The Risk of PTSD After a Car Accident: How To Recover – A Guide To Car Accident Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

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Anyone who has been involved in a serious car accident is at risk of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder otherwise referred to as PTSD. Studies carried out have established that around 9% of people develop PTSD following a road traffic accident with the number of people who then seek mental health treatment being much higher, standing at an average of 60%.

If you were in a car accident and you developed post-traumatic stress disorder and need support and help, this article offers some valuable information both on PTSD, the consequences of suffering from the condition and who to turn to for help when you need it the most.

What Are the Risks of Developing PTSD After a Car Accident?

Car Accident PTSD

Car Accident PTSD

With one in ten people developing post-traumatic stress disorder if they are involved in a car accident, many studies have been undertaken with an end goal being to identify the risk factors involved in whether you would or would not develop PTSD when you are subjected to this type of traumatic event. These are detailed below:

  • You experienced another traumatic event in your life
  • You suffer from other psychological issues
  • There is a history of psychological issues in your family
  • The car accident you were in was life-threatening
  • You lost someone close to you in a car accident

The Reasons Why You May Develop PTSD After Being Involved in a Car Accident

A lot of young people start learning to drive when they are around seventeen years old and will be involved in some sort of road traffic accident by the time they reach their thirties. With this said, most of these car accidents would be minor, but when the incident is serious, the psychological effects it can have on you could be more dramatic while at the same time overlooked. It is worth noting that it is not only a driver who is at risk of developing PTSD after a car accident but passengers as well as witnesses who are also at risk of suffering from the condition.

Any sort of serious car crash would leave you traumatised because the experience can be harrowing. It is not clear why some people are more prone to developing post-traumatic stress disorder than others but what is clear is that any sort of road traffic accident that is life-threatening or which involve fatalities, puts you and other survivors more at risk of developing PTSD.

Other reasons why you may develop post-traumatic stress disorder if you are involved in a car crash could be as follows:

  • A lack of help and support after you were involved in a serious road traffic accident

It is worth noting that studies have established that almost 1 in 10 people who are victims of a car accident develop post-traumatic stress disorder. A driver who is involved in a car crash, may hold themselves responsible even if the incident happened through no fault of their own. Passengers, too, can be traumatised by the accident and may not want to travel in a car or even drive themselves again.

Anyone who witnesses a road traffic accident can be seriously affected whether they were paramedics, other drivers or people who were present at the time of the car crash. As a result of witnessing a traumatic event, witnesses are at risk of developing the symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.

What Are the Symptoms Associated With Post-traumatic Stress Disorder?

The symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder can leave you feeling like the world is an unsafe place and that there are dangers all around you. The symptoms you could experience following a car accident which are an indication that you may have developed PTSD include the following:

  • A feeling of anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Nervousness
  • Despondency
  • Vulnerability
  • Nightmares
  • Numbness
  • Flashbacks – reliving a horrendous event like a car accident
  • Avoidance behaviours
  • Interruptions to previous routines and lifestyle

A lot of victims of road traffic accidents often believe that their lives were in danger during the incident. They can develop what is referred to as “avoidance behaviours” which sees them refusing to get into a car and to avoid using specific routes and roads. This alone can increase the risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder because it adds strength to the belief that being in a car puts you in some sort of danger. In short, this type of thought pattern will help maintain a “heightened fear response” and it can interrupt how you process your emotions.

Most people today rely on their cars to get around which means that if you were involved in a road traffic accident and developed post-traumatic stress disorder, it could make your life even harder to cope with. The reason being that you suddenly find that you can no longer move around as freely as you used to when you were not scared of getting into a car.

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The Things to Watch Out For After a Car Accident

It is perfectly normal to be frightened if you are involved in a car accident. It is more common that you may think to experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder which includes experiencing the following emotions:

  • Anxiety and an increased heart rate when faced with any sort of reminder of the incident
  • Reacting to the honk of a car horn or the screeching of brakes which activate a “fear response” in you
  • Being on edge when you are at the wheel of a car
  • Being easily startled when travelling in a car
  • Becoming a lot more watchful of everything that goes on around you – a typical example being to watch out for people you think are driving much too fast
  • Avoidance – a need to avoid specific situations or to become hesitant when driving

All of the above “symptoms” are natural “reactions” to a traumatic experience that  involves being in a car accident. It is your body’s way of protecting you against any real or perceived dangers which in short, helps keep you from being involved in a similar traumatic event.

The symptoms you experience following a road traffic accident should subside with time. However, if your symptoms persist and seem to be getting worse, it could mean you are developing post-traumatic stress disorder and you should seek help and support to prevent any feelings you may be experiencing from getting any worse and spiralling out of control.

If a loved one or someone close to you was involved in a car crash and you think they may be developing PTSD, you should offer as much support as you can and get them to seek advice from their GP who would be able to refer them to a specialist.

What To Do After a Car Accident

You need to give yourself time to recover if you are involved in a car accident. Nothing happens overnight. It can take anything from weeks to months for you to accept what happened to you and it takes time to learn to live with it. Other things that you need to do include the following:

  • Allow yourself to grieve if you lost someone close
  • Face reality – it is better to find out what happened rather than to wonder about the circumstances that led up to the car accident
  • Get involved with others who survived the car accident – by being in touch with other survivors who experienced the same thing as you, it can help you cope
  • Seek help and support – it is far better to seek help and support so that you can talk to someone about your experience than it would be to bottle it up
  • Make time for yourself – there will be times that you just want to be alone or with someone who is closest to you which is perfectly normal following a traumatic event such as a car crash
  • Talk about the car accident – taking it slowly you should allow yourself to think about the traumatic event you experienced and to talk about it with people around you. It is perfectly natural to cry when you do talk about what happened to you
  • Maintain a routine – it is better to maintain a routine, to eat at regular times and to make sure you have a balanced diet
  • Do exercises – starting gently, you should make sure you get enough exercise
  • Do “normal” things with people around you which can help you get through a bad time and is an essential part of the healing process
  • Take care – studies have shown that you are more at risk of being in an accident if you were the victim of a traumatic event so it is important to take extra care even around the home and when you are out and about driving a car

What Not To Do After a Car Accident

There are specific things you should avoid doing if you were involved in a car accident and you start developing PTSD which are detailed below:

  • Avoid bottling up your feelings – this can make matters worse and can even have a negative impact on your overall health and well-being
  • Avoid taking on to much – it is good to keep busy but taking on too much can have a negative impact on your life when you suffer from PTSD following a car accident. You should allow yourself some time to get back into your normal routine and not rush things
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs – it is all too easy to turn to drink or drugs if you were in a traumatic incident because you may believe it would help blot out all the horrific memories of the car crash. The negative effects of alcohol and drinks can lead to you suffering from depression and other anxiety issues
  • Avoid making any major changes to your life – you should not make any life changing decisions after being involved in a car accident because your judgement may not as good as it normally is

What Help and Support is There For Me After a Car Accident?

If you develop PTSD after a car accident, there are several treatments available all of which have helped people get through a very difficult time in their lives. You should seek advice from your GP who would be able to refer you to a specialist. Treatments that are available for people who develop post-traumatic stress disorder following a car crash includes the following:

  • Talking treatment which could include counselling and/or psychotherapy
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy

Your GP may recommend that you join a support group where you would meet other people who experienced the same type of traumatic event as you. Hearing other people tell their story and the feelings they have to cope with, can prove helpful to your own healing process.

Would My Doctor Prescribe Medication?

You may find that your GP prescribes specific medication which could prove helpful if you were involved in a traumatic event like a car accident. It is crucial that you continue seeing your doctor even if you are prescribed medication so they can keep an eye on how you are coping. The type of medication that your GP may recommend you take could include the following:


If you are experiencing difficulty relaxing and finding impossible to get a good night’s sleep, your doctor could prescribe tranquillisers. This includes things like diazepam (Valium), temazepam or lorazepam. However, tranquillisers should only be used in the short-term because your body would get used to the effects they have and as such, the medication would not be as effective if used in the long-term. Taking tranquillisers over a long period of time could also lead to addiction which is something to be avoided at all costs.


You may suffer from depression which can in turn negatively impact your overall health and well-being if you were in a car accident that left you traumatised. Your doctor could prescribe antidepressants or they may recommend you undergo counselling or psychotherapy which is referred to as “talking treatments”.

What Can I Do To Help Someone After a Car Accident?

If someone close was involved in a car accident that left them traumatised, there are things you can do to help and support them when they need it the most. This includes doing the following:

  • Being there for them when they need you – even if they show no desire to talk about the car accident, it is important for the person to know that you are there for them
  • Listen to them – without applying any pressure, you should let the person know that they can talk to you and that you will listen to them
  • Offer them practical help – many people who experience a traumatic event like a car crash find it very hard to care for themselves as they should. By offering them practical help, it shows the person that you are there to help with things like preparing a meal and/or cleaning around the home

When To Seek Professional Help After a Car Accident

You may find that family members and close friends are there to help you get through a very difficult time after a car accident that has left you traumatised. You may find that you start to feel better about things as time goes by but if you feel that things are just getting worse and you are finding it that much harder to cope with everyday chores, it is time to seek professional help. You should seek professional help if the following applies to you:

  • There is nobody to share your feelings with
  • You find it hard to cope with your feelings which leave you overwhelmed, anxious, nervous and/or sad
  • Nothing seems to have changed after six weeks
  • You find it hard to sleep and experience nightmares
  • You are arguing with people you are closest to
  • You avoid contact with other people and do so more and more
  • You find it hard to work which as a result is suffering
  • People close to you say that you should get some help
  • You become accident prone
  • You start drinking/smoking too much or start using drugs to help you cope

There are various dedicated private and NHS psychological trauma services available throughout the UK. If you or a loved one, or somebody you know requires PTSD support after being involved in a car accident which has left them traumatised, you should visit your GP who would be in the best position to refer you or the person you know to a specialist. The specialist can diagnose and provide the correct type of treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

The NICE guidance (2005 and 2011) recommends that people who develop PTSD following a car accident undergo trauma focused psychological treatment and specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) as well as trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Further Resources

If you were involved in a car accident that left you traumatised and need help and support to get through a very difficult time in your life, the following links take you to organisations that provide essential support for people who lived through a traumatic event:

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