According to the book After the Crash: Psychological Assessment and Treatment of Survivors of Motor Vehicle Accidents, motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of post-traumatic stress disorder in the general population. Some symptoms directly attributed to a car accident can include an ongoing feeling of uneasiness, anxiety about driving or riding in a car, nightmares, or ongoing memories of the accident you can’t stop nor control.
The National Institute of Mental Health defines post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. Symptoms can manifest themselves within three months of a traumatic incident — in this case the car accident,— but sometimes they can begin years afterward. In order to be considered PTSD, the symptoms must last more than a month and be severe enough to interfere with relationships or work.
A 2012 study found that the perception that your life was in danger was the strongest predictor for PTSD six months after the car accident trauma. Similarly, another study found that avoidance behaviors, the suppression of thoughts about the car accident, rumination about the trauma, and dissociation were most strongly connected with PTSD symptoms two to six months after an accident.
According to the National Center for PTSD, about seven or eight out of every 100 people will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. Moreover, women are more likely to develop PTSD than men.
Researchers don’t yet know why some people develop PTSD and others don’t. What is known, though, is that there are risk factors that play a part in whether you will develop PTSD, which can be:
- Your gender — women are more likely to develop PTSD
- Having had trauma during childhood
- Feeling horror, helplessness, or extreme fear
- Going through a traumatic event that lasts a long time, like a car accident, in this case
- Having little or no support from loved ones after the accident
- Dealing with extra stress after the accident, such as loss of a loved one, pain and injury, or loss of a job
- Having a history of mental illness or substance use
In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, an adult must have all of the following for at least one month:
- At least one re-experiencing symptom
- At least one avoidance symptom
- At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms
- At least two cognition and mood symptoms
Re-experiencing symptoms may cause problems in a person’s everyday life. Words, objects, or situations that are reminders of the event can also trigger re-experiencing symptoms. The symptoms can include flashbacks, bad dreams, and/or frightening thoughts.
Avoidance symptoms are triggered by things that remind a person of the traumatic event. These symptoms can also cause a person to change their personal life. The symptoms can include staying aways from places, events, and/or objects that remind a person of their traumatic experience, and avoiding thoughts and feelings related to the incident.
A strong perception that your life was in danger during a car accident can lead to avoidance behaviors, which can lead a car accident victim to develop PTSD. The avoidance of thoughts and emotions can interfere with a person’s processing of emotions, which can also increase the risk of PTSD.
Arousal and reactivity symptoms are usually constant, as opposed to the former symptoms, which are triggered by things that remind a victim or the traumatic event. These symptoms make a person feel stressed and angry, and daily tasks like eating, sleeping, or concentrating are hard to do. The symptoms can include being easily startled, having difficulty sleeping, having anger outbursts, and/or feeling tense or on edge.
Cognition and mood symptoms can make a victim feel alienated or detached from friends or family members. The symptoms can begin or worsen after the accident, but are not due to injury or substance use. Some of the symptoms include trouble remembering key details of the traumatic incident, distorted feelings like guilt, loss of interest in enjoyable activities, and negative thoughts about the world or oneself.
It’s perfectly normal to experience any of the aforementioned symptoms for a few weeks following the accident. However, it’s when the symptoms last over a month and seriously affect a person’s ability to function that it can be PTSD. PTSD is often accompanied by other disorders like depression, substance abuse, or some kind of anxiety disorder.
It’s important to note that only a psychiatrist or psychologist can diagnose PTSD. If you think you may be experiencing PTSD following a car accident, please seek the proper medical help.