Mental Health Effects After a Traumatic Car Accident:
The Hidden Repercussions
Mental trauma after a car accident can severely limit your ability to resume regular activities. It is normal to experience distress after a car accident, but treatment may be necessary if it is prolonged and interferes with daily functioning. The right support makes recovery from emotional trauma after a car accident attainable.
During a car accident, a series of events can unfold that can cause lasting emotional trauma, including life-altering injuries, the threat of death, and the death of someone else. Emotional trauma is a natural response to such a dramatic chain of events. It is a function of the brain’s complex survival mechanisms.
Emotional trauma from a car accident should not be viewed as a weakness, but as a type of injury that may require treatment for the best possible outcome, much like any physical injury.
The Mental Effects of
a Traumatic Car Accident
Approximately one in six traffic accident survivors develop moderate mental health symptoms, regardless of the severity of the physical injuries. If you did sustain severe injuries, this can add significantly to your emotional distress as you struggle to cope with pain or adapt to a disability, which may be long-term or permanent.
Psychological distress can hinder wound healing and adversely affect the immune system. Sleep can be difficult due to depression, anxiety, or nightmares. You may find yourself repeatedly reliving the accident. Some people turn to drugs and alcohol to help cope, but this only worsens depression and anxiety.
Emotional distress can have profound effects on your daily life and physical recovery. You may suddenly be afraid of driving or being in a car, making it difficult to leave your home for work, medical treatment, or other needs.
Even if you overcome the fear of traveling to treatment, the demands of physical therapy and rehabilitation can be overwhelming when you’re depressed or physically exhausted. If you don’t complete treatment, your prognosis worsens, increasing your anxiety and depression and creating a vicious cycle.
Grief is not limited to the death of a loved one. Non-bereavement grief is mourning for other losses, including the loss of health, independence, opportunities, and financial security because of disabling physical injuries. It is a yearning for a return to your pre-accident life and difficulty accepting changes that may be permanent.
Whether you experience grief because of your injuries or the loss of a loved one in the accident, grief is associated with an increased risk of developing other psychological disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
Acute stress reaction is a stress response that leads to increased anxiety, mood changes, and even dissociative symptoms in response to a car accident. You may experience insomnia, nightmares, or flashbacks. You may experience extreme anxiety about riding in a car or driving. In some cases, even being near a car can be a trigger.
These are normal responses to a car accident that can happen to anyone. It may occur two days to a month after the accident. It is common to experience an acute stress reaction even if your injuries aren’t severe. If your acute stress reaction lasts longer than a month, it may be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is an anxiety disorder caused by extremely stressful events. People with PTSD experience similar symptoms as people with acute stress reaction, but the symptoms fail to improve and may even worsen with time. Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of PTSD in the general population.
PTSD affects approximately 32.3 percent of car accident survivors, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine. The authors noted that previous studies have reported that as many as 45 percent of accident survivors may develop PTSD. The study found that the following populations were most likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder after a car accident:
- People who see themselves as having lower economic status.
- People with previous psychiatric illnesses.
- Survivors who were not at fault for the accident.
- Survivors who perceived a threat to their lives during the accident.
- Female accident survivors.
Your risk of developing PTSD may also be higher if you sustained a traumatic brain injury from the accident. Even mild traumatic brain injuries can alter brain functioning and compromise your ability to regulate emotions and process the trauma. The risk increases with more severe traumatic brain injuries.
In addition, the symptoms of traumatic brain injury and PTSD overlap, making it challenging for doctors to determine whether your symptoms stem from PTSD or a traumatic brain injury.
Depression affects approximately 17.4 percent of car accident survivors. Depression can occur alongside PTSD or by itself. It is a natural response to a major stressor such as a car accident, but if it is prolonged, interferes with your daily activities, or leads to suicidal thoughts, you may require treatment.
Depression may stem from the onset of chronic pain or new disabilities caused by the accident, such as full or partial paralysis, amputations, severe burns, and brain injuries. You may feel alone, helpless, and hopeless as you try to come to terms with such drastic life changes.
You may feel like a burden to those who must care for your needs. You may even wish you had died in the accident or contemplate suicide. The more pervasive these thoughts become, the more urgent it is to seek help. If you have suicidal thoughts, please call the 988 Lifeline for free, confidential emotional support.
Depression is a natural part of the grieving process when you’ve lost so much, but with the right support, you can reach a point of acceptance and adapt to these difficult changes. You don’t have to feel this way forever.
If you survived a car accident in which someone else died, it is common to feel guilty for having survived. This is known as survivor’s guilt. It was considered a symptom of PTSD at one time, but it can occur without PTSD.
Human beings are born with a certain sense of equity and fairness. If you survived and your friend or family member did not, you may feel you are not entitled to be alive or that it is unfair that you were allowed to live when the other person died. You may even feel as though you did something wrong by surviving.
There are no moral underpinnings behind why one person survives a car crash and another doesn’t. While grieving the loss of another, it is not uncommon to wish it had been you instead of them, but if this is anything more than a fleeting thought, it can increase depression and suicidal thoughts.
It is important to talk to your doctor about these feelings. Your doctor should be able to refer you to a qualified therapist who can offer cognitive behavioral therapy, which involves retraining the mind to interpret the car accident and your loved one’s death differently.
Most people will experience anxiety in the immediate aftermath of a car accident. It is common to feel uncomfortable driving or riding in a car for some time after your accident. If your injuries are severe, feeling anxious about your health, finances, and future is normal.
However, persistent anxiety that doesn’t resolve over time can become crippling. Approximately 5.8 percent of car accident survivors develop persistent anxiety. Untreated anxiety can cause excessive worry, fatigue, irritability, insomnia, stomach problems, and a poor quality of life.
You don’t have to live with anxiety after a car accident. Cognitive behavioral therapy, medication, or a combination approach can help you overcome anxiety and restore peace of mind.
Risk Factors for
Mental Health Effects After a Car Accident
Predicting how a particular individual may respond to a car accident is impossible. Anyone can experience mental trauma after a car accident. However, numerous characteristics increasing the risk of a strong trauma response following a car accident have been identified.
A 2016 study found that certain psychological characteristics decrease resilience, which increases the risk of a psychiatric or psychological disorder following a car accident. These characteristics include the following:
- Lack of a fear of death.
- Severe physical suffering.
- Real or perceived social disapproval.
People with a high level of self-efficacy have often overcome hurdles in the past. Their confidence comes from knowing they can manage difficult circumstances. Self-efficacy is also higher in people with a strong social support network.
Difficulties With Emotion Regulation
Perceived Threat to Life
Severe Physical Injuries
- Spinal cord injuries resulting in paraplegia or quadriplegia.
- Moderate or severe traumatic brain injuries.
- Loss of one or more limbs.
- Loss of bodily functions such as bowel or bladder control.
- Severe, widespread burns.
- Severe scarring or other forms of disfigurement.
Lack of Social Support
Friends and family members can help you maintain a routine, restore a sense of normalcy, and provide reassurance about the future.
Signs of Mental Trauma After a Car Crash
If you experience any of the below symptoms for more than a few weeks after a car accident, you may be experiencing mental trauma, especially if they interfere with normal functioning:
- Uncontrollable intrusive thoughts about the accident.
- Avoidance of driving or riding in a car.
- Disconnection with family or friends.
- Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep.
- Hypervigilance while in a car; being easily startled.
- Difficulty controlling emotions.
- Psychological distress when reminded of the accident.
- An altered sense of reality, where the world feels unreal or dreamlike.
These symptoms could result from PTSD, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, or survivor’s guilt. You don’t have to live the rest of your life feeling this way. If you don’t notice an improvement within a few weeks, contact your health care provider for help.
It is important to include mental health therapy in your treatment plan while recovering from a car accident to restore your functioning to pre-accident levels to the fullest extent possible.
Mental Effects on
Children and Adolescents After a Car Crash
Children who have been involved in a car accident, have witnessed one, or had a parent injured in one can lose their sense of security and feel helpless and vulnerable. Children may have more difficulty processing and understanding these events and their emotions. The effects can vary by age. Signs of emotional trauma in children may include the following:
PTSD in Child and Adolescent Motor Vehicle Accident Survivors
Approximately one in four adolescents has survived a motor vehicle accident that resulted in someone requiring medical care. According to studies, the rate of PTSD ranges from six to 25 percent of all children and adolescents injured in car accidents.
Approximately 13 percent meet the criteria for PTSD, which is lower than adults, but many youth also experience other psychiatric disorders, including major depressive disorder, following car accidents.
Children with the highest risks are younger children, children with permanent physical injuries, and children with a parent involved in the same accident. A 1998 study revealed that 33 percent of children were still moderately affected four to seven months after the accident, and 11 percent were still severely affected.
Long-Term Effects of Emotional Trauma After a Car Accident During Childhood
Child survivors of trauma face a heightened risk of developing chronic mental and physical health problems as adults, such as diabetes, cancer, or heart disease. They may have difficulty forming healthy relationships and maintaining employment throughout life. They also have a higher risk of developing substance use disorders.
Children are sensitive to the responses of their parents. If you were in the same accident as your child, finding healthy ways to cope yourself can provide a model for healthy coping mechanisms for your child. Even if you weren’t in the accident, your attitudes and responses about the accident will significantly impact how your child adjusts.
How Can I Help My Child Recover From Emotional Trauma After an Accident?
If your child or a child you care for has experienced a motor vehicle accident, you can help the child heal emotionally by doing the following:
- Stay calm and maintain a regular daily routine.
- Assure the child that what they are feeling is normal and okay.
- Encourage the child to talk about their feelings without pressure.
- Reassure the child that the accident was not their fault.
- Reassure the child that the injuries suffered by others were not their fault.
- Teach your child mindfulness techniques that promote relaxation.
- Be aware of your own feelings about the incident and seek help if necessary.
You mustn’t expect your child to follow a particular timeline for recovery. Every child will respond and recover at a different pace. Your most important job is to support the process and be there for your child as needed.
It is normal for a child to experience strong emotions during the weeks that follow a crash, even with the best support. However, if your child’s symptoms don’t improve within a few weeks, seek help from a mental health professional with experience helping children and teens recover from trauma.
Being in a car accident doesn’t doom your child to a lifetime of mental health consequences. A child allowed to heal in a safe, supportive environment can fully recover and enjoy a happy, healthy life.
Therapy and How To Manage
the Effects After an Accident
You may be overwhelmed by the powerful emotions that can feel like an assault in the days and weeks that follow a car accident. Fortunately, you can use several coping strategies to manage these feelings and regain control, such as the following:
Where to Find Support to Help You Cope With Emotional Trauma After a Car Accident
Support groups provide a non-threatening way to connect with other people who have experienced trauma similar to yours. These groups can help you explore effective coping strategies and bond with others who understand what you’re going through. They are available online and in person throughout the nation.
- Mothers Against Drunk Driving offers virtual support groups for people harmed by drunk drivers and grieving families whose loved ones died in a drunk driving accident. You can locate a support group by calling (877) 623-3435.
- Trauma Survivors Network support groups are available through many local trauma centers. A crash survivor usually facilitates these groups, and many groups also include a compassionate health professional. Guest speakers are often invited to speak on topics of interest. Most groups meet once a month in person.
- The Crash Support Network provides support groups for people who have survived crashes and family members of people who have died in car accidents. They also help crash survivors work through a fear of driving and support caregivers of car accident survivors.
- The Brain Injury Association provides support groups for people who have sustained traumatic brain injuries. Support groups are available in most states. Even if your state isn’t included, most of these groups meet online.
- If you’ve suffered a spinal cord injury in a car accident, you may benefit from an in-person support group offered by the United Spinal Association. This organization also offers one-on-one peer support.
- If you’ve lost a limb or the use of a limb in a car accident, you may be eligible to participate in one of more than 400 support groups offered by the Amputee Coalition. These are online groups that typically meet weekly.
Burn Survivors Throughout The World, Inc. is a Texas-based nonprofit organization that supports people who have suffered burn injuries in car accidents and other incidents, no matter where they are located. They refer to themselves as “family around the world.”
Therapy for Mental Health Trauma From Car Accidents
While your physical injuries require urgent attention, your emotional trauma is an important part of your recovery that also deserves attention. Several therapeutic techniques have proven effective in relieving mental trauma and helping car accident victims move forward with their lives.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on retraining the mind to change thinking patterns and behavior to help patients discover better ways to cope with fear and calm their minds and bodies. It often involves homework assignments so patients can apply what they learn in therapy to real-life situations.
Cognitive Processing Therapy
Cognitive processing therapy is cognitive behavioral therapy typically delivered over 12 sessions to help people with PTSD modify beliefs that keep them from recovering from trauma.
During cognitive processing therapy, patients develop a new understanding of the event. They also receive education about how thoughts and emotions are interconnected. You may receive an assignment to write an impact statement of how you are affected by the accident.
When you are ready, you may be asked to write a detailed account of the accident and read it to your therapist, who will use strategic questions to help you discover new modes of thinking. This process can help you develop skills that you can use outside of therapy. It is strongly recommended for patients with PTSD.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy, or EMDR, is another therapy that has shown excellent results for those with post-traumatic stress disorder. During therapy, a patient talks about the memory of the incident while visually tracking the therapist’s finger as it moves back and forth. This allows patients to recall traumatic memories in a controlled environment while focusing on another task.
Less commonly, alternative tasks to eye movement may be used, such as listening to alternating tones or finger tapping. Regardless of the method used, this process can help restructure the memory by activating different parts of the brain during recall.
Some studies have found that as many as 77 to 90 percent of PTSD patients no longer meet the criteria for PTSD after treatment. EMDR is superior to cognitive behavioral therapy in some cases.
Exposure therapy involves exposing patients to triggers they previously avoided. This often starts through imagining the event and talking through it in the safe setting of a therapist’s office. Over time, the patient is assigned homework to increase the level of exposure.
For patients triggered by seeing a motor vehicle, this could include approaching a vehicle in a slow, controlled manner until the patient can do so without apprehension. Eventually, a patient who experiences anxiety while driving or riding in a car may be assigned to sit in the driver’s seat or drive around the block, slowly increasing the exposure as the anxiety decreases.
This form of therapy is designed to help patients successfully process the emotions surrounding the accident at each step before progressing to the next step. Successfully processing emotions through incremental increases in exposure levels can lead to a full return to the previous activity, such as driving, without fear.
Supportive therapy is effective in more mild cases of post-accident trauma. During supportive therapy, patients receive reassurance, education, advice, and encouragement to help them overcome distress.
Medication may be prescribed to control severe symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD in conjunction with other forms of therapy. Medication may only be needed temporarily until you’ve had a chance to work through the intense emotions that stem from your car accident trauma. In some cases, it may be needed permanently.
A wide array of medications are available for depression, anxiety, and PTSD, and your doctor can likely find the best regimen for you. Medication has been crucial in helping many trauma patients enjoy healthy, happy lives.
Getting Back Behind the Wheel
Fear of driving, known as amaxophobia, also includes the fear of being a passenger in a car. It is normal to feel fear the first time you drive or ride in a vehicle after your accident. This fear should resolve over time, but some people find it worsens rather than improves.
If amaxophobia becomes a chronic problem, it could impair your ability to function in today’s world, which requires travel by motor vehicle for work, shopping, medical treatment, social functions, and other needs.
Exposure therapy is one of the most effective treatments for this condition. You may also feel empowered by taking defensive driving or other lessons to improve your driving skills and increase your confidence behind the wheel.
Whatever mode of treatment you choose, the time required to recover varies from person to person. It is important to be patient with your emotional responses and avoid rushing the process.
Physical Injuries and Mental Health After a Car Accident
Physical injuries and mental health go hand-in-hand after a car accident. The pain and discomfort caused by your injuries can increase your mental anguish and stress response. Your injuries can cause disabilities that prevent you from enjoying activities you used to enjoy, which can bring about isolation, loneliness, lack of purpose, and hopelessness.
Physical therapy and rehabilitation are demanding, exhausting, and sometimes painful processes that can take months or years to yield results, adding to your emotional distress.
You may have to rely on others to care for basic needs, including bathing, dressing, and toileting. This reliance can be humiliating and cause you to feel like a burden. Such feelings may be increased by your inability to work. You may lose your ability to pay bills and maintain your financial status, and you may feel fear about your future.
Your injuries may require pain management, and the side effects of these medications can also affect your mood and ability to process your emotions after your accident. You may feel lethargic and unable to sleep at the same time.
Traumatic Brain Injury and Mental Health
Mild traumatic brain injuries, also known as concussions, double the likelihood of developing PTSD within one year of a traumatic event such as a car accident. A concussion can disrupt the neural circuitry in the frontal cortex, the portion of the brain that controls emotion regulation.
If you suffered a moderate or severe traumatic brain injury, the damage to this area may be more pronounced. Damage to the brain’s connective nerve fibers in the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls personality and emotions, can lead to PTSD and complicate recovery.
Legal Implications of
Mental Health Trauma and Car Accidents
You may be eligible to recover financial compensation for the psychological impact of a car accident. Compensation for car accident injuries typically includes economic and non-economic damages.
Economic damages are compensation for monetary losses, such as the cost of mental health treatment and lost wages, which can result from mental trauma. Non-economic damages are compensation for intangible losses, many related to emotional losses and mental trauma after a car accident. These include the following:
- Emotional distress
- Mental anguish
- Loss of enjoyment of life
- Loss of bodily functions
In most legal cases, mental trauma accompanies physical trauma. Some states require you to prove that you suffered physical injuries to recover damages for emotional trauma.
Many states allow you to file a claim for emotional trauma without physical injuries if your emotional trauma stems from witnessing a serious injury while in the zone of danger. Being in the same car accident as a person injured would generally qualify as the zone of danger.
Because state laws vary regarding claims for mental trauma after a car accident, it is best to consult an experienced car accident lawyer to determine what damages you can recover for your emotional trauma after a car accident.