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Psychological Injuries After a Car Accident

3 Psychological and Emotional Injuries a Car Accident Can Cause

After a car accident, it’s easy to get wrapped up in physical injuries and property loss. However, an underlying mental health problem may also be possible, especially after going through such a traumatic event. Whether it happens right after an accident or days later, it’s completely normal to experience feelings of shock, fear, and guilt. The real issue arises if these feelings do not go away after a long period of time. 

A car accident can easily cause new mental health problems or aggravate existing conditions for victims, and seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist after a crash may be essential to making a full recovery. 

Nearly every person will experience a range of reactions after experiencing a car accident, yet most recover from initial symptoms naturally. Those who continue to experience problems may be diagnosed with one of these emotional trauma conditions:

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD

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 being in a vehicle, nightmares, or ongoing memories of the accident you can’t stop thinking about. 

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 moment your life is in danger is the strongest predictor for PTSD 6 months after the initial day of the incident. Similarly, another study found that avoidance behavior, suppression of thoughts, rumination, and dissociation were most strongly connected to PTSD symptoms about 2 to 6 months after an accident.

According to the National Center for PTSD, about 7 or 8 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 are still unaware of why some people develop PTSD while others do not. What is known, though, is that there are risk factors that contribute to the development of 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, such as a car accident
  • Having little or no support from loved ones after the traumatic event
  • 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:

  • 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. 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. 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 may contribute to the development of 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 of the traumatic event. These symptoms make a person feel stressed and angry, and daily tasks like eating, sleeping, or concentrating are hard to do.  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. 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. 


Anxiety disorders are more than just temporary worry or fear. This mental health problem has the effect of interfering with daily activities such as job performance, school work, and relationships. An actual anxiety disorder will cause an individual to experience anxiety that will progressively get worse over time. Anxiety disorders include panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and various phobia-related disorders.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) display excessive anxiety or worry on most days for at least six months, about things like personal health, work, social interactions, and everyday life circumstances. In some cases, anxiety can cause the car crash victim to believe they are having a heart attack, dying, or going crazy.

Symptoms for generalized anxiety disorder may include:

  • Feeling restless, wound-up, or on-edge
  • Being easily fatigued
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Being irritable
  • Having muscle tension
  • Difficulty controlling feelings of worry
  • Having sleep problems

Panic disorder leads to recurrent panic attacks, which are sudden periods of intense fear that come on quickly and reach their peak within minutes. They can either come unexpectedly, or be triggered by a situation or object. During a panic attack, people tend to experience sweating, accelerated heart rate, shaking, shortness of breath, feeling out of control and/or impending doom.            

Phobia-related disorders. A phobia is an intense fear of, or aversion to, specific objects or situations. People with phobias may have an irrational or excessive worry about encountering the feared object or situation, take specific steps to avoid said feared object or situation, and experience immediate intense anxiety upon encountering the feared object or situation. A few examples of specific phobia-related disorders include social anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, specific phobias (heights, blood, receiving injections, etc.), and separation anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders are generally treated with psychotherapy and/or medication. If you think you may have an anxiety disorder following a car accident, work with your doctor to choose the treatment that is best for you. 


According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. Depression is a common yet serious mood disorder that causes severe symptoms which contribute to how you feel, think, and handle daily activities, such as sleeping, eating, or working.

People who suffer from depression may experience these signs and symptoms most of the day, nearly every day, for at least two weeks:

  • Persistent sadness, anxiousness, or emptiness
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
  • Decreased energy or fatigue
  • Moving or talking more slowly
  • Feeling restless 
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Difficulty sleeping or oversleeping
  • Appetite and/or weight changes
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or even suicide attempts
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and/or that do not ease even with treatment

Even the most severe cases of depression can be treated. The earlier the treatment begins, the more effective it can be. Depression can be managed with medications and/or psychotherapy. If you think you are suffering from depression after a car accident, you should work with your doctor to choose a treatment plan. 

West Coast Trial Lawyers Is Here to Help

If you have sustained any injuries as a result of a car accident, you have the right to seek compensation for damages. Moreover, if you’re suffering from depression, anxiety or PTSD following your accident, you can also sue for emotional distress

A car accident attorney at our firm can help you recover financial compensation for the losses you have suffered, including medical bills, property damage, lost wages, and pain and suffering from your injury. 

Call us today at (888) 395-7234 or email [email protected] to schedule a free consultation with our experienced, caring and compassionate legal team.

Read More About Car Accidents

Our excellent team of car accident attorneys have created several resources for you to read through. Feel free to browse these topics and read the ones you would like to learn about more. 


If you have been injured in an accident, you can count on the legal team at West Coast Trial Lawyers to fight for your rights every step of the way. Contact us today to schedule your free case evaluation with a personal injury attorney.
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