The Mental Effects of Traffic Accidents

We often talk about the logistical concerns that come with a car accident, such as dealing with insurance and working with a lawyer, but what about the mental effects? Just seeing an accident on the highway can cause serious and ongoing mental effects, even if you aren’t directly involved.

For example, 27% of fatal truck accidents happen on interstates, and there are many witnesses to those accidents. Along with fatal truck accidents, there are millions of other traffic accidents that happen each year throughout the country.

The following are things to know about the mental effects of car accidents, whether you’re directly involved or you witness one.

What’s Normal After An Accident?

Whether you’re involved or you witness an accident, some feelings and responses are considered normal. For example, you may feel nervous or anxious, without cause, for a period of time.

However, if these feelings don’t start to subside or they get worse, it may indicate that you have what’s called post-traumatic stress. Other conditions that can be triggered by an accident include phobias and depression.

Certain risk factors can make it more likely that you develop symptoms of PTSD following an accident. These risk factors include a history of prior trauma, a lack of social support following an event, and high levels of certain emotions such as guilt or fear.

It doesn’t necessarily matter how severe an accident is or whether or not people are injured when it comes to the potential to develop PTSD.

It’s more about how you perceive an accident. Additionally, closer exposure to events makes it more likely that someone would develop long-term PTSD.

As an example, there was a study in 2012 that showed if you perceive your life was in danger when an accident occurred, it’s the strongest predictor of PTSD six months following the event.

Accidents are Traumatic Events

Even small accidents can be traumatic events. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a traumatic event is something that causes a stress reaction characterized as moderate to severe.

Traumatic events also affect not only people directly involved, but survivors, family and relatives of victims, and rescue workers, as well as people who witness an event first-hand or even on TV.

A normal stress reaction to a traumatic event should start to wane within ten days. 

What Are the Symptoms of PTSD?

The symptoms of PTSD can vary depending on the person, but they usually fall into one of four general categories.

The first category is intrusion, meaning that victims continue to experience recollections of the triggering event.

Numbing is the second category into which symptoms may fall. This means that someone may try and protect themselves by building an emotional barrier between them and the world. This can also include feelings of depression and hopelessness.

Avoidance can include social phobias, panic and anxiety.

Arousal is ongoing alertness and can mean specific symptoms such as problems with sleep, paranoia, brain fog, and concentration problems, and always feeling on high alert.

Healthy Ways to Cope After an Accident

If you think you have symptoms of PTSD, you should talk to a medical professional. If you don’t but you want to make sure you are coping with the after-effects of an accident in a healthy way,  make sure you’re confiding in someone you trust and sharing your feelings.

You should also try to stay active, at least within reason if you have any injuries from the accident, and try to get back into your normal routines as much as you can.

While it’s normal to feel some level of fear or apprehension after a scary event, the longer you wait to resume your normal activities and routine, the more challenging it can be.

Signs you might want to see a professional about what you’re experiencing include not feeling better as time goes on and problems with eating and sleeping. If your feelings disrupt your day-to-day life or you’re relying on drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism, also consider talking to a doctor.

If you are diagnosed with PTSD, your treatment will be individualized to your needs.

Most PTSD treatments include a combination of talk therapy and medication. You may work with your therapist to confront the behaviors or situations you’ve been avoiding.

If you’re experiencing ongoing mental health effects after being in an accident or witnessing one, it’s okay and you’re not alone. It’s normal to feel certain things, but if you believe your feelings are going past what’s normal, speak to a health care provider soon.

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