When you are in shock, what can you do?

divorce-shockSometimes, clients who come to see me are in a state of shock. Not everyone appreciates how serious this condition can be. There are different medical types of shock, but psychological shock is a traumatic reaction following a dramatic, unexpected incident such as a family crisis. In my field it can often occur when the client unexpectedly learns of an affair and/or the other spouse’s decision to end the marriage.

It is important never to underestimate the impact of shock on a client. Shock affects a client’s state of mind and can take weeks, months or even longer to overcome. Some of those who find it difficult to return to normal can even develop the more serious (but treatable) condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

When I see clients who appear to be suffering from shock, I politely and gently suggest that they return to see me when they are able to give me the information that I need to advise them appropriately – and also when they are able to make an informed decision about their future. It is clear even to me, a lay person, when a client is in deep shock and unable to take in a single word that I am saying. If a client persists, then of course I will give my advice – and I will follow it up in writing, as I do with all clients. At least the client will have something to read when they feel better able to take it in.

How does psychological shock manifest itself?

The symptoms vary but at first there may be numbness, a feeling of being dazed and an inability to absorb the information which has led to the shock. The mind will keep replaying the information, totally denying it, refusing to believe it can be true. Nothing else that is happening will matter: the surrounding circumstances, the people, what is playing on the radio… They will all blur into the background.

I had never experienced “shock” at first-hand until very recently. Put simply, it was awful.

A close relation of mine (who I will call CR) was being treated for an apparently mild skin rash. A consultant dermatologist diagnosed it as a type of eczema or skin allergy. A cream was prescribed, but the rash worsened. It did not respond to treatment; eventually it flared and a second opinion was sought. I volunteered to accompany CR to the hospital but was told it wasn’t necessary. An hour later I received a phone call from a strange-sounding CR to say the second consultant had dismissed the eczema diagnosis. This doctor thought that it could be cancer, of which the rash was a symptom. CR was immediately admitted to hospital.

My response was textbook.  I was stunned. It was only a rash! It felt like my head was floating above my body. I felt my face start to burn up. For a moment I didn’t even know where I was. And I denied that such a diagnosis could even be a possibility. I refused to believe it. It couldn’t be true.

I won’t detail the devastation I felt that week, trying to come to terms with the possibility of cancer in one of my loved ones, but as a result of the shock I suffered a complete loss of appetite, sleeplessness, nightmares when I did sleep, inability to concentrate and so forth.

There is a very helpful article entitled Coping with Trauma on the website of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which describes the symptoms of shock and the response and recovery from the condition. I recommend to anyone who is suffering from shock. You may find it useful to understand that the range of reactions to the shock you are experiencing, while very unpleasant, is also normal.

After the trauma was over – and thankfully, the diagnosis was not cancer – I could begin the recovery phase from the shock. I discovered that this takes time and I had to be patient. I learned that having been in a state of shock for a week, I couldn’t expect to recover within hours. My clients are often in shock for much longer because their trauma is ongoing and may reoccur over a lengthier period.  I found the bullet point advice on the website, about coping with and recovering from shock, comforting and helpful.

Interestingly, other members of my family congratulated me on “staying strong” for everyone else. In fact I had not been able to speak to outsiders about the trauma, nor to express any feelings, because – as a result of the shock – I hadn’t had any.  I also expected to feel huge surges of relief after the worst case diagnosis was ruled out, but I didn’t. I felt numb and flat. That too, I discovered, is normal.

At the end of the week it felt good to return to work and see that all was functioning normally. Normality felt good. It was nice to see a smiling receptionist and hear her say, “Welcome back Mrs. Stowe. Tea or coffee?” It struck me that the office is indeed a quietly calming place to be for traumatized clients, just as we have designed it to be. But I never imagined I would be the person to try it out “from the inside”!

For clients going through a year-long experience of divorce, coping with and healing from severe, prolonged emotional and psychological trauma will clearly take longer. This is particularly true if clients were already under a lot of stress before the case began. I recommend seeking professional advice if symptoms such as severe anxiety, depression or fear become too much to handle, if you avoid or are unable to connect with others, or if drugs or alcohol become serious problems. As previously discussed this is nothing to be ashamed of, will not affect the outcome of the divorce and shows that you have insight into your own condition.

This experiencing psychological shock has been a salutary experience for me. I believe that when I deal with clients in the future, I will have a greater understanding of what they are going through. I hope that I am better-equipped to reassure them that the range of deeply unpleasant feelings they may be experiencing is normal, and that these will pass with time and understanding of an abnormal situation for which they were unprepared.

As I wrote at Christmas, my blog is intended to be real, about real feelings and real people – and I am a real person too. This is a very personal post, but I have written it for two reasons.

Firstly we all have been, or will be, touched at some point by trauma. Life is like that. Life happens. The unexpected comes unexpectedly, out of the blue. We aren’t prepared for it. So I hope that by sharing my response to an unexpected trauma, it may be of some comfort to others who are in shock or who are recovering from it.

The other reason for this post is that someone out there may also have and “eczema rash” and, although I do not wish to be alarmist, they too may be receiving the wrong treatment. If that could be you, please get a second opinion, quickly.

Marilyn Stowe

The senior partner at Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers with clients throughout the country, in Europe, the Far East and the USA.

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2 comments

Chris Stringer - October 13, 2011 at 10:04pm

Speaking from experience, you could not have handled my ‘trauma’ with any greater care and compassion than you did.
I will always be grateful that a friend pointed me in your direction, and I regularly give thanks for your help and understanding.
C.S.

Marilyn Stowe - October 14, 2011 at 9:55am

Chris
Thank you SO much. A close relative of mine is very seriously ill in hospital and the music and words of Turn Turn Turn are very comforting. Your comment could not have been made at a better time for me. They are wonderful. It was my pleasure. Now it is my turn to say thanks to you.
Marilyn

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