Managing Responses to Sudden Severe Stress

International Student Bus Accident: Managing Responses to Severe Sudden Stress: Accidents, Disasters and Sudden Losses

North Seattle College
Counseling Department
L.Y. Minatoya, Ph.D.

Severe sudden stress occurs in situations that directly happen to us—such as accidents, crimes and disasters—and also may occur when we learn shocking news about the lives and safety of family, friends and people with whom we identify. You may experience greater stress if you also have been impacted by previous disasters or have recently lost a loved one.

News of world disasters and national tragedies can also increase stress, and activities such as watching violent imagery and reading about violent events in the news are best avoided in the aftermath of an accident. However, a positive fact is that humans have evolved to be highly resilient, to recover from hardship, and to use loss to rededicate themselves to greater kindness and appreciation of life.

Accidents cause significant sudden stress. When we are in an accident, our bodies and brains immediately and involuntarily become re-directed—automatically responding to the impact of the situation and triggering biochemical reactions needed to manage injury and prevent further harm. Because our brains are fully engaged with sending messages that prioritize survival, forming and storing memories is less essential; and people may find that they cannot recall the accident in detail.

After an accident, our bodies prioritize recovery and gradually return to normalcy. Healing takes considerable energy. In addition, it takes time for our brains to absorb the experience and relax from high danger/high alert survival reactions of anger, fear and immobility (fight/flight/freeze). 

Reactions common to the first couple of weeks following an accident or severe sudden stress—such as irritability, worry/anxiety, difficulty “getting moving” and efficiently completing tasks—are not symptoms that “something is wrong with you” but rather are evidence of the recovery process and  your phasing-down from conditions of danger

To help yourself and others during this period of gradual return to normal:

  • • Eat healthy foods and rest and sleep.
  • • Spend time with friends and family.
  • • Ask your instructors and college employees, if you need extra help.
  • • Be patient with yourself and others.
  • • Continue to do things that make you feel productive and involved—go to classes, participate in social activities—yet approach them in small steps so you don’t exhaust yourself.
  • • Share information about assistance and resources.
  • • Actively look for experiences of kindness, beauty, playfulness and humor that occur in each day and encourage yourself to recall them with gratitude.
  • • Look for opportunities to express generosity and kindness.

Because our bodies and brains are prioritizing recovery and return to normalcy, after an accident we naturally become re-engaged with school, friendships and the pleasures of engaging in daily life. Yet, sometimes, we may feel guilty for having avoided harm due to a random decision to alter our plans or for enjoying ourselves when others experienced greater losses. These feelings are natural and may be reduced by being generous to others, by honoring others’ dreams through striving to achieve your own, and by becoming more appreciative of life.

As part of normal, healthy recovery after an accident, we may sometimes find ourselves re-experiencing anxiety, fear or high alert, in situations that remind us of the accident (such as riding a bus or hearing an emergency vehicle siren), when alone, before falling asleep at night, or when waking during the night.  If this happens, it may help to breathe slowly in and out through the nose, to a count of four, and tell yourself a soothing phrase such as, “I’m safe, I’m loved.” If you cannot fall asleep within 20 minutes, get out of bed, go to another room and read a relaxing book until you grow sleepy. Then, return to bed. Keep your bedroom cool and dark. It is also helpful to use the times when you tend to worry to actively look for things that are beautiful, fun or interesting or to think in detail about something you enjoyed, such as taking a study-break with friends.


For more information, here are some helpful links  American Psychological Association provides information about building resilience—the ability to bounce back from hardship.  This site provides interesting and useful information about mindful resilience from a research/practitioner associated with UC Berkeley’s Science for the Greater Good Center

If, over two or three weeks, you find that you or a fellow student is experiencing crying spells or bursts of anger, not eating or sleeping, feeling helpless or hopeless, avoiding classes and friends, then please tell your medical provider. 

You also can make an appointment to talk with North Seattle counselors Jenny Mao, Ph.D., or Lydia Minatoya, Ph.D., at North Seattle College Student Success Services—2nd floor, North wing, CC building, (206) 934-3676. Open M-F 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. 

The Counseling webpages contain many suggestions for improving study, identifying career interests, managing time and enjoying success as a student.

For help 24 hours a day, every day, call King County Crisis at (206) 461-3222.

In life-threatening situations, call 911.

Copyright 2015 North Seattle College, Counseling. Permission granted for non-profit educational purposes when document is reproduced in entirety including this copyright statement.