Psychological Effects of Traffic Accidents

Traffic accidents come at an extreme cost. Aside from medical and property expenses, individuals often struggle with other, much more personal and devastating costs. Perhaps a hobby must be stopped. Perhaps livelihood has been cut back by a permanent injury. And in some cases, the result is as devastating as the loss of a relative.

As one struggles to take care of these tragic and traumatic occurrences, there are also psychological symptoms associated with the victims of major roadside accidents. Though not everyone experiences these symptoms, they do occur commonly and often go without treatment. Although professional treatment will not recover the loss, early treatment can lessen the disabling symptoms that stifle a persons ability to recover and move on.

Cognitive Impact

Traumatic events are never anticipated. When they do come, the effects can be far reaching—even further reaching than most people would expect.

The following describes how our body reacts to uncontrollable trauma:

Consider this: You are driving to work, planning an important morning meeting with a colleague and intermittently reminding yourself that you must remember to tum left at the traffic light, not right as usual, in order to bring your suit to the cleaners. Suddenly, you find yourself passing an accident where a crowd is gathered around a gruesome scene. The ambulance screams up behind you as you hurry to get out of the way. You feel your heart quicken and notice that your foot is faster than usual as you step on the brake at the red light. You try to resume planning the morning’s meeting, but your thoughts are disorganized now and you lose concentration, distracted by a disk jockey’s prattle from the radio. You get to work, the memory of that gruesome scene all too vivid, and berate yourself because you forgot to go to the cleaners. This scenario captures many of the cognitive changes that occur in response to acute, uncontrollable stress: We become distracted and disorganized, and our working memory abilities worsen, leaving prepotent or habitual responses to control our behavior.

The cognitive changes described by the article occur on a larger scale when the events are not simple “acute, uncontrollable stress” but life-changing, traumatic events.

Common Disorders Following a Traffic Accident

Research for adult survivors of traffic accidents, “has consistently shown high rates of psychological morbidity, particularly mood disorders, travel anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorders” (Baldwin, Stallard, and Velleman). The section below offers more details on symptoms of the disorders associated with the survivors of traumatic traffic accidents.

Phobic Travel Anxiety

It is easy to understand how a motor vehicle can become a source of fear for those who have seen how truly terrible an auto accident can be. What few realize is how disabling a fear of travel by car can be. According to fear-of-driving.org,

People that suffer from driving anxiety might have symptoms that are similar to panic attacks. Those that have extreme instances won’t drive to work, take holidays or take job promotions that aren’t on the bus route.

In addition, the extreme discomfort a survivor might experience when traveling by car after a traffic accident can become a trigger for post-traumatic stress.

Symptoms of phobic travel anxiety may include:

  • Trembling, sweating, or Increased in heart-rate while traveling.
  • Persistent thoughts of the vehicle losing control.
  • Nervousness and frightening thoughts while approaching bridges, interstates, heavy automobile traffic, etc.
  • Avoiding or postponing events which must be traveled by car.

Emotional Disorder

It is assumed that most individuals who experience a traumatic car accident will need at least a few weeks for their emotional state of being to settle down. During these first weeks, according to “Recovering From an Automobile Accident: Healing the Emotional Wounds” by Karen Szmyd Dickason, an individual may experience:

  • shock, denial, disbelief
  • anger, irritability, agitation
  • guilt, shame, self-blame
  • sadness, hopelessness
  • anxiety, worry, fear
  • social withdrawal and isolation
  • emotional numbness, mood swings

Below are some ways to combat the emotional disarray which naturally follows a traumatic event, such as a car accident. According to Dickason, you should:

  1. Take care of yourself. Your physical state of being effects your emotional state of being, so be sure to eat well, exercise regularly, and rest adequately.
  2. Maintain a daily routine. Stay active and involved by keeping a balanced schedule between work and home.
  3. Seek support from others. Talking about your experience with trusted friends, family members, or clergy can provide great emotional support.

If a victim continues to have symptoms for weeks, has trouble functioning at home or work, avoids things that are reminders of the accident, or uses alcohol or drugs to cope, professional assistance might be worth looking into.

Post-Traumatic Stress 

Stressball by _Bottled_Void on flickr 2204059683_09eb09601b

In a study by Paul Stallard, Richard Velleman, and Sarah Baldwin, post-traumatic stress involves “the persistent re-experiencing of the trauma, avoidance of stimuli associated with it, and increased rates of arousal.”

Though some may have the idea that post-dramatic stress is a sign of being weak-minded, it is simply the body’s way of coping with extreme distress. According to Richard Mayou, Bridget Bryant, and Robert Duthie’s study “Psychiatric Consequences Of Road Traffic Accidents,” “post-traumatic syndromes were not associated with a neurotic predisposition, but were strongly associated with horrific memories of the accident.”

Symptoms of post-dramatic stress, according to “Prospective Study of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Children Involved in Road Traffic Accidents”, may include:

  • Sleep disturbances and nightmares
  • Separation Anxiety
  • Difficulty in concentration
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Difficulties in talking with parents and friends
  • Mood disturbances
  • Deterioration in academic/work performance
  • Specific fears

What if I Think I’m Experiencing These Symptoms?

“Early information and advice might reduce psychological distress and travel anxiety and contribute to road safety and assessing ‘nervous shock,'” according to Bryant, Duthie, and Mayou.

If you are uncertain of whether or not your are experiencing these symptoms, it might be advisable to seek professional help. While decisions will always be dependent on the details of each unique situation, remember that your health and liveliness are of the utmost importance.

If possible for your situation, we want to help you. If you have questions about what can be done for placing a personal injury or wrongful death claim, feel welcome to call us or schedule an appointment on our contact page.

Sources used in this article:

1 – Richard Mayou, Bridget Bryant, and Robert Duthie. “Psychiatric Consequences Of Road Traffic Accidents”. BMJ: British Medical Journal, Vol. 307, No. 6905 (Sep. 11, 1993) , pp. 647-651.

2 – Paul Stallard, Richard Velleman, Sarah Baldwin. “Prospective study of post-traumatic stress disorder in children involved in road traffic accidents.” BMJ: British Medical Journal, Vol. 317 (Dec. 12, 1998), pp. 1619-1623.

3 – Karen Szmyd Dickason. “Recovering From an Automobile Accident: Healing the Emotional Wounds.” https://www.achievesolutions.net/achievesolutions/en/Content.do?contentId=2686

4 – Admin. “A Fear of Driving a vehicle might be really terrible.” http://www.fear-of-driving.org/#sthash.6MN5z7u0.dpuf

Photo “stress” copy right to bottled_void

Ken Christensen
Partner, Founder at Christensen & Hymas
Ken Christensen is the founding partner of Christensen & Hymas. He is an avid cyclist, loves baseball, and enjoys spending time with his family in the outdoors.

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