Many people don’t consider the psychological and severe emotional toll that can occur after a car accident. If a person is injured or dies, there are often long-term psychological ramifications, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).1 Therapy with a mental health professional can help victims of traffic accidents understand the emotional toll and learn effective ways to cope.
What Is PTSD?
PTSD, which can continue for months or years if untreated, is triggered by a frightening and/or life-threatening event. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) calls it a psychiatric disorder that occurs when “people have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, or rape where they are threatened with death, sexual violence, or serious injury.”2
Symptoms of PTSD After a Car Accident
PTSD symptoms can begin acutely—within a month—or may not develop/manifest until up to a year after the traumatic event. These emotions may remain or worsen long after the car crash has occurred. Initially after a car accident, there may be feelings of shock and disbelief. Other normal reactions include anxiety, fear, guilt, and sometimes relief if injuries don’t appear to be serious.
Potential symptoms of PTSD after a car accident include:3
- Issues with sleep
- Recurring nightmares about the crash
- Avoidance behaviors regarding driving again
- Anxiety from simply being in a vehicle
- Increased and ongoing irritability
- Guilt if you believe you are responsible for the accident and its repercussions
Triggers of PTSD After Car Accident
Many things can trigger PTSD after a car accident. Often these triggers will be related to memories of sights, sounds, and smells that occurred at the time of the accident. Actions related to driving can also be triggering (and may even set off a panic attack while driving).
Here are common triggers that can create symptoms of PTSD after a car accident:
- Smells of gasoline, smoke, or fire
- Hearing sirens from ambulances or fire trucks
- Seeing first responders like firemen or emergency medical technicians (EMTs)
- Picking up car keys
- Getting into the driver’s seat
- The act of driving
- Being a passenger in a car
- Driving on the road where the accident occurred
- High volume traffic
- Witnessing another car accident
10 Ways to Cope With PTSD After a Car Accident
The first step in learning how to cope with PTSD after a car accident is to recognize and identify your symptoms. Many people are in denial, which can inhibit their ability to heal and move forward. If PTSD symptoms persist or worsen after an accident, you might seek a mental health professional who specializes in trauma.
Ten ways to cope with PTSD after a car accident are:
- Give yourself time to recover physically and emotionally
- Seek out a mental health professional specializing in trauma and grief
- Talk to loved ones you can trust and speak candidly with regarding your feelings about the accident
- Use mindfulness techniques to reduce anxiety, fear, and depression (e.g., yoga, deep breathing, muscle relaxation techniques, and meditation)
- Build your resilience by focusing on your core components of connection, wellness, healthy thinking, and meaning4
- Seek online support and information about trauma support groups near you
- For some people, taking driving lessons helps rebuild confidence and being with a driving instructor can instill a sense of safety and protection
- Follow up with your family doctor to ensure you have no additional injuries that might affect your ability to heal physically and emotionally
- If driving in a car or being a passenger has become debilitating, consider alternative forms of transportation like public transit
- Engage in physical activity; however, be sure to check with your doctor to know what type of exercise is safe post accident
Treatment for PTSD After a Car Accident
Recovering from PTSD can be accomplished by discussing the motor vehicle accident, having reassurance, education about PTSD, learning important coping strategies, and taking medication when indicated.5 All treatment techniques involve working with a trained mental health professional. You can find a therapist using an online therapist directory. Look for someone who specializes in trauma and grief.
Forms of treatment for PTSD after an accident include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is designed to help change negative thought patterns and behaviors
- Cognitive processing therapy (CPT): CPT is a type of CBT that aims to alter the way you think, feel, and behave
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR helps people alter and reprocess traumatic memories by revealing them in small parts and changing the way they feel about them
- Supportive therapy: The goal of this treatment is to discuss feelings with trained mental health professionals who can help patients to process their feelings, understand why they are occurring, and learn new ways to cope
- Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT): The goal of ACT is to reduce avoidance type behavior and face the emotions that develop
- Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT): The goal of DBT for PTSD is to help implement skills training to help people manage and cope with emotional distress
Final Thoughts on PTSD From a Car Accident
PTSD after car accidents is difficult to understand and cope with. It’s important to try to honestly assess your emotional recovery and how you’re functioning. Don’t wait to seek help if it is needed as driving anxiety and PTSD can significantly impact one’s life. The longer you postpone getting help, the longer these symptoms will persist and perhaps worsen.