Post-Trauma Treatment: Healing More Than the Body

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on November 29, 2018
3 min read

In November 2016, 56-year-old Farmville, VA, carpenter and farmer Rand Bigelow was operating the wood chipper he’d used dozens of times before when his glove caught on a blade and pulled his right hand into the machine. The heavy metal shredded the nerves and tendons of his fingers, leaving them limp and bloody “like noodles.”

“I ripped the glove off right after it happened and saw how bad it was,” Bigelow says. “I'm not scared of blood. I've been in traumatic experiences before. I’m good in emergencies. So I just went into that mode."

He was the one to keep the rest of his family calm while they rushed him to the hospital, where surgeons performed emergency surgery. They removed parts of three of his fingers and put pins into what was left.  

Bigelow says he felt -- and still feels -- lucky that the accident wasn’t worse. But once the following surgeries and physical therapy sessions were done, his feelings of relief were colored by other emotions, too.

“I realized that some part of my brain believed my hand was just going to grow back, and I was going to be fine,” Bigelow says. “I’ve had to wrap my head around the fact that it’s not going to be the same ever again.

“That hasn’t been easy.”

No longer able to work the way he once could, Bigelow has had to adjust not only to a new life, but a new self-image.

“I used to be someone who could outwork a 25-year-old, and here I am, needing my wife to button my shirt,” he says. He found himself struggling, and drinking too much beer to “self-medicate.”

Finally, a year ago, he decided it was time to start seeing a counselor.

“I’m pretty macho, and probably wouldn’t have reached out to anyone, but I’ve experienced the benefits of counseling before,” Bigelow says. “I'm a big believer in it.”

Mental health problems are a very real roadblock on the path to recovery after a traumatic injury. It’s also pretty common. One-third of people who have a major orthopedic injury deal with major depression afterward, says Charles Bombardier, PhD, professor and head of clinical and neuropsychology at the University of Washington.

That number goes from one-third to more than half if you have a traumatic brain injury (TBI).

It can be easy to shrug off symptoms of depression or anxiety after an event like that, because it seems “normal” to feel that way when you’ve been through a traumatic experience. But it’s important to notice the ways you’re not feeling like yourself. This might include:

  • Feeling anxious or angry
  • Having trouble concentrating
  • Not being able to stop thinking about your injury

You may even find that these feelings continue for a long time, and start to get in the way of your everyday life.

You could deal with:

  • Worrying a lot
  • Feeling very anxious, sad, or afraid
  • Crying a lot
  • Trouble thinking clearly
  • Scary thoughts about reliving your injury
  • Anger or rage
  • Nightmares or trouble sleeping

You may even deal with physical symptoms, like:

  • Headaches
  • Stomach pain and digestive issues
  • Fatigue
  • A racing heart or sweating a lot
  • Being jumpy or easily startled

If you notice these symptoms, talk to your doctor so you can find a treatment that works for you. They might suggest:

  • Psychotherapy (talk therapy) with a trained counselor
  • Cognitive behavior therapy, a form of talk therapy that helps you learn to redirect your thoughts
  • Medications like antidepressants
  • Mindfulness or meditation
  • Support groups with others going through injury recovery

Some of the other ways you can be proactive in your mental recovery are to:

  • Avoid alcohol and drugs.
  • Spend time with people who care for you.
  • Keep regular routines for sleeping, eating, and exercising.
  • Stay involved with activities you enjoy.

Because physical injury is often visible from the outside, it’s often more obvious that it needs attention. But mental health should be a priority during the healing process, too.

“There’s a stigma to mental health disorders,” Bombardier says. “People don’t want to be labeled as having ‘depression.’ We need to recognize as a culture that mental health is a biopsychosocial condition just like diabetes, heart disease, and so forth.

“There is no health without mental health.”