What Does A Near-Death Experience Do To You?

by JR Thorpe
She floats to surface for air, in the Mediterranean Sea
AscentXmedia/E+/Getty Images

Last week I came extremely close to dying. Despite being a very strong swimmer and growing up in the surf, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time at a beach I didn't know, and was swept out by a current into incredibly powerful waves, which kept breaking directly on my head. I was pushed underwater so many times that I became disoriented about which way was up, and couldn't surface. (A man body-surfing nearby in flippers attempted desperately to reach me, but was prevented by the surf. That poor guy.) I was saved by the fact that the beach was patrolled by lifeguards, and that I managed to wave at them; they dragged me by the arm back to a point where I could stand, dizzy, coughing up seawater, and feeling as if my sinuses had been ripped up by rocks. (It turns out that, when I'm about to die, my prevailing thought is "Really?!")

Emotionally, various aspects of this near-death experience are still percolating. Talking about it makes me tense and weepy. I paused about nine times after writing the first sentence of this article, resisting the urge to add a qualifier afterwards that I wasn't exaggerating or being flippant; something in me is clearly worried that it sounds too extraordinary, too bizarre, to be real. My husband, who wasn't with me, had a mild breakdown in a supermarket after I told him via text. My father, who was a lifeguard, explained what had likely happened (a sandbank probably collapsed and created a small rip) over Skype, and fervently praised me for not dying.

But, being a researcher by nature, this wasn't the end of it for me: what, I've been wondering, will happen now? How is my brain going to react to this particular incident, and what happens to other people who have been in similar situations, coming near to death and managing to escape?

It turns out that scrapes with death do some very interesting things to the brain. My ability to continue swimming for several days afterwards, much more cautiously, indicates that probably I've survived this one without deep trauma; but as for what else might be coming, the science behind the neurology of trauma is a very mixed bag. Here's what a near-death experience does to the brain.

1. You Might "See The Light"

A "near-death experience" isn't, in the parlance of psychology, just the experience of coming close to death. It refers to something slightly more confusing: the experience of "exiting" one's body and effectively getting a taste of the afterlife. The Atlantic, in an article on the science behind near-death experiences, outlined the basic symptoms:

"... floating up and viewing the scene around one’s unconscious body; spending time in a beautiful, otherworldly realm; meeting spiritual beings (some call them angels) and a loving presence that some call God; encountering long-lost relatives or friends; recalling scenes from one’s life; feeling a sense of connectedness to all creation as well as a sense of overwhelming, transcendent love; and finally being called, reluctantly, away from the magical realm and back into one’s own body."

More broadly, near-death experiences tend to take the form of a tunnel with a light at the end, which is the origin of the idea of "going towards the light". Unfortunately, there appears to be a very prosaic explanation for this mystical and meaningful experience. Scientific American did a run-down of the studies that show the biological underpinnings of the NDE, as it's called: out-of-body experiences seem to involve confusion in the right temporoparietal junction in the brain; stress hormones released in a traumatic moment may stimulate emotional memories; and the idea of "going towards the light" appears to be a product of restricted oxygen flow to the eye. If you suspect that your NDE means you're completely insane, don't worry; it seems that it can be connected to the normal biological aspects of a body in severe distress or trauma.

2. You Could Develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (But Likely, You Won't)

PTSD, as it's commonly abbreviated, is intimately related to the experience of things, from natural disasters to wartime incidents and plane crashes, that threaten the lives of yourself and/or those around you. The National Center For PTSD's definition is the most workable one: "a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault."

PTSD is more complex than just cowering when somebody sets off a firework near you. PTSD sufferers have a huge range of symptoms, including panic attacks, emotional numbness and distance, and the classic "reliving" of the life-threatening event, often a long time after the event itself. (This, incidentally, is why trigger warnings on campuses are important: if people have PTSD, triggers can prompt this "reliving" without warning. Gradual exposure to triggers is a part of PTSD treatment, so they can become less sensitive, but having them thrust upon you isn't helpful.)

One of the most interesting things about PTSD, though, is that in the aftermath of your life-threatening event, it's far more likely that you won't develop PTSD. It's actually very rare. In a feature on women who'd narrowly escaped death in several traumatic scenarios, SELF explained that only six to nine percent of people who've encountered life-threatening situations go on to develop PTSD, calling that statistic "an astonishing testament to the sturdiness of the human mind." If you do develop it, though, it's not because you're fundamentally weaker than anybody else. PTSD's development isn't all down to the event itself; it's dependent on the intensity of it, how long it lasted, what kind of help you got afterwards, and how much lasting personal damage was done, physically and emotionally.

3. You May Attempt To Desensitize Yourself

Approaches to the medium of the trauma can differ considerably. The Guardian, profiling several people who came perilously close to death (attempted murder, shark attack, mauling by a bear), found a diversity in relationships between the affected person and the thing that hurt them. Some avoided them completely; others, determined to maintain some kind of normal relationship with the world, forced themselves to contemplate them, regularly. (One woman who had been attacked by a shark put a picture of the shark itself as her desktop screensaver.) My own approach was similar; once I'd coughed my guts out and lain on the beach trying to restore my balance (not easy with a lot of saltwater in your ears), I determinedly went paddling again. One serious incident, I thought angrily at the time, was not going to ruin my relationship with one of the great loves of my life.

Desensitization is actually a highly recommended therapy for people who've experienced trauma, and is part of the arsenal of therapies for PTSD. Serious PTSD sufferers will likely go through "exposure therapy," gradual, controlled exposure to the thing that caused their trauma or reminds them of it; but it's also recommended for people with serious phobias and aversions. If you do feel an angry or determined urge to face the source of your fear, it may be a good idea; but if you're feeling trepidation, always involve a therapist who can help you do it in a controlled manner. (Mine might not approve of my use of gifs to help, but I'm finding them soothing.)

4. Your Memory Of The Event Will Likely Be Enhanced

One would expect that, after something as serious as a scrape with death, the body would be sensible enough to repress all memories of it and let us get on with our lives. Nope. It turns out that, in exposure to trauma, memories become even sharper, capable of calling up ridiculous and insignificant details about the episode as clearly as yesterday. A study on the survivors of a highly traumatic plane crash in 2001 (Flight 236 suffered catastrophic engine failure and the pilot managed to crash-land in the Azores, miraculously avoiding any passenger deaths) had found something very interesting about traumatic memories.

The scientists interviewed 15 passengers, seven of whom had been diagnosed with PTSD, about their memories, and found that every single one, regardless of their trauma diagnosis, was able to recall phenomenal amounts of detail about the crash: "two to three times more information" than other memories, according to the scientists. People with PTSD did differ in one way, though: they couldn't control their memories as clearly, recalling information without any perceived relevance and in a scattershot sort of way. It turns out that, if you experience trauma, you'll likely be able to recall it in a weirdly precise way, even if you don't end up with PTSD afterwards.

5. You Could Feel Survivor's Guilt

This may seem like a specific experience, but it's more general than you might think. The usual explanation for "survivor's guilt" is that it involves guilt when you survive a massively traumatic experience and others do not, a "why me and not them" sense of heartrending personal responsibility. Psychology Today refers to this as a weird kind of "moral logic," pointing out that the thought process can't take in the fact that your own survival was likely "flukish luck:" "the guilt begins an endless loop of counterfactuals-thoughts that you could have or should have done otherwise, though in fact you did nothing wrong."

But survivor's guilt isn't just restricted to situations in which others died or were seriously harmed and you did not; it's also been reported in cases where survivors end up severely disabled. In Psychology Of Disability, for instance, a disabled woman's interview reveals her intense guilt at surviving her own scrape with death and becoming "a burden;" she worked incredibly hard afterwards, but "what looked like ambition was actually paying penance for not having been gracious enough to just die."

So if you feel inexplicable guilt about survival, in any context, be reassured that you're not going insane; find a therapist who can help you work through those feelings. I'm personally very glad that you survived.

Images: AscentXmedia/E+/Getty Images; Giphy