Personality Change after a life altering event?
February 2, 2010 6:55 AM   Subscribe

Has anyone ever experienced a personality change after a life-endangering experience?

Long story short, a little over a week ago the apartment building I was living in caught fire in the middle of the night. I woke up in plenty of time to grab some necessary items and get out, but the fire department wasn’t there yet, and one of my upstairs neighbors was not coming out of her apartment because she couldn’t find her cats. In order to get her to leave, I told her I’d look for her cats, even though I could see the back of her apartment was engulfed in flames and the front was filled with smoke. So, knowing I wouldn’t find a cat unless it jumped on my head, I ran in to get her to run out. It was a rather harrowing experience, and I didn’t get very far because I was afraid to lose sight of the door. Needless to say, I didn't find the cats.

Afterward, I found myself with this take charge disposition, doing everything from being the point of contact for the Red Cross to trying to make sure the leasing agents didn’t try to strong arm people into signing lease extensions while their possessions were still smoldering. The entire experience was very intense, and afterward I found myself acting differently than I usually do. I talked more. I was more assertive. I hit on strangers. I argued with my boss. I drank during the middle of the day. I don’t do these things. That’s not who I am. Generally, I’m very reserved, and I experience a lot of anxiety in situations I know are not really threatening at all, like say, asking women out on dates.
I have several questions about this experience:

1) Has anything similar happened to you? How long did it take to get back to normal?

2) Is there a name for this sort of thing?

3) How is it possible that I get horribly, terribly anxious at the thought of asking someone out or going to a party full of strangers, but I didn’t think twice about walking into a fire?
posted by dortmunder to Grab Bag (27 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I can't speak directly to the first two, but yes, this happens all the time. Think about PTSD: you might not have all the signs, but it sounds like you might have a much shorter fuse and a need to cope/self-medicate. (I don't know if "drinking during the middle of the day" involved a beer at lunch or brooding over a bottle of Jack Daniels, so I'll leave it at that.) This is not to say that you have PTSD, though I do hope you talk with someone. Just think about how people with PTSD have shifted their perspectives.

As for the third thing, I think it has to do with the uncertainty. Many people will choose mediocre certainty over a possible slam dunk because the latter also carries the risk (however small) of complete failure. That's how things go with social situations, because you can't predict how other people will react. However, when you're in a crisis situation, your instincts kick in -- fight or flight -- and THIS IS WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO. Because SOMEONE OR SOMETHING WILL DIE IF YOU DON'T. The outcome is pretty clear.

I hope you're able to get back to some semblance of normalcy soon, but don't discount the things that you're feeling just because you didn't really get hurt. Take care.
posted by Madamina at 7:15 AM on February 2, 2010

1) Yes, twice.
One being attempted murder, the other being a stupid self-inflicted accident. The time required to be "normal" is not clear to me; some changes turned out to be short-term (week or two), while others seem to have been more or less permanent. I like to think I had some control over which faded and which didn't, but I'm not really sure that was the case. Some very significant changes lasted for months, and the nature of the crisis definitely influenced the nature of the personality changes (I'm being intentionally vague here).

2) I don't know.

3) I suspect there's a portion of the brain which says "OK, this is officially serious" and which jumps in to stomp all over the usual anxieties, double-guessing and out-thinking which you (I) typically indulge(d) in.

In other words, you can be terribly nervous about the party precisely because it does not matter. When things are serious those impulses are shut down because they just get in the way. Think of anxiety/panic as an early-warning system, not as an actual response mechanism.

I also suspect that the media representations of people panicking during disaster movies etc. has made us think that's the usual/appropriate way to respond in a crisis, so that when we encounter a crisis and behave differently, we're surprised ("wait, why didn't I freak out?"). That surprise is, I think (with zero evidence!) part of the cause for the personality changes.

I could be entirely wrong on every possible level. Note also, I never bothered with any form of therapy for either incident, which almost certainly influenced my outcome.
posted by aramaic at 7:16 AM on February 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

3) How is it possible that I get horribly, terribly anxious at the thought of asking someone out or going to a party full of strangers, but I didn’t think twice about walking into a fire?

Anxiety isn't based on anything real. It's based on your skewed perception of the consequences of your actions.

But when it came right down to it, the combo of adrenaline and a desire to save your neighbor managed to shove the anxiety aside so that you could do what was needed. And it worked!

So, either you're still high on the 'I am invincibleeeeeeee' feeling, OR you have a newfound confidence because your anxious feelings have in a sense been proven wrong.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:17 AM on February 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

No one really knows how they're going to react in a crisis until a crisis actually happens. No one knows what reserves of strength they may have unless that strength is actually tested.

I wouldn't say that this is a case of your personality changing, but rather part of your personality that had been there all along finally getting uncovered, and now that you know it's there you're drawing on it more.

As for question 3: societal anxiety and a clear-cut emergency are two very different situations. With me (and I get a bit of social anxiety as well, to be honest) there are too many variables -- too many people that you can't tell how they're going to react or know "the right thing to do" -- are they going to be dancing or not? Will they play games or not? Should you talk politics or American Idol? There's no clear-cut rule book, and not knowing the "right" thing to do can make you uneasy.

But with a fire, there's a VERY clear rule about "the right thing to do" -- FIRE + PEOPLE = BAD, so PEOPLE - FIRE = PEOPLE NO BURNY = GOOD. So with a party, there are just an overwhelming number of "what if" questions, but with a fire, or some other emergency, there's really only one (will this person DIE unless I act? Yes? Okay, then).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:21 AM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

1. Yes. I didn't go "back to normal" because I don't think there is such a thing. After the adrenaline finally subsided, I felt more on an even keel, but still changed.

2. No idea, I hope someone chimes in on this.

3. I think it's because people can be truly brave and kind (which you are) without being particularly good in social situations.

After a few weeks/months go by, you may be surprised to discover that you're still being somewhat more assertive than you used to be, prior to the fire. I'm certainly no psychologist, but I think that every experience affects us in some degree, this is how we evolve. You self-identified as being anxious and reserved prior to this incident, and then discovered that's not entirely accurate. Good for you.

Take good care of yourself over the next few weeks.
posted by HopperFan at 7:22 AM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not something that you would have until well after a traumatic event. Acute Traumatic Stress Disorder can be present directly after a traumatic event and may or may not develop into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is the chronic and ongoing. I'm not trying to be a dick, but it's not a good idea to recommend that someone may be suffering from a disorder if you don't know what the basic criteria for that disorder is.

Having said that, I've been in two apartment fires, one of which was devastating and I was severely injured in it. The reason I was injured was because my initial panic response was to try to put the fire out, even though it was obviously beyond the point of control. As a result, I got burned to the point of nearly needed skin grafts, so it wasn't exactly the smartest thing I ever did but I also wasn't thinking very rational in the moment I made that decision. I don't personally think it's productive to compare acute panic reactions in the presence of danger to chronic irrational anxieties in the absence of danger, but that's probably something you'd be better off discussing with a professional in person.
posted by The Straightener at 7:26 AM on February 2, 2010

I was involved in a serious motorcycle accident almost 10 years ago. Besides the panic attacks that lasted about a year or so after I can honestly say nothing in my life has been the same since. But rather than draw some conclusions from my experience, I suggest you discuss what happened to you with a professional.
posted by tommasz at 7:54 AM on February 2, 2010

My sister developed PTSD after a car accident in high school (debilitating, really sad) and experienced drastic long-term personality changes that persist to this day, almost ten years later. The rest of us in the family often remark that we barely recognize her as our sister/daughter/cousin/friend.

The short answer is, yes. Of course. We're all shaped by our experiences and how we react to them determines our personality in the long term. The slightly longer answer is going to only come with time for you. This may be acute as The Straightener (and your timeline) suggest. Or this may be indicative of a sea change in your life.
posted by greekphilosophy at 8:00 AM on February 2, 2010

I come from the school of thought that we are constantly changing, but most people resist or ignore this. I think a moment of big change can certainly come when we are asked to rise to the occasion, as it were, and bring forth the best of who we are to shine. As someone who has been challenged by anxiety repeatedly over the years, and continues to work to be outgoing and connect with people despite it, it sounds to me that what happened is you took a risk and triumphed, and now smaller risks might seem silly by comparison. Having saved another person's life, possibly hearing the word no from someone seems very tiny by comparison, no?

But it can be unsettling discovering new capabilities in oneself. It reminds me of the quote from Marianne Williamson about our greatest fear being not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure. If I can do this, what else am I capable of? What have I failed to do because I imagined myself powerless? And where does that leave me now?

I say look at these changes, and see what do you like (greater communication skills?) and what do you dislike (arguing? daytime drinking) and decide which things you want to be part of a passing phase in reaction to this incident, and which things you wish to embrace as the newest phase in your personal evolution.

And if no one else has said it, I think what you did was amazing, and am proud of you despite having not met :)
posted by dawnoftheread at 8:14 AM on February 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

My friend got washed off an island in heavy surf. I went in after him. Towed him to shore, then got him to a hospital.

Everyday things seemed kind of lightweight and unimportant after that. Even though the sense of unreality faded it changed perspective for me. The change was for the good.
posted by jet_silver at 8:15 AM on February 2, 2010

1. yes. it's been 10 years so far, and I'd say its better than it was right after, when I couldn't leave the house for weeks at a time, but still quite affected.

2. ptsd

3. heat of the moment can take us away from our usual patterns?
posted by No1UKnow at 8:21 AM on February 2, 2010

Response by poster: Just to chime in briefly,

I don't think it's PTSD. Certain things have already started to go back to normal. I'm back at work, there's been no more drinking, and I do have an appointment with a professional who I have a relationship with.

Thanks for the feedback, though. There's a lot to think about here.
posted by dortmunder at 8:27 AM on February 2, 2010

The opposite of traumatic stress disorder is traumatic stress adaptation. It's perfectly normal to have a period of acute stress after a traumatic incident. This is the crucial difference between acute and post traumatic stress disorders; one resolves in a short time frame and one continues on to become chronic and harmful to life quality. It sounds to me like you are already adapting very well to the trauma related stress you suffered.
posted by The Straightener at 8:39 AM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also on #3, in my experience social anxiety is totally different from anxiety/fear relating to physically dangerous situations. Part of it may be the 'officially serious' component to facing life-threatening situtations, but I also find that my general levels of anxiety about these two domains have varied fairly independently over time.
posted by heyforfour at 8:54 AM on February 2, 2010

Most of us are ruled by one kind of fear or another. It sounds like your experience has allowed you to get past some of that.

Don't worry, there's a good chance you'll fall back into your old personality again. :)
posted by zachawry at 8:59 AM on February 2, 2010

How is it possible that I get horribly, terribly anxious at the thought of asking someone out or going to a party full of strangers, but I didn’t think twice about walking into a fire?

You didn't have time to think about walking into the fire - you just acted without time to second guess yourself. When pondering asking someone out on a date, you probably torture yourself endlessly thinking about it.

I don't think that everyday anxiety is a good predictor of how someone will behave in an emergency. In fact, it could be that the higher sensitivity to negative stimuli found in anxious people actually helps them react more quickly in emergencies - isn't that the problem with anxiety, that you interpret normal events as emergencies? So when a real emergency comes, you react more quickly because your system is just designed that way.

And anecdotally, one of my best friends is a big, neurotic, doubtful, anxious mess when it comes to her own life -- but when it comes to an emergency facing other people, she's there in an instant, cool as a cucumber.
posted by yarly at 9:23 AM on February 2, 2010

Best answer: 1) Has anything similar happened to you?

2005, I walked into a business where a 6.5 foot tall guy was screaming and swinging at the clerk. His face was like hamburger, he was spraying blood. Like you, I instantly responded, yelling at him to stop. He ran across the room at me and we tangled. He sprayed blood all over my face and body, yelling that he had AIDS. The clerk maced us, I got him out the door. (He didn't have AIDS, neither do I).

2006, I was just outside Cherkizovsky market when it exploded. Chunks of the building were raining on me and my ex, people were screaming and panicking. Again, no real thinking on my part, I just grabbed my girlfriend, located the nearest exit and started swinging my arms for people to follow. They did (though many were already on the way -- it wasn't really me).

2007, after a week of being strangely ill I collapsed in my kitchen while trying to get a drink of water. My brow struck the sharp edge of the countertop and broke open. I woke up a few hours later terribly weak and with my face stuck to the floor with drying blood. I crawled to my phone and hit the letter "A" and my longtime friend and mentor A.A. took me to the ER at 2AM, a gift of support I'll never forget. Shortly after recovering from this I was hit by a car while riding bike. The car left the scene, leaving me unconscious in the street for several hours. I woke up and walked my bike home. Since I could not afford another ER visit, I waited for the walk in clinic to open the next morning to get a cast on my visibly broken elbow.

2008, Valentine's Day, I was at an art opening when a rather large party-goer tried to crawl across the back of a train that was sitting on the nearby tracks. The train lurched, and he fell while getting off, his leg caught in the rack/rail on the back of the car. His weight pulled him off the car and broke his leg right below the knee. He crawled over to this little gallery and I shit you not, the entire room just stood there, drunk and retarded, and did nothing, some people in hysterics. Though hammered, I bolted four and a half blocks to my little hatchback. By the time I got back he was only slightly conscious so I somehow lobbed his large self into the hatch and got him to the ER, which was only two blocks away.

2009 the building I work in collapsed, with my office in the center.


During all of these incidents, save the last one, I had a strong feeling of clarity shortly after the event. Short term effects were numerous. My appetite dropped. My complaints about grad school or life in a foreign country seemed incredibly distant. The complaints and annoyances of daily life seemed muted. My personality definitely reflected this. Like you, I became more bold/curt/arrogant and less willing to deal with certain aspects of my life. Not just less willing, but less able. After one incident, I ended a troubled relationship because I just couldn't hear my ex complain about her barista job day in and day out anymore. Another incident caused me to threaten to drop out of my grad program if I didn't get health insurance (a card I'd never play under normal circumstances, I don't do ultimatums). I got very short with people. After the recent building collapse, I took the university President on in a public forum and made him extremely uncomfortable with pointed questions.

I suppose in a long term sense most of those effects faded, but my family has pointed out that there have been other changes. I relate to them like I do other adults, and spend more time with them when I can, especially trying to be a force in my nephew's life. My sister (and other people in my life) claim that I have a new "feeling" about me which is like confidence but maybe a bit aggressive or dark. I certainly feel capable.

How long did it take to get back to normal?

Honestly, I don't think you can go through this kind of thing unchanged, for better or for worse. I think to the best of your ability, you should feel good about what you've done, and accept your new state of being. As I said, some of the edginess will taper off, that's for sure. But don't set your heart on going back to where you were. You changed the situation by virtue of the action you took, and the situation changed you, too.

2) Is there a name for this sort of thing?

People here are saying PTSD because that's a diagnosis. You don't need to be diagnosed, you know exactly what happened, just not necessarily why it happened. Given a stressful situation, you responded in what was probably the best possible way. If I were to give you a word for this, it would be something that would sound like "bravery" but it wouldn't have such a self-aggrandizing tone.

I hope there is a word for

"stressful situation reveals something about yourself to you"


"emergency situation causes you to change in a way that you are extremely valuable to some people for a short time".

3) How is it possible that I get horribly, terribly anxious at the thought of asking someone out or going to a party full of strangers, but I didn’t think twice about walking into a fire?

Not to be too short about it-- asking someone out is imposing on them. Saving someone's life is a gift.

Maybe you're just the giving type.
posted by fake at 9:30 AM on February 2, 2010 [34 favorites]

dude, I don't know about PTSD, other than to reiterate that askme is chock-full of armchair psychiatrists, so adapt that diagnosis at your own risk.

Seriously, you've just stared death in the face, walked through it and out the other side. You may never go back to your former self, because now that you've survived a true crisis situation, you are now a different person.

To answer you point-by-point

1) no

2) yes, it's called crisis management and/or leadership or coping skill. FYI, people generally do things like enlist in the military to jump start this sort of personality shift. Or else jump off of high objects / out of airplanes, take your pick.

3) what everyone else has said. You reacted differently because someone's life was on the line, not some bullshit social situation.

I really don't know how more cut and dried to make it.
posted by lonefrontranger at 9:41 AM on February 2, 2010

[To clarify, I wasn't saying that the OP had PTSD, just mentioning how people with PTSD see life differently, even years after the incident/series of incidents, because that was a clear example of how lives change. Comment editing ftw; as you were.]
posted by Madamina at 10:00 AM on February 2, 2010

Best of luck to you in the future.

I can't say any of the mildly traumatic events I've ever experienced have affected my personality in any way that I or anyone else has noticed, but I sure would like to know what happened to those cats.
posted by Daddy-O at 10:44 AM on February 2, 2010

There are a lot of great stories and some interesting discussion on exactly this topic in the book The Survivors Club, which I'd recommend for you.
posted by blazingunicorn at 12:27 PM on February 2, 2010

Some years ago, I chased burglars out of my house, barefoot through a floor covered in shards of broken glass. For a couple of weeks afterward I felt charged with the same clarity you seem to be feeling. Everything was crisp. I was outgoing, no longer shy with strangers.

I think it was a combination of being impressed with myself and feeling lucky I came through the situation unscathed.

It probably lasted a couple of weeks total. Then I was back to my usual twitchy self.
posted by Kafkaesque at 12:44 PM on February 2, 2010

2) Is there a name for this sort of thing?

A more appropriate, and less medical, term may be epiphany. (Related: the terms crucible and refiner's fire. You apply heat to a substance and purify it.)

In a more general sense, perhaps elation or exhilaration fit. The similar term euphoria speaks back to medical terminology: see also adrenaline and endorphins. This is probably a kind of high that won't last, in other words, but that doesn't mean you can't make use of the experience from now on.
posted by dhartung at 3:19 PM on February 2, 2010

There's a very good article in the Times by Tim Kreider about the year following an experience of being stabbed in the throat, and how he felt that year:
posted by PersonAndSalt at 3:26 PM on February 2, 2010

On three occasions, I have been with a person who was actively suicidal (three different people, very different situations). All three times, my normal mental background noise, apprehensions, plans - all of that has fallen away and been replaced by clarity and a sort of active calm. There was no sitting around wondering if I was qualified to help (I have some significant training, which is often a way to feel more overwhelmed by the gravity of the situation, ironically), no wondering whether or not I should get involved, no worrying about myself in any way (of course, I wasn't in any danger other than losing time or sleep or becoming involved in something emotionally difficult) - I sort of leapt in to action. I didn't think about it a whole lot in that I didn't *plan*, but all my experience and knowledge to that point definitely fed in to my response, which had to be fast, calm and confident. No time for self-doubt. Had to be totally focused on keeping the suffering person with me for just another moment longer, while simultaneously orchestrating a larger response to deal with the crisis. I really surprised myself.

Each time it took about a week to get back to normal, but "normal" was subtly different - such an experience points out to you how often our doubts and anxieties are groundless and how capable we actually are. It also reminds you how fragile life is...

Best of luck. You sound like you're doing a good job dealing with this to me. It's so wonderful that you were able to help your neighbor.
posted by Cygnet at 4:07 PM on February 2, 2010

One of my clients told me this story, he once fell several metres from a scaffolding while rigging up technology for some event or other. He survived and afterwards he still worked just as hard, but he said he never panicked as much anymore when things go pear shaped on a job (as they inevitably do in events)... He said to me he had understood that "it can only go wrong".
posted by yoHighness at 2:11 PM on February 3, 2010

It doesn't sound to me like you were traumatized at all, maybe more like energized. As people have said above, it can bring a lot of clarity, it can negate a lot of lesser anxieties, it can show you sides of yourself that don't usually get a chance to come out. I feel like I'm better in a crisis than I am in everyday life, and there's a definite, paradoxical calm that comes from knowing that - in this moment- nothing else matters but doing the next thing.

Look at it this way- in the western/1st/modern world, a lot of people get all the way through life without ever *knowing* what they'd do in an emergency. You can think about it, you can plan for it, but until it happens, you just never *know*.

Now, though, you do know, and while it can be unsettling, and may well have some permanent effects, I sure don't think it's anything you need to worry about.
posted by hap_hazard at 8:41 PM on February 3, 2010

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