What Is Psychological Shock? And 5 Tips for Coping

How to deal with unexpected traumatic events.

Posted Mar 06, 2018

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Psychological shock is when you experience a surge of strong emotions and a corresponding physical reaction, in response to a (typically unexpected) stressful event.   

By thoroughly understanding this reaction before it happens, you'll be able to recognize it and make much better decisions if/when it does. I'll help you do that here.

The types of events that can trigger psychological shock reactions include:

  • A car accident or near miss.
  • Being broken up with.
  • Your child having an accident or near miss.
  • Situations that provoke fear, such as being in an airplane with severe turbulence.
  • Witnessing something scary.
  • Hearing a story that makes you feel traumatized, such as learning a friend's child has drowned.
  • Consuming a news stories that provokes a trauma reaction, such as hearing a story about people being separated from their children. 
  • Getting sued or some other financial related stressor.
  • Being stopped by the police.
  • Being at the dentist.

Usually, your degree of reaction will depend on how close you are to the event. For example, hearing a friend's child has died or been injured is more stressful than hearing that this has happened to a friend of a friend. However, even events that don't personally affect you can trigger unexpectedly strong fear reactions. 

Even reading about anxiety can induce feelings of anxiety—so, if you're anxiety prone, don't be surprised if you experience some of these sensations as you're reading here.

What are the symptoms of psychological shock?

  • The hallmark symptom of shock is feeling a surge of adrenalin.  
  • You may feel jittery or physically sick, like you're going to vomit or have diarrhea.
  • Your mind will likely feel very foggy, or like you can't think straight.
  • You may feel out of body.
  • Your chest may feel tight.
  • You may feel a disconnection from what's happening, like you're watching a movie of events unfolding rather than actually being there.
  • You may feel intense anger and want to scream or yell—for example, if your child is injured while someone else is supposed to be watching them.
  • You may feel like you want to run.

Why do we have these symptoms?

These symptoms are all part of the body's acute fight, flight, or freeze response. Your body prepares you for fast, thoughtless action. For example, blood rushes to the muscles in your limbs ready for you to spring into activity; we tend to hyperventilate as well, which leads to the cognitive symptoms of feeling spacey and foggy.

What should you do?

Since it's hard to think straight when you're in shock, you should give yourself a chance to calm down before acting, unless quick action is necessary. You may be tempted to make a poor decision. For example, you might feel tempted to drive off after you've hit someone else's car, even though you know that's not morally right and could result in legal problems. This urge to run isn't you being a terrible person—it's just your flight response. You need to give yourself a few minutes for your rational brain to take over.

Likewise, try not to hit anyone or throw anything. That urge is your fight reaction.

In a situation like being stopped by the police, recognize that you may find it very difficult to listen accurately and follow instructions, so take it slow. Don't make any sudden movements. Ask the officer to repeat back instructions as necessary and stay polite.   

As an example of how foggy people can get when feeling acute psychological stress, my dentist and I were recently discussing how people have difficulty following instructions when they're in the dental chair, and do things such as confuse their left and right.

What happens next?

Since you've gotten a surge of stress hormones released into your bloodstream, it's going to take some time—perhaps a few hours—for your body to get back to its normal state.  

While this is happening, you may feel queasy or light-headed, or you may feel muscle tension, pain or stiffness. Why do you feel pain? When you have a shock reaction, you'll typically unconsciously tense your muscles, ready to fight or flee. You don't notice the pain of this when you're in the midst of an adrenalin surge, but as the surge is wearing off, some pain sensations from doing that may emerge.

You don't particularly need to do anything as you're waiting for your body to return to normal. Your body knows what to do. Nurture yourself as best you can—for example, get social support by telling someone what has happened.

Although psychological shock can feel intense, your body will only maintain this state for a short period. Humans are exceptionally good at coping with traumatic experiences. By understanding what's happening to your body and your thinking, it's much less of a scary experience. If you're a parent, this is a great concept to teach your teenagers about. If you do, they'll be more prepared to manage their emotions in a stressful situation, such as being stopped by the police. If you're having a more sustained reaction to trauma, educate yourself about how to deal with your emotions (see, for example, here and here), and see a therapist if necessary.

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