When Anxiety Hits You Months After the Trauma Has Occurred
It is spring, sunny and pleasant, but the wind is blowing at 20 miles per hour. The boughs of the fir trees sway dramatically. The bird feeder glints in the sun as the light catches its swinging arc.
I am anxious.
There is a thunderstorm. Those same trees are tormented by strong winds. The hard rain doesn’t fall, but blows sideways. Golfball-sized hail pelts the ground. I swear I can see lightning flash close to our house.
I am panicking.
About 10 months ago, my life was changed when I lived through a tornado. Everyone says it was a miracle I survived. I was on the second floor of my house, with no time to get to the basement, when the roof came off. Hit by a maelstrom of flying dirt, insulation and debris, I put a pillow over my head and hoped for the best. And I came through it without a scratch, although the house was damaged so badly it had to be torn down. It’s being rebuilt right now and we hope to move in in a couple of months.
After the tornado passed, I was calm. I even slept with that filthy pillow as I waited for my husband and the rescue squad to come and extricate me from the bedroom. As the days passed, I had to deal with a lot of things that reminded me of the tornado — staying in a Red Cross shelter, dealing with the insurance company, going back to the house to rescue our pets and salvage a few belongings that had been in the least-damaged part of the house.
As time went by, I told my story again and again to friends and acquaintances who asked about it. Without exception, they were amazed not just at my survival, but at how incredibly calmly I talked about it and how I didn’t seem to be struggling with any post-traumatic effects.
Then why is it, 10 months later, I seem to be experiencing the anxiety and panic that should have struck me then? Heavy rain makes me nervous. Strong winds disturb me. Lightning makes me jump.
My husband thinks it is because we are getting closer to the anniversary of when it all happened. And it is again tornado season in Ohio. I think it was not completely irrational of me to be afraid of the storm last week. I just wonder why it happened after all this time. Have I been in denial for 10 months? Does it sometimes take that long for post-traumatic stress to manifest?
A friend of mine had a similar experience when her car was nearly hit by lightning. At first, she said, she was still able to drive to work. But as time went on, she became more and more frightened of driving through rain. As she put it, “Over time, my anxiety ramped up rather than down.” She had to have desensitization treatment.
Her explanation for the delayed reaction was “the long-term memory encoded it.” Perhaps it’s possible the lightning for her and the tornado for me lingered in short-term memory and did not become troublesome until they were fully stored in our long-term memory banks. That sounds counterintuitive, but it may be right.
Will I be comfortable on the second floor of the house when we finally occupy it? Will I be able to sleep in the bedroom? Will every thunderstorm send me racing to the basement?
I just don’t know.
Getty image by tayaferdinand