Being involved in a car crash can be a life-altering experience, and the emotional journey can be just as challenging as healing from any physical injuries. It’s completely normal to face feelings of anxiety, or even develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), after a car accident. And in some cases those feelings can turn the thought of getting back behind the wheel into a phobia.
Motor vehicle accidents are one of the leading causes of PTSD, according to the American Psychological Association.
No two accident survivors’ experiences or healing processes will look the same, but there are actionable steps that can help you regain your confidence on the road and improve your quality of life. Let’s explore the journey towards overcoming PTSD and anxiety after a car accident.
Acknowledge your feelings
Whether you were in a minor accident like a fender bender, or a more serious collision, it’s normal to feel scared, shaken up, and anxious. Don’t try to suppress or ignore your emotions; instead, take the time to process them.
Talk to someone you trust, such as a friend, family member, or therapist. Expressing your emotions can help you feel more in control and reduce your anxiety.
Several types of therapies have been proven effective in helping people recover from stress, anxiety, and PTSD after a car accident. Some of the most common and well-supported therapies include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
- Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
- Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE)
- Psychodynamic Psychotherapy
- Group Therapy
If you’re considering therapy after a car accident, consult with a mental health professional to help determine the best treatment option for your needs.
Take it slow and reach out for support
After an accident, it’s important to give yourself time to recover both physically and emotionally. Don’t feel pressure to rush back into driving—or your daily life—if you’re not ready. Be patient with yourself and go at your own pace.
Once you’re ready to get behind the wheel again, perhaps start with short trips around your neighborhood, or with a trusted friend or family member. Ask someone you trust to ride with you as you start to reacclimate to driving. Having someone in the car can help you feel more confident and provide emotional support if you start to feel anxious.
Gradually increase your driving distance and time as you feel more comfortable.
Get back into a routine
Establishing a consistent schedule can help you feel more comfortable, in control, and reduce anxiety of the unknown. Set a regular driving schedule and stick to it.
Start with small, manageable tasks, such as driving short distances or during less busy times of day, and gradually build upon your accomplishments. As you consistently engage in these activities, you’ll find that familiarity and repetition help to alleviate your fear of driving and promote a sense of safety.
Remember, progress may be slow, but by creating a routine, you can build a framework to gradually face and conquer driving-related anxiety.
Focus on safe driving habits
Focus on safe driving habits to help reduce your anxiety and avoid future accidents.
Avoid distractions while driving, such as using your phone or eating. Always wear your seatbelt and follow traffic laws. Staying focused and alert while driving can help reduce anxiety and keep you safe on the road.
Consider taking a defensive driving course, which can help you feel more confident and prepared behind the wheel. These courses teach defensive driving techniques that can help you avoid accidents and stay safe on the road. Additionally, completing a course can provide you with a sense of accomplishment and confidence.
How do I know if I’m developing PTSD following a car accident?
PTSD is a mental health condition that can develop after an individual experiences or witnesses a traumatic event, such as a car accident.
While the symptoms of PTSD are generally consistent across various types of trauma, there are several common symptoms of PTSD that may be particularly relevant to car accident survivors, including:
- Intrusive thoughts and memories: Experiencing vivid, unwanted memories or flashbacks of the car accident, which can be triggered by sights, sounds, or situations reminiscent of the event.
- Nightmares: Car accident survivors may have recurrent, distressing dreams related to the accident, which can disrupt sleep and cause anxiety and difficulty sleeping around bedtime.
- Avoidance: Avoiding driving, riding in cars, or being near roads and highways, as these situations can trigger memories of the accident and evoke feelings of fear and anxiety.
- Anxiety and fear: Emotional distress can be triggered when in or around vehicles, or when driving in conditions similar to those during the accident (e.g., heavy traffic, bad weather, or at the accident location).
- Hypervigilance: Becoming overly alert and cautious while driving or riding in a car, constantly scanning the environment for potential threats and dangers.
- Startle response: An exaggerated startle response can be more pronounced in car accident survivors, as they may be easily startled by sudden noises or movements while in or around vehicles.
- Emotional numbness: Car accident survivors may feel emotionally detached or numb, finding it difficult to connect with their feelings or the feelings of others, especially in situations related to driving or car accidents.
If you suspect that you or a loved one is experiencing PTSD, it’s vital to seek help from a mental health professional.
How long does it take to heal mental trauma after an auto accident?
Unfortunately, there’s no magic number when it comes to the recovery time for mental health after an auto accident. It varies significantly from person to person, and depends on several factors—including the severity of the accident, personal history, coping mechanisms, and access to emotional support.
While some people may experience only temporary distress that resolves within a few days or weeks, others may develop more persistent mental health issues like general anxiety, depression, or PTSD, which could take months or even years to overcome.
It’s important to remember that each person’s healing process is unique, and there is no fixed timeline or competition to achieve mental health recovery after a car accident.
As you navigate your healing journey, remember to be patient with yourself and celebrate each small victory. We wish you strength and resilience, and that your future rides will be safe, secure, and even a little bit fun.