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Car Accidents & Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Updated: Apr 16

Trauma can come in many forms. It can be a single, isolated event, or it can involve repeated exposure to traumatic experiences. Regardless of the type of trauma, it can have a lasting impact on mental and emotional health.

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that's triggered by a shocking (traumatic) event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. There are a host of symptoms associated with this disorder and the condition is generally diagnosable if they last more than six months.

While PTSD can develop after any type of trauma, there are certain incidences that are more likely to trigger the condition. These include natural disasters, sexual assault, motor vehicle accidents, acts of terrorism and mental and physical abuse. Military veterans often experience PTSD after combat.

If you have experienced or witnessed something that is causing distressing symptoms, it's important to be aware that you may have developed PTSD and to seek help if you're struggling. PTSD can be debilitating, making it difficult to perform daily tasks. But with treatment, most people can manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life.

PTSD and Car Accidents

Car accidents are not only the leading cause of death in the U.S., but they are one of the most common causes of PTSD, because they not only generally impact crash victims physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. They are unexpected, frightening, and often cause injuries or even fatalities. When a person survives a crash, they may be haunted by flashbacks and the impact it had on themselves and on others.

In the immediate aftermath of a motor vehicle accident, any physical injuries are likely be prioritized. It’s often not until after these injuries heal that an individual begins to notice the mental and emotional impact of the crash. However, as the adage goes, while physical wounds can be tended to in a tangible way, emotional scarring lingers long after the fact.

One study showed that nearly half of all car accident victims experience PTSD. This means as many as two million Americans experience PTSD from crashes. And, in the United States, 4.4 million people sustain injuries serious enough to require emergency room treatment.

The main causes of PTSD from accidents include:

- The unexpected nature of these crashes.

- The damage done to the vehicle(s).

- The physical trauma sustained.

- The physical trauma sustained by others.

- Law enforcement involvement.

- Physical injuries.

- High medical bills.

- Insurance payouts.

After the incident, a person may experience any/all of the following:

Intrusive thoughts: These are mental images of the crash that come and go as they please and cannot easily be suppressed. They often appear when least desired or expected.

Flashbacks: These are also mental images relating to the crash. However, flashbacks are more all-consuming. They wheel an individual back to the event, and they often create a physical response in the body as a result.

Nightmares: Similar to flashbacks, but occurring during sleep, nightmares can haunt a person. Night after night, they may dream about the crash and wake up alarmed and unsettled. Nightmares tend to have both a physically- and emotionally charged response in the mind and body.

Avoidance: Because of how scary the incident was, there may be an avoidance of driving altogether or of being a passenger in a vehicle. An individual may also refuse to drive on freeways or on the stretch of road in which the accident occurred. In extreme situations, the individual can become homebound, refusing to travel at all.

Triggers: PTSD often results in what are referred to as ‘triggers.’ These are persons, places, things or ideas that cause an individual to suddenly experience symptoms. For instance, the individual may have been driving a red Ford Flex on the day in question and have a physical and emotional reaction upon seeing an identical vehicle. Common symptoms of triggers include shaking, trembling, sweating, high anxiety, panic attacks, and an inability to stay grounded in the present.

Hyper- or hypo-arousal: It can be common after an accident to either experience lethargy, fatigue, and low mood or increased anxiousness, the “jitters,” and an enhanced startle response. These can both be signs of PTSD.

It’s important to acknowledge that children may present with PTSD differently than adults. Adults are generally better equipped to express what they’re experiencing. Children with PTSD may have behavioral and attention issues, become easily angry or frustrated, have trouble sleeping, wet the bed, sleepwalk or show signs of aggression towards others. If any of these symptoms can be linked back to a car crash, it’s important to address them with a licensed professional who specializes in treating children (and, better yet, also PTSD).

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of PTSD, there is help available. You can discuss your options with your family physician and/or a licensed counselor. Psychotherapy can help tremendously, and there are also many medications available if needed. Don’t delay – get the help you deserve today!

A special thank you to Nahon, Saharovich, & Trotz (NST) Attorneys at Law who shared information about posttraumatic stress disorder and car accidents, suggesting a post about this topic. Visit NST Attorneys at Law online at

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