Is It PTSD? Car Accident Trauma
By: Corrina Horne
Updated March 09, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Lauren Fawley
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a disorder that develops following a traumatic event or several traumatic events. It can suddenly and unexpectedly derail what might otherwise seem like healthy, normal life. PTSD is not a linear disorder; it does not follow a set of rules regarding the time of onset, the severity of development once the onset of occurred, or the progression of the disorder. Its symptoms may come in fits and spurts, and its onset might start with mild anxiety symptoms and suddenly skyrocket to intense, overwhelming bouts of terror. But can PTSD lie hidden following a car accident?
What Is Trauma?
Trauma is any event or experience that threatens your life (a real threat or a perceived threat) or your emotional well-being. Trauma events can be minor, such as hearing a sharp, biting word from someone you trust, or large, such as witnessing the death of thousands of people due to a natural disaster. While there are differences in terms of literal scale, the effects of trauma are largely the same: your body and mind are forced into a state of fear and uncertainty, which can persist far past the expected boundary of the trauma itself.
Trauma can negatively impact your body, your brain, your emotional state, and even your sensory system. Compounded, all of these systems being under attack can severely impair your daily life and create all manner of illnesses, disorders, and dysfunctions.
Not all trauma will go on to create lasting damage in the bodies and minds of those it affects; some people may be able to work through and manage trauma quickly, without guidance or outside assistance, while others might need the understanding, kindness, and guiding hand of someone trained to administer trauma-based healing. Although there is still very little known or understood about the differences in people who are more intensely negatively impacted by trauma and those who are not, it does not have ties to weakness, or any sort of character defect; instead, it seems largely based on previous ties to trauma, anxiety, and similar disorders, and the presence (or lack) of support.
Trauma's Effect On The Body
Trauma's effects on your physical body, physiological systems, and mind have been widely studied and examined because as many as 61 percents of men (and 51 percent of women) today have experienced or have had some form of exposure to trauma. With over half the population has come into contact with a traumatic event, understanding how it all works is pivotal in creating effective treatment plans and enlisting preventative measures.
Physically, trauma is most often seen through symptoms, not unlike those caused by anxiety: trauma can cause muscle tension, an engaged "fight or flight" response in the autonomic nervous system, and even shock. Headaches and nausea can also be linked to trauma. All of these symptoms combined can lead to muscle aches, feelings of weakness or exhaustion, and difficulty sleeping, which further complicate the physical symptoms of trauma.
Other physiological and mental effects of trauma might include the development of gastrointestinal distress, brain fog, and difficulty concentrating. Muscle tremors can also come as a result of increased tension and persistent fight or flight responses. As various bodily systems begin to malfunction, increasing symptoms of distress can arise, including twitches, physical feelings of restlessness, and even numbness in your extremities, or a feeling of being paralyzed.
The mental and emotional effects of trauma are the most widely known symptoms of having witnessed or been a part of a traumatic event and include increased anger, fear, and irritability, intrusive memories, personality changes, nightmares, emotional withdrawal, and high levels of anxiety and depression. Most people who experience trauma do go on to experience some amount of anxiety, though not all trauma survivors will experience anxiety severe enough to warrant the diagnosis of an anxiety disorder.
PTSD: Car Accidents And Trauma
Car accidents have become common enough that many people do not anticipate an accident as having a traumatic effect on the body or mind. After all, a "fender bender" does little more than inflicting limited damage to the rear of a vehicle, right? Unfortunately, the physical and mental aspects of car accidents are regularly underestimated, regardless of the severity of the accident itself or the damages sustained.
Whether you are pulling out of a parking spot and accidentally bump into an unanticipated pole, or you are driving alone and feel another vehicle grind into the side of your car, a car accident forces some kind of break in your imagined and anticipated routine. While a small break in routine is not enough to cause trauma, the sounds and sensations involved in car accidents are far more jarring than a simple change of plans. These sensory barrages can cause trauma.
In larger, more significant car accidents, involving injury, massive property damage, or even death, the possibility for trauma is far easier to see: many people, prior to having a car accident, feel safe when ensconced in their vehicle. Seeing the ease with which a previously-safe space is obliterated can be traumatic. Trauma can also arise if you or another passenger is injured. Car accident injuries can involve severe damages to the human body, including large lacerations, broken bones, and even impalement, all of which can prove both physically and mentally traumatizing. The speed with which car accidents occur can also be a source of trauma; if you were speaking to the driver one minute, and it feels as though the next instant, your friend or loved one is just gone, your mind can readily undergo a traumatic response.
If you are not directly involved in a car accident, but witness two cars smashing together, see two people become injured, or witness someone being ejected from a vehicle or otherwise harmed, you may experience trauma. These types of images and sounds can haunt the healthiest of minds, as the human mind is not prepared to witness death, mutilation, and destruction, and often struggles to do so without some form of support or intervention.
Is It Car Accident-Induced PTSD?
Determining whether or not a car accident has resulted in PTSD can be difficult. Because PTSD does not always show its face immediately following an incident, you might not even think to look back on the small accident you had six months ago when anxiety, fear, and avoidance begin to sneak their way into your life. If, however, you show any of the core symptoms of PTSD (avoidance, personality changes, and hyperarousal), that same car accident may be at least partially to blame.
If you have a sudden or unexplained reticence toward getting into a car or driving a vehicle, PTSD could be involved. If you find yourself avoiding the site of the accident, the people with whom the accident occurred, or even the place where you began your journey, you might be experiencing symptoms of PTSD. If you begin to feel as though you are constantly on edge, easily startled, or constantly overwhelmed, anxiety is likely involved, even if it is not fully-formed PTSD. If you notice that you have grown increasingly irritable, sad, angry, and are prone to periods of self-imposed isolation or fear of being alone, these could also indicate that the symptoms of PTSD have begun their descent into your life. Intrusive memories of the accident or nightmares are likely present if you have PTSD.
Any car accident can lead to PTSD, even if you feel the accident was not large or dangerous enough to warrant a formal PTSD diagnosis. Trauma is not a competition, designed to be compared to the horrors others have experienced; trauma is highly personal and entirely unique to you and your precise disposition, and what might qualify as trauma for you can look quite different from someone else's source of trauma.
PTSD From A Car Accident Moving Forward
Cars are incredible tools, but when something goes awry in a car accident, health and wellness can go downhill quickly. Even the smallest of car accidents can prove traumatic for individuals involved, or even individuals who witness an accident. While a car accident may seem to require severe physical harm or death to warrant a PTSD diagnosis, car accidents with even smaller levels of harm and injury can prove traumatic to someone.
If you or someone you love has begun to exhibit symptoms of hyperarousal, personality alterations, and avoidant behavior following a car accident-even if months or years have passed-consider reaching out to a mental health professional for an evaluation. PTSD may not immediately be life-threatening, but the symptoms of the disorder can cause alienation and isolation and are often the source of additional mood disorders, including major anxiety and depressive disorders-all of which have the potential to cause harm. A qualified practitioner can help you get to the root of your trauma, work through what you experienced during your accident, and move forward in pursuing mental health and clarity.