Trusted medical advice from the
American Academy of Family Physicians.

Post-Traumatic Stress After a Traffic Accident

Millions of traffic accidents occur in the United States every year. If you’ve been in an accident, you might have experienced many different feelings. These could be at the time of the accident and in the days following it. Some of these feelings might have included:

  • Shock
  • Trouble believing it really happened
  • Anger
  • Nervousness or worry
  • Fear or uneasiness
  • Guilt

In addition, you might keep going over the accident in your mind. You might feel like you can’t stop thinking about it.

Most people who have been in an accident have some (or all) of these feelings. Sometimes these feelings can be so strong that they keep you from living a normal life.

What’s the difference between normal feelings after an accident and feelings that are too strong?

For most people who are in a traffic accident, the overwhelming feelings go away over time. Sometimes those feelings don’t go away or they become stronger. They can change the way you think and act. Strong feelings that stay with you for a long time and get in the way of everyday life are signs of post-traumatic stress. If you have post-traumatic stress after a car accident, you may have some of the following problems:

  • An ongoing, general feeling of uneasiness
  • Anxiety about driving or riding in vehicles
  • Not wanting to have medical tests or procedures done
  • Irritability, or excessive worry or anger
  • Nightmares or trouble sleeping
  • A feeling that you’re not connected to other events or people
  • Ongoing memories of the accident that you can’t stop or control

Path to improved health

There are things you can do to cope with your feelings after an accident.

  1. Talk to friends, relatives, or a counselor. Go over the details of the accident. Talk about how you thought, felt, and acted at the time of the accident and in the days after it.
  2. Stay active. Exercise often. Take part in activities that don’t bother any injuries you sustained during the accident. Your family doctor can help you figure out how much you can do safely.
  3. Follow up with your family doctor. Your doctor can give you referrals to other health care providers if necessary. They can monitor your recovery and prescribe any medicine you may need. They can refer you to a mental health specialist or therapist to help you work through your feelings.
  4. Try to get back to daily activities and routines. Traffic accidents make some people limit what they do. It’s important to try to get back to your usual activities. Even if you’re uncomfortable or scared at first, it’s part of healing.
  5. Learn to be a defensive driver. Driving or riding in cars might be hard after the accident. You can lower your risk of future accidents or injuries by practicing defensive driving. Always drive carefully, wear your seat belt, and avoid distractions while you’re driving. These include eating, talking on the phone, or texting. Avoid driving when you’re tired. Never drive if you have had alcohol or taken drugs or medicines that affect your judgment.

Things to consider

Some risk factors can increase your chance of developing post-traumatic stress after a car accident. These include:

  • You may have experienced a prior traumatic event. This could include rape, assault, a terrorist attack, a different car wreck, or a natural disaster.
  • You may have served as a first responder to traumatic events. This includes police officers, firefighters, or rescue workers.
  • You may have an underlying depression, anxiety, or another mental disorder.
  • Your risk could increase if the car accident was life-threatening.
  • Your risk could increase if anyone was injured in the accident.
  • Your risk could increase depending upon how much support you get after the accident.

Sometimes being in a car accident can trigger anxiety or depression. Call your family doctor right away if you have any of the following symptoms.

  • You don’t start to feel better as time passes
  • You have ongoing difficulty with eating or sleeping
  • Your feelings begin to disrupt your daily life
  • You rely on drugs or alcohol to cope

You start to think about hurting yourself or others

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Is what I’m experiencing normal?
  • Will post-traumatic stress ever go away?
  • Could I be depressed or have another mental health condition?
  • Would medicine help me feel better?
  • Should I go to a counselor or therapist?
  • How long will it be until I feel better?
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