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Dealing With PTSD After A Car Accident

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Jeff Sevey

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that many accident victims experience in the days, weeks, and months following their accident. In fact, studies have shown that car accidents are a common cause of traumatic stress. In the United States, car crashes have been shown to be the most frequently experienced traumatic event for 25% of males, and the second most frequently experienced traumatic event for 13% of females. Billions upon billions of dollars are spent treating this trauma and damage caused by auto accidents each year.

While physical injuries are the first to be treated immediately following a car accident, the survivors also suffer an immense amount of emotional stress due to the accident. PTSD is only one of the mental afflictions that can affect the survivor of a car accident. Other mental health issues that can occur include depression and anxiety in all the various forms they take.

Prevalence of Auto Accidents Today

The sheer amount of traffic on the roads today for work and personal travel means that there are a lot of accidents resulting in injury and death. Studies show that about one-percent of the population of the United States will be involved in a car accident every year. This amounts to over three million injuries yearly. A severe car crash is one of the most traumatic experiences a person can endure.

Prevalence of Auto-Accident-Related PTSD

Research has been performed showing that for the majority of people who survive a severe car crash, mental health problems do not become an issue that requires treatment by a mental health professional. There are those - a surprisingly substantial minority - that do experience mental health problems such a depression, anxiety, and PTSD after a severe car accident. The research shows that, of the general population of the US, about 9% of all car crash survivors do develop full-blown PTSD due to the accident. Around 60% of those survivors seeking mental health treatment have been found to have PTSD and between 3% and 53% of car crash survivors seeking treatment have PTSD and major depression or other mood disorder. In another study of car crash survivors, 27% had PTSD and anxiety disorders, and 15% said they now have a phobia of driving.

Are there risk factors for auto-accident-related PTSD?

There are several variables that are able to predict who might encounter PTSD after a serious car crash. The research done allows medical personnel to determine those who may be at risk for long-standing mental health issues that result from a car crash. This research has attempted to identify the at-risk population utilizing three main variable groups: pre-accident personality variables, variables related to the accident, and variables occurring after the accident. The pre-accident personality variables include decreased ability to endure previous traumatic events, an active pre-accident mental health issue such as depression or anxiety, and a lacking social support group. These are all linked to an increase in PTSD symptoms following a severe car crash.

Accident-related variables include the severity and nature of the injuries sustained, whether the accident was life-threatening, and loss of life of loved ones in the accident. These are directly related to the prevalence of the development of PTSD and other mental health issues after an accident. The more severe the accident was, the more severe the injuries are, and the more life-threatening the accident was, the greater the chance of developing PTSD.

Variables occurring after the accident that may be an indication of PTSD include how quickly you recover from your physical injuries, how much social support from friends and family you have in your life, and your ability to actively engage again in social and work activities. Survivors of a severe car accident should attempt to get back to their pre-accident way of life as soon as possible if they are physically able to do so. The support of loving friends and family should help encourage this. The quicker you adjust to "normal" life again, the better off you will be mentally.

Be aware that it is completely normal to have stress reactions after a car accident. It is seriously traumatic life event. Most people are able to heal normally from this type of traumatic event if given time, but here are some things to look out for (and seek help with) if you feel you are just not getting back to normal as quickly as you think you should be:

  • PTSD symptoms lasting longer than three months (see below for symptom information)
  • Extreme stress levels, or distress that affects your everyday life
  • A disruption in your work, social, or home life that does not resolve as time goes on

​The Symptoms of PTSD

The symptoms of PTSD are pervasive and make it difficult to try to live normally again after your accident. It can be difficult to work and socialize, and enjoy family life when you are exhibiting symptoms of PTSD that you have seemingly no control over.

The main PTSD symptoms to look out for include:

Flashbacks - Flashbacks of the traumatic event cause you to feel as if you are reliving the event again in the present. Flashbacks can happen at any time, and you feel the same horror that you did when the accident took place. Flashbacks can be triggered by a sight, smell, or sound that reminds you of the event, such as hearing a siren, seeing a crashed car, or hearing someone’s brakes screeching.

Avoidance - PTSD can result in attempting to avoid any situations that remind you of the car crash. You may try to avoid driving or driving anywhere near where the accident happened. You may be okay driving until a situation happens that is somewhat similar to the situation surrounding your crash, and then have a flashback. Therefore, you avoid driving. You may feel as if you can't get back into your car or the car that you were in when the accident happened. You may avoid seeking psychological help because you know you'll have to discuss the event.

Negativity - This particular symptom can take many forms. You may begin thinking negatively of yourself, or blame yourself for what happened. You may recoil from feelings of love, affection, and support from family and friends. You may become paranoid, hyper-aroused, or jittery, and feel as if you must always be on the alert for danger.

Available Treatments for Accident-Related PTSD

There are a variety of effective treatments for PTSD related to a car accident. These treatments include behavioral therapy, cognitive therapy, and medication support. If you are suffering from chronic pain, that may be a trigger of your PTSD. Controlling the pain may help control your PTSD symptoms. Above all, seek out the appropriate treatment to help you get back the life you had before the accident.

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