trauma, we are talking about more than the healing of physical tissues. We are talking about the recalibration of the nervous system and the emotions that accompany the entire experience—before, during and after the accident. This blending together of the emotions and the physical experience are what I live for—it fascinates me and teaches me something new about myself and the people I love everyday.
I recently had a bike accident where I skidded on the road trying to avoid hitting someone and flew over my handlebars. Thankfully, I didn’t hit my head or break any bones but it was scary and completely unexpected. My recovery was a real journey—as is every recovery—and I credit coming out the other end to all the work I have done to develop the skills of emotional first aid. I thought I would share the steps I went took to help myself work through the process.
There is an arc to each recovery that while unique, follows the same trajectory. The accident causes a sudden high activation your nervous system and in order to move you back down to a relaxed state you need the proper inputs for the body/nervous system to feel a sense of safety to shift into recovery mode. Without the proper inputs, your body might not register that it’s actually safe yet and therefore the path to recovery gets a little sticky. (And for those who were taught that emotions were to be controlled—it can get especially sticky.)
I like to think of these inputs as emotional first aid. They are small ways for the body to register safety and transition to a state of regular function.
Many of us didn’t get this training which means we have to learn it as an adult. And putting it into practice is another whole thing. Even though I started learning about emotional first aid long ago, it took me years to integrate the training for it to become a more natural response. It took me many years of repetition through therapy, education and personal practice to develop the skills. I’d like to share what I did with you so that you can get a sense of what might work for you. Many of these steps are small, and yet, I want to underline their significance:
Acknowledge something happened- this is a common step to skip. I pause and think - I fell down. Ouch!
Check for imminent danger— I could feel the whoosh of people wizzing by me on the road, I stood up and made my way to the curb where I didn’t have to contend with traffic.
Body scan- My interoception is highly developed and I could tell right away that I had not hit my head or broken any bones. I also know that my body type can take some time for injuries to show up, so I started tuning in to locate exactly where I felt the most sensation and assessing what might show up in the future. I was pretty bang on…a sprained thumb, big bruises on my thighs and irritation in my right ankle. Possible neck strain.
Accept help—A woman bystander offered to walk my bike to the other side of the street to the sitting area there. It felt like such a relief to let her escort me to the bench. She was very kind and offered me water.
Slow down—I’ve learned that when I’m in shock, it’s better not to rush into anything before I’m ready. (in retrospect, I wish I could’ve sat on the street a little longer before getting up) I was on my way to meet a friend for dinner. I asked my new friend if she could help me to make a phone call. I didn’t end up needing her help, but it felt good to ask. I called my husband to come to pick me up and then called my friend to cancel dinner.
Make eye contact— even brief eye contact with someone can help you start to co-regulate your nervous system with someone. And you know what? it might even help the person who watched you- they might need to check in with you to make sure you’re okay. I told her about what I was feeling physically and I told her my memory of the accident. She was sympathetic and told me what she saw.
I cried- Here’s the first sign that I’m entering the next phase of healing—feeling free to express my big emotions means that I’ve reached a level of safety in my body and have started to release. Sure it’s unusual to cry on a stranger’s shoulder, but it’s what makes me feel most human too.
I’m grateful that this person stayed with me until my husband showed up. What I regret was that I let her leave without getting her contact info—She even asked me if I might need it- like if I wanted to file a report or something. I didn’t even consider that I might want to thank her again to let her know I was okay. It also occurred to me that she might want to check in with me-to follow up.
At home care: this is the second stage of recalibration—arriving in a very safe place where my nervous system gets the signal that this event is fully over. It’s where things get really interesting.
Crawling into bed- this is where I could tell my body wanted to be- tucked into the warmth and weight of my blankets. I started sobbing heavily. U used to judge myself around crying but I’ve learned to let whatever wants to come out-come out. My breathing became panicked and I followed it and let myself almost hyperventilate instead of trying to force it to slow down. I understand that this expression shows the activation still charged in my system and that’s it’s finally releasing. This only lasts for a minute or so and then naturally normalizes on it’s own over the next 10 minutes or so.
I chose to stay in bed instead of eating dinner because I felt like it was more important to give myself that moment of safety and compassion. I asked for snuggles from my partner and pulled on extra blankets.
After about 40 min of crying, I felt done--I had travelled through the tunnel of shock. So I ate dinner and watched lighthearted shows on Netflix about dream homes in remote places until I was ready for bed. I also took painkillers and applied homeopathic cream for my bruise, knowing that my future self may thank me.
The next morning, I didn’t feel like myself. So I cleared my calendar- except for a dental appointment that I wanted to keep. I exercised, but very gently. I showered, I walked slowly to my appointment. Making dinner felt like too much, even just to think about, so I ordered in dinner from my favourite local restaurant. I had guilt about not feeling up to my "normal" tasks, but I chose to give myself some grace, just like a would a friend.
The next day, I DID feel like myself again. I still had some physical healing to do—but—and this is key—when I think about the accident, I didn’t feel any charge inside my body—no residual healing around the accident that needs to be attended to. This really is the test to whether you have trauma from a certain event- when you think about it, does it produce a charge in your body? If yes, there’s some healing to do in this area.
What’s interesting is that one of the thoughts I had while sitting on the bench with this woman was “I don’t know if I’ll be able to bike or even drive for awhile. How will I feel safe enough in traffic? But sure enough, by doing my emotional first aid I feel as ready as I ever have to get on my bike again (mind you, my handlebars need replacing first)
If this was me in my 20’s, I would have stopped for a few minutes to catch my breath, I would have made the same phone calls, but as soon as I was able to, I would get going again. I would probably have told that stranger that she didn’t need to sit with me and that I would be fine on my own. I would probably walk my bike home and blame myself for getting into this mess in the first place. This version of me didn’t realize how valuable I was and didn’t recognize the value of people who are willing to help you out.
That old saying “you’ve got to jump back on the horse again” has value, BUT when I’m healing a wound, I won't jump on a horse before I’m ready.
*Key things to avoid. these might take time to get better at. You’re not going to break if you don’t get it right.
- don’t try to relax too quickly. Forcing your body into relaxation when you are stressed could be compared to a mild form of gaslighting. In a way of disregarding the scary event we just went through. Instead, emotion first aid is about developing the skills to bring yourself from activation to recovery by being witness to your own experience. Befriending this part of you will eventually help you to heal yourself from trauma. Trust that your body will come down as you go through the process.
Slow down or stop completely until your body says it’s okay to move again
Give yourself a break
Once you’re home, give yourself the permission, the time and the space to feel the scarier bits. Enlist someone to be there for you who won’t try to make you feel better, but simply sit next to you while you feel.
Expect that you will feel more vulnerable and/or emotional for the next while. Tears may arise from out of nowhere. It’s normal, go with it.
You will fully recover
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