Getting Back Behind the Wheel: Dealing With Post-Accident Anxiety and Fear

Car accident victims commonly experience emotional distress. Here’s what you need to know to deal with the anxiety and fear of driving after an auto accident.

Car crashes account for over 3 million injuries each year and are one of the most common traumatic events people suffer.¹

An auto collision can be emotionally devastating, even if you and your passengers don’t suffer serious physical injuries. Even a near miss can cause fear and anxiety and make you uncertain about driving again.

Here we describe common mental health issues experienced after an accident, what to do about your emotional distress, and how to get compensation for mental health treatment.

Understand the Emotional Impact of Auto Accidents

Studies have estimated that as many as one-third of all people involved in nonfatal auto crashes will suffer some type of emotional trauma following the event. The negative effects of that trauma can appear in several forms, including posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression.

The fear of driving is called Vehophobia.

People suffer post-accident driving anxiety for various reasons. They may be concerned they’ll get into another accident, harm someone else, or suffer a panic attack while behind the wheel.

Understanding the most common emotional reactions to the trauma of a car accident can help you identify your issues and seek help.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition brought on when someone experiences a traumatic event. That experience may be your direct involvement in the event or simply witnessing what happened. Studies show that 9% of people involved in motor vehicle accidents develop PTSD.²

PTSD affects passengers as well as drivers. It can be found in people of any age, gender, race or ethnicity, and can seriously disrupt your life, especially if it’s preventing you from driving again.

Symptoms of PTSD usually start soon after an event, but symptoms may occur, or you may not recognize them, for a year or more after an accident. Like the symptoms of a physical injury, symptoms of PTSD can vary from person to person.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is what mental health professionals use to diagnose mental health issues. The DSM includes multiple criteria for diagnosing PTSD.

Symptoms of PTSD can include:

  • Reliving memories of the traumatic event
  • Having nightmares about the accident
  • Refusing to talk about what happened
  • Changes in your mood and approach to life
  • Changes in your physical reaction to a stimulus
  • Changes in your emotional reactions
  • Trouble sleeping
  • No memory of the crash
  • Developing depression or anxiety

This is not a complete list of PTSD symptoms, but gives you an idea of what to look for. If you’re experiencing any of these issues following a collision – even if the symptoms don’t begin until several months afterward – seek help from a mental health professional.

For more information, visit this HelpGuide for PTSD.

If you need help or treatment, contact the PTSD Alliance resources here.

PTSD in Children

Be especially aware if children were passengers during the collision. Just because you didn’t suffer anxiety following the accident, doesn’t mean that your children are okay.

PTSD symptoms in young children can include:

  • Avoidance behavior
  • Loss of interest in play or other activities
  • Becoming socially withdrawn
  • Acting irritable, angry or aggressive
  • Having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep

If your child was involved in an auto accident, be aware of the signs of psychological trauma in children. Take time to observe and listen to your child. He or she may be trying to tell you something, but may not know how to fully express the stress or anxiety they’re experiencing.

Anxiety and Panic Attacks

The trauma of a car crash can also produce anxiety disorders and panic attacks.

Almost everyone experiences some form of anxiety in stressful situations. It’s normal. But an anxiety disorder is different, characterized by intense, excessive, and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. Anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric condition in the United States.

Panic attacks are an acute form of anxiety disorder. They come seemingly out of nowhere and can have a devastating impact on your life.

Symptoms of a panic attack can include:

  • Heart palpitations or accelerated heart rate
  • Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  • Sweating, trembling or shaking
  • Choking sensation, chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Fear of dying, loss of control, or going crazy
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  • Numbness, chills or hot flashes

Example: Man Develops Panic Disorder Following an Auto Accident

Mr J is 50-year-old married man with no previous history of panic disorder. While driving home after lunch one day, he was T-boned at an intersection. No one was hurt in the accident.

Despite the lack of injuries, in the weeks following the accident Mr J began experiencing symptoms including high blood pressure, debilitating anxiety, insomnia, inability to work, and a feeling of hopelessness that he’d never regain his previous functioning level.

Mr J reported anxiety attacks several times daily, lasting 15- to 20-minutes. These attacks included heart palpitations, chest pressure, shortness of breath, and trembling. He said he avoided driving due to his fear of experiencing an anxiety attack, rather than fear of another motor vehicle accident.

Five weeks after the accident, at the direction of his primary care doctor, Mr J finally sought treatment. His symptoms were controlled with a combination of medications and supportive psychotherapy. Within two months, Mr J was able to resume driving and returned to work full-time.

Handling Emotional Distress After an Accident

In the days after an auto accident, you may start to experience symptoms of emotional distress, which can vary greatly among individuals. Here are some simple steps to help deal with any anxiety, stress, or other symptoms you may be experiencing:

1. Admit what you’re feeling

You gain nothing from acting tough. It takes strength to admit you may have a problem after a traumatic accident. You don’t have to carry around the fear and stress brought on by the collision. Seeking help shows courage.

2. Visit your primary care doctor

Your family doctor is a great place to start. Have an open and honest discussion about what you’re experiencing and how it’s impacting your life. Your doctor can refer you to an appropriate mental health provider so you can get back to your normal routine.

3. Consult with a mental health professional

Your doctor will likely refer you to a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other mental health professional. They will work with you to develop a comprehensive treatment plan. Medication and psychotherapy are proven options to help heal after a traumatic event.

4. Follow the treatment plan

Just like you would follow a rehab plan for a physical injury, put equal effort into following the treatment plan developed by your mental health provider. Compliance is key.

5. Talk with your attorney

Don’t let uncertainty about the accident add to your stress and anxiety. Talk to a good personal injury attorney about what you need to do about the accident itself. Having a good attorney on your side will allow you to focus on healing your emotional issues.

Options for Treating Anxiety and Fear

The first step to recovering from trauma caused by a car accident is to recognize the problem and admit that you need treatment.

Don’t delay. Failure to understand the symptoms of PTSD can cause people to wait years before seeking help. At that point, the PTSD may be chronic and more difficult to treat.

Treatment for post-accident anxiety can include psychotherapy, medication, self-help, or some combination of these approaches.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is probably the most common treatment for PTSD and anxiety. Psychologists, therapists, counselors, and other mental health professionals use various treatment methods depending on the patient’s symptoms and situation.

The National Center for PTSD estimates that 53% of people who receive trauma-focused psychotherapy will no longer have PTSD after three months. In contrast, only 9% of people who receive no treatment will recover after three months.

As with any mental or physical health issue, the best treatment for you will be determined by your doctor or mental health professional.

Here are some psychotherapeutic approaches for treating trauma-related issues:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) teaches a person how to change the thoughts and feelings they’ve been having since the traumatic event. This therapy often includes using learned breathing techniques as part of stress management.
  • Exposure Therapy helps you to deal with your traumatic memories and feelings in a gradual way. It allows you to relive the traumatic event without suffering real injury.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) allows the brain to recover naturally from the traumatic event. It involves side-to-side eye movements, sounds, or taps, while simultaneously thinking about the traumatic event.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about psychotherapy is that help is out there and available. You just need to seek it out.

As with any treatment, what’s best for you given your particular circumstances can be determined only through open and honest consultation with your mental health provider.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has put together a helpful decision aid for how to best address your PTSD.

Medication

Some mental health issues experienced after an auto accident may need to be addressed with medication. PTSD is often treated with a class of medicines known as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs).

Examples of SSRIs include:

  • Zoloft
  • Paxil
  • Celexa
  • Lexapro
  • Prozac

As with all important medical decisions, using medication to treat post-accident anxiety or other symptoms must be made in full consultation with your doctor.

Do not self-medicate or take medication offered by friends or others. Any medication you take should be prescribed by your doctor and included as part of your overall treatment plan.

Self-Help

If you’re under the care of a doctor or therapist, stick to their treatment plan. In addition, there are some basic self-help measures you can take to aid in your recovery.

Self-help ideas to relieve post-accident driving anxiety:

  • Write about the traumatic experience
  • Talk about the accident and your fears
  • Visit the crash site
  • Drive with a friend or relative
  • Drive during the daytime, in low-traffic areas
  • Allow extra time to get to destinations

Defensive Driving Training

Taking a defensive driving course can be an excellent way to ease your mind as you consider driving again following a crash. Additionally, taking a driving course may earn you a discount on your insurance premiums. Check with your auto insurance company.

A good defensive driving course will cover such things as defensive driving techniques, good driving behavior, and will review traffic laws and general rules of the road. Just make sure you take a course from a reputable organization.

How to Get Compensation for Treatment

A significant question after an auto accident is if the at-fault driver’s insurance will pay for your therapy and mental health treatment. In all likelihood, it depends on whether you also received medical treatment for a physical injury.

The law in every state recognizes that an injured party can recover the costs associated with treating physical injuries caused by an accident. All states also recognize an injured person’s right to recover for any emotional injuries that accompanied the physical injury.

There may be a problem, however, if your only injury is psychological. Insurance companies don’t often pay out claims of emotional distress without accompanying physical injuries. You will need strong evidence to get compensation.

Evidence of emotional distress includes:

  • Mental Health Records: A licensed counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist, or even your family physician can write a narrative with their professional evaluation of your mental condition. They can verify if you are suffering from PTSD, anxiety, depression, or any other illness.
  • Medication Records: Keep prescriptions for any medications you were ordered to take for your mental health symptoms. Try to get information describing the medicine, it’s uses, dosages, common side effects, etc.
  • Witness Statements: Ask your loved ones, friends, church pastor, employer, and co-workers for written statements describing in their own words how they’ve observed your emotional condition since the accident. They may have noticed you’ve been depressed or crying for seemingly no reason, or you appear fatigued or on-edge.
  • Keep a Journal: Your detailed notes about the accident, your daily emotional difficulties, sleep problems, bad dreams, and other details of how the event has affected your daily life can be used as evidence of emotional distress.

If you only suffered emotional injuries, without corresponding physical injuries, seek the advice of an experienced personal injury attorney. These cases are difficult to win, and you’ll need a good attorney to get fair compensation.

A good injury attorney can guide you through the process, find out what insurance coverage you can pursue for compensation, and make sure your rights are protected.

There’s no obligation and no cost for your first consultation. Contact a personal injury attorney to discuss your claim, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

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