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Post-traumatic Stress After an Auto Accident

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that often follows a traumatic event involving actual or threatened death, serious injury, or threat to the physical integrity of oneself or others. PTSD is commonly associated with members of the military who return from combat and are triggered by familiar sights or sounds that remind them of traumatic events they experienced during the time they served. While these psychological issues are relatively common amongst veterans, it is wrong to assume that they are the only ones who can develop PTSD. The truth is that anyone who experiences any traumatic event is at increased risk of developing PTSD. Consequently, individuals involved in auto accidents are at an increased risk for developing PTSD.

Regardless of the seriousness of the crash or the severity of the injuries sustained, anyone involved in an auto accident can perceive it as a traumatic event. Every individual’s perception of and response to a motor vehicle accident is unique based on their characteristics. This means some individuals may never experience any psychological problems associated with the accident, while others can experience issues so debilitating that their normal activities of daily living may be affected. For many individuals, the most common symptoms of PTSD following a motor vehicle accident may include:

  • Psychologically re-experiencing the trauma: Intrusive thoughts about the accident, distressing dreams about the accident, and flashbacks of the accident occurring anytime the affected individual drives past the accident site
  • Persistent avoidance of thoughts or situations associated with the accident: reluctance or refusal to drive in a particular area, reluctance or refusal to drive in certain conditions (e.g., refusing to drive at night, refusing to drive in the rain, etc.), and actively avoiding the site of the accident or any reminders of the accident
  • Numbing of emotional responsiveness: significantly reduced or absence of emotions, feeling detached from others
  • Increased physical arousal: exaggerated startle, irritability, disturbed sleep
  • Depressive symptoms: feelings of sadness or loss of interest in activities one can no longer participate in because of the accident, changes in sleep, appetite, energy level, concentration, or self-esteem  

Even though an individual might not experience these symptoms right away, it is essential to look for these symptoms down the road. Many symptoms do not manifest until patients attempt to resume daily activities or encounter a “trigger,” which can be any sight, sound, smell, or thought that reminds them of the accident. For example, you might feel normal until you hear the sound of a car horn, similar to the sound you heard just moments before a crash, or it might trigger you if you see a vehicle identical to the one that struck your vehicle. 

The American Family Physician Foundation suggests that affirmative answers to any of the questions below increase the likelihood that PTSD is present and warrants further discussion and/or treatment:

“Do you have flashbacks or nightmares of the accident?” These may include daydreams, nightmares, slow-motion replays, and “freeze-frame” images experienced during the event. These thoughts are intrusive and unwanted and may result in the re-experiencing of feelings of anxiety, helplessness, or horror. Some patients, especially those with head trauma, experience amnesia.

“Have you had any difficulty with driving or traveling in vehicles since the accident?” Although complete driving avoidance is rare, most motor vehicle accident victims experience stress when driving or riding as passengers. Patients may report self-imposed limitations on their driving (e.g., only in daylight, only on city streets) or general uneasiness when in a vehicle.

An auto vehicle accident does not have to result in a vehicle being totaled or life-threatening injuries for an individual to develop PTSD. Whether or not the experience was traumatic is dependent on your perception of the accident. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms discussed above or answer any of the above questions in the affirmative, you should seek medical attention. Early screening for PTSD is important because early treatment can prevent symptoms. An initial evaluation by a primary care physician can determine whether or not further psychological treatment is needed.

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