PTSD and Car Accidents

Know Your Risk After a Crash

Young people involved in a car crash
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If you've been in a car accident, you're at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Research shows that almost 50 percent of people who are in car accidents where medical attention is needed may develop PTSD.

Car Accidents and PTSD Risk Factors

A number of traumatic events can increase your risk of PTSD. One type of traumatic event that is quite common is the experience of a motor vehicle accident (MVA), such as a car, truck or motorcycle accident.

Each year around 3 million people are injured in MVAs. While car accidents are quite common, it's important to point out that not everyone who experiences a MVA develops PTSD. A number of studies are trying to identify risk factors for developing PTSD after a car accident.

Several risk factors have been found to increase the likelihood of developing PTSD. They include:

  • The experience of another, past traumatic event
  • The experience of psychological difficulties prior to the traumatic event
  • Family history of psychological problems
  • Whether the trauma was life threatening
  • The amount of support people felt following the event
  • The person's emotional response (fear, helplessness, horror, guilt and shame)
  • The presence of dissociation during the trauma

Studies of MVA survivors paint a similar picture. Interestingly, studies have not found much support for the influence of specific characteristics of the car accident (for example, how severe it was or whether the driver or passenger injured) on the development of PTSD.

Instead, there is more support for how one responded to, or perceived, the accident.

For example, one study found that the perception that your life was in danger was the strongest predictor for PTSD six months after the trauma. Another study found avoidance behaviors, the suppression of thoughts about the car accident, rumination about the trauma and dissociation were most strongly connected with PTSD symptoms two to six months after an accident.

A strong perception that one's life was in danger during a MVA can lead to avoidance behaviors (for example, not getting in a car or going on the highway), which in turn can increase the likelihood of PTSD. Such avoidance strengthens the belief that driving is dangerous, a thought pattern that can maintain your fear response. The avoidance of thoughts and emotions can interfere with the healthy processing of your emotions, which can also increase the risk of PTSD.

PTSD After a Car Accident - What to Look Out For

A car accident is very scary, and it's very common to experience a number of symptoms associated with PTSD:

  • You may notice feelings of anxiety and increased heart rate when you're faced with reminders of the event. Hearing a horn honk or brakes screeching may automatically activate a fear response.
  • It's common to feel a little more on edge when you're driving. You may be jumpy or startle more easily in a car.
  • It's also natural to be more watchful. You're more likely to scan your environment for potential sources of threats (for example, people driving too fast).
  • Because of the anxiety that often follows a MVA, it's natural that you may want to avoid some situations or experience hesitation at times, such as driving on the highway.

    All these symptoms may occur. They're part of your body's natural response to a traumatic life event. They're designed to keep you aware of potential dangers in your environment and prevent you from experiencing a similar event again.

    These symptoms should naturally subside over time, but you should keep an eye on them. If you notice they're getting more severe and/or more frequent, or if you're avoiding more situations or the symptoms are beginning to interfere with your life, then you may be at risk for developing PTSD. If that happens, you should seek some help.

    Getting Help for PTSD After a Car Accident

    There are a number of effective treatments for PTSD.

    One treatment that may be helpful for someone who was in a motor vehicle accident is exposure therapy. Other good options are available as well.

    If you are looking for a PTSD treatment provider in your area, there are a number of websites that can help.

    There are also self-help workbooks available for people struggling with anxiety after a car. By taking steps early to address your anxiety, you can overcome the effects of a motor vehicle accident.


    Berna, G., Vaiva, G., Ducrocq, F., Duhem, S., & Nandrino, J.L. (in press). Categorical and dimensional study of the predictive factors of the development of a psychotrauma in victims of car accidents. Journal of Anxiety Disorders.

    Blanchard, E.B., & Hickling, E.J. (2004). After the crash: Psychological assessment and treatment of survivors of motor vehicle accidents, 2nd ed. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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