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Car Accidents Can Cause PTSD. Here’s What You Should Know

Posted by Robert T. Karns | Mar 17, 2021 | 0 Comments

Nearly 40% of vehicle accident victims develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) according to a study by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). It can happen regardless of the severity of your accident or injuries. While a strong emotional response to a car accident is normal, the fear, shock, and other visceral reactions should fade as the accident moves into the rearview. Individuals with PTSD instead experience continued negative feelings that might intensify over time.

The disorder brings more than just negative emotions. It can interfere with sleep, affect your willingness to drive or ride in a vehicle, and may be a factor in persisting pain after a collision. Recognizing the condition is the first part of healing so you can move forward.

Who Is Likely to Develop PTSD?

As the name suggests, PTSD is a response to trauma: situations that threaten or cause death or injury. Everyone's experience of trauma is different. An event that affects you deeply may hardly faze a friend or loved one, or vice-versa. Whether you develop PTSD after an accident depends on your brain chemistry and individual circumstances.

You may be more likely to develop PTSD if you:

  • Dissociated during or immediately following the accident
  • Experienced unusually intense emotions during or immediately following the accident
  • Believed you or someone else might die in the accident, however brief this thought
  • Have a family history of mental illness
  • Have found it difficult to deal with stressful events in the past
  • Have previously experienced trauma
  • Do not have access to a strong support system

It's natural to feel trepidation around getting behind the wheel again after an accident, but the more you avoid driving, the more likely you may be to develop PTSD. We don't say this to push you into driving if it may be unsafe (for instance, if it causes you to dissociate or experience a panic attack). From a medical perspective, this type of behavioral change is an important indicator that you may need treatment.

Identifying PTSD Caused by a Car Accident

We want to stress that, even if you do not identify with any of the risk factors mentioned above, you may still develop PTSD. Look for symptoms like:

  • Intrusive thoughts about the accident
  • Dreams where you relive the accident
  • Reluctance or refusal to drive
  • Avoidance matters related to the accident, like insurance or legal claims
  • Feelings of emotional “numbness” (reduced emotional responses)
  • Feelings of detachment from others
  • Being easier to startle
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty sleeping

As we mentioned previously, chronic pain may also be linked with PTSD, though it is not always an indicator. PTSD may also co-occur with depression or other anxiety disorders.

If you are experiencing some of the above indicators, you can use the PTSD CheckList, which is a free self-diagnosis tool. The linked PDF has instructions on how to complete the survey and how to interpret your score.

Treatment for Accident-Linked PTSD

Despite estimates that as many as 7 million Americans may have PTSD because of a car accident, research for this specific type of the disorder is rare. There are currently two clinical approaches recommended:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT consists of structured treatment that blends education about PTSD, the introduction of coping mechanisms, and exercises to help participants re-frame their thoughts and reactions. This treatment is typically done over a spread of 8-12 sessions depending on the patient's needs. CBT can be administered in a group setting, which is more cost-effective, but there is less evidence regarding the efficacy of this form of treatment.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR asks patients to recall traumatic memories while engaging with a specific sequence of back-and-forth movement and/or sound. This treatment helps patients process past trauma, let go of negative thoughts, and experience fewer symptoms of physiological distress. The technique is used to help combat veterans and other individuals who have been through intense or repeated distress.

Studies suggest that those who have experienced a single trauma, like a car accident, may only need 3 sessions, each 90 minutes long, to overcome their PTSD.

Your Doctor Can Help You Find Treatment

The biggest danger with PTSD is trying to ignore it. When PTSD becomes chronic, it becomes much harder to treat. None of us would imagine not seeking help for a broken finger or sprained ankle. This diligence should carry over to mental health as well.

A doctor can help you find and access treatment that fits your needs and schedule.

PTSD and Your Accident Claim

When making a car accident claim, you will be repeatedly asked about the incident by an insurance adjuster. If you are dealing with PTSD, these questions may trigger an anxiety response or lead to other unwelcome symptoms. If possible, we urge anyone experiencing this type of response to seek treatment.

You can also get help by speaking with our team. Our attorneys take on the bulk of the work in any claim, speaking to insurers and filing paperwork for you while you focus on your health.

Making a claim may not help you process all the emotions associated with your accident, but it can bring closure and a sense of justice. More importantly, it can help you win compensation to pay for treatment. PTSD caused by a car accident can and should be recognized by an accident claim. We can help you calculate these needs into the compensation you request.

Emotionally and physically, car accidents take a toll on anyone involved. Our team is dedicated to fighting for those who were harmed by another's negligence. If you are suffering from PTSD after a car accident, please reach out to learn how we can help you factor it into your claim.

Karns & Kerrison offers free consultations to accident victims. Call us at (888) 281-3100 to schedule yours.

About the Author

Robert T. Karns

Founding Attorney


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