How to be prepared for the mental aftermath

On a recent trip to Rolla, I noticed I was easily startled while driving, and very tense and nervous as a passenger. I recognized the feeling. It's a transient, heightened sensitivity resulting from the previous week's collision with the deer.

I recognized it from 3 years ago, during the weeks after I witnessed my daughter on her bike get hit by a truck. (She recovered fully.) I didn't know what was going on in my own head and that was scarier than the accident, which happened too quickly to be scary.

If you've ever been in a car wreck or a bicycle wreck, this will sound familiar. If your wreck is yet to come, you'll know the normal, neurological reaction to expect. (It's similar to posttraumatic stress disorder, but I believe the term PTSD is reserved for serious, debilitating conditions.)

When we brought our daughter home from the hospital after the wreck, I went out to fetch groceries. I wished we'd sent someone else, because the grocery store was the scariest place imaginable. Everywhere I turned, strangers were aiming their shopping carts right at me. Of course they weren't really, that's just how it seemed.

One of the first times my daughter could get up and walk around at home after the wreck, I was brushing my teeth and glanced up and saw her face behind me in the mirror. I screamed!

I tried to get back on my bike the next week but I got panicky when anyone passed me from behind, especially if I glanced back and saw it was a large, dark vehicle (like the truck that hit her). I was determined that this would not stop me from bicycling, but I was terrified that I might never be able to ride my bike again.

For presumably sound though perhaps unfathomable evolutionary reasons, this is how our brains our wired to respond after a scary event. My urgent question at the time was, "How long will this heightened sensitivity last?" The answers I got were unsatisfactory: It can last quite a long time. Or it might go away pretty quickly.

My reactions stabilized in a reasonable time frame. A couple months after the wreck I was biking regularly. After 4 or 5 months I could bike without much mental discomfort. When we moved off the road where the wreck happened, I could bike without remembering and reliving the wreck at all.

Others recover at different paces, depending on the severity of the scare, other stress in their lives, support networks, and other factors. I always think it is a shame when I hear that someone used to love bicycling but quit after a bad wreck. It's so hard to function without a car that we push through the fear and eventually get over a car wreck. But we think it's not at all unreasonable to respond to a bike wreck by not biking again, even if the person used to love bicycling. In fact, some people were surprised that my daughter and I still biked after the wreck.

It helps to know the anxiety is a temporary reaction, and the best thing you can do is be patient with yourself and ask others to be patient with you. I have heard that it is important to get "back in the saddle" as soon as possible after the wreck, because the longer you wait the harder it gets--but that doesn't mean it will be easy. Other than waiting it out, there are a few specific things you can do to help your brain along. Exercise speeds the mental recovery, so resuming bicycling was very important for me. If I felt the rising panic while I was on my bicycle, I found I count counter it by reciting a mantra such as "I am safe", counting my breaths, or focusing on my breathing.

On the drive home from Rolla, I wanted to warn my husband of impending curves (which he could see for himself) or scold him for driving too fast (he wasn't). I recognized the reaction for what it was, and, amazingly, I further recognized that giving in to these impulses would not foster marital harmony. Instead, I closed my eyes and listened to my own breathing.

Later, I told him, "I think I'm having a reaction from hitting that deer." He gently explained that he had no doubts on that score, and that it was not news to him.