written by: Debbie Roome
• edited by: Daniel P. McGoldrick
• updated: 5/17/2011
Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is often seen in people who have lived through a serious car accident. What are the symptoms of this condition and how can people be helped to overcome it?
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A car accident is an unexpected event that often results in physical injury. The accident itself may be accompanied by loud sounds and the crunching of metal as the car skids or connects with another vehicle or a tree. No matter how it happens, PTSD can be the result of the trauma. A post traumatic stress disorder car accident does not have to involve other people to cause distress.
The symptoms of PTSD after a car crash can be divided into three main groups:
Intrusion – this may include recurrent recollections or dreams about the accident. Triggers that remind the person of the trauma may cause flashbacks that result in extreme distress.
Avoidance – in an effort to avoid flashbacks, the person may actively avoid places, people and objects that remind them of the car accident.
Hyperarousal – the person may have problems with falling or staying asleep, and concentrating. The startle response is often exaggerated and angry outbursts may occur.
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Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) after a post traumatic stress disorder car accident can be helpful in dealing with the symptoms. This can be approached in a number of ways with an extended plan of treatment being the most effective. CBT may incorporate some of the following ideas:
The person is given a worksheet and asked to score how anxious they are about driving in various weather conditions such as rain or snow, traveling as a passenger or being in heavy traffic. This helps to pinpoint their fears.
A car accident may set up wrong thought patterns. For example, a young lady might lose control on a patch of black ice and smashes into a fence. She mistakenly believes that she is no longer capable of driving on icy roads. As a result, she refuses to drive on wintery days. CBT will help her challenge that belief and the ultimate goal will be to get her driving in icy conditions again. Family members or a driving instructor can be part of this process by encouraging her and building confidence.
Talking about the car accident in a controlled, professional environment can help the person to analyze it more objectively. A therapist can point out aspects previously not considered and bring a more balanced perspective on the event.
Visiting the scene of the crash with a therapist can be helpful. Seeing the area as it normally is, without damaged vehicles, police cars, and ambulances can bring some healing to traumatic memories.
Recovery from PTSD after a car accident normally occurs in degrees with a number of small actions leading to healing. A program set up by a qualified therapist can be reinforced by family and friends and with time and patience a person can make a full recovery and go on to enjoy life.
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Overcoming the Trauma of Your Motor Vehicle Accident: A Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment Program Workbook, Edward J Hickling & Edward B Blanchard, Oxford University Press, 2006
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Patrick Smith, Sean Perrin, William Yule and David M Clark, Routledge, 2010