Can Car Accident Trauma Cause PTSD?

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry
Updated February 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental illness that develops following one or more traumatic events. It can suddenly and unexpectedly derail one's life, causing significant distress, anxiety, and avoidance. 

PTSD is not a linear disorder and does not follow rules regarding the onset, the severity of development once the onset occurred, or the disorder's progression. Its symptoms may come in spurts, and its onset might start with mild anxiety symptoms and suddenly switch to intense, overwhelming bouts of terror. Due to its unpredictability, some people may wonder if PTSD can be caused by a car accident-related traumatic event. 

Getty/PeopleImages
Even minor car accidents can trigger PTSD

What is trauma?

Trauma is any event or experience that is a perceived or actual threat to your life or emotional well-being. What qualifies as trauma for one person may be different for another. Events like witnessing a death or experiencing abuse can be classified as trauma. 

While there are differences in scale, trauma's physical and emotional effects are often the same, regardless of the event. When a traumatic event occurs, your body and mind are forced into a state of fear and uncertainty, which can persist past the expected boundary of the trauma itself.

Trauma can negatively impact your body, brain, emotional state, and sensory system. Compounded, these systems being under attack can severely impair your daily life and increase your risk for illnesses, disorders, and dysfunctions.

Does everyone react the same to trauma? 

Not all people who experience a traumatic event experience lasting adverse impacts on their bodies or minds. Some may be able to work through and manage trauma quickly without guidance or outside assistance. Contrarily, others might benefit from the understanding, kindness, and guiding hand of someone trained to offer trauma-based healing. 

You're not weak or "less than" if you develop a trauma disorder or adverse symptoms after a traumatic event, and people who cope easily with trauma are not "better" or "stronger." The human body is complex, and everyone reacts differently to different scenarios. 

How does trauma impact the body? 

Trauma's effects on the physical body and mind have been widely studied and examined because over 70% of people worldwide have experienced a traumatic event. Although traumatic events can cause emotional reactions, they also impact the body. It can be vital to understand this physical connection to understand the symptoms of conditions like PTSD. 

Physically, trauma is most often seen through symptoms in the nervous system. These symptoms might involve muscle tension, an engaged fight-flight-freeze response in the autonomic nervous system, and shock. Headaches and nausea can also be linked to trauma. The combination of these symptoms can lead to muscle aches, weakness, exhaustion, and difficulty sleeping, which may further complicate the physical symptoms of trauma.

Other physiological effects of trauma might include the development of gastrointestinal distress, brain fog, and difficulty concentrating. Muscle tremors can also arise due to increased tension and a "frozen" or "stuck" fight or flight response. As various bodily systems malfunction, increasing symptoms of distress can arise, including twitches, restlessness, numbness in the extremities, or sleep paralysis. 

Emotional impacts of trauma 

The mental and emotional effects of trauma may include but are not limited to the following: 

  • Increased anger, fear, and irritability
  • Intrusive memories
  • Personality changes
  • Nightmares
  • Emotional withdrawal
  • Anxiety and depression 
  • Chronic stress 
  • Avoidance of people, places, objects, topics, and situations that remind one of the traumatic event 
Getty/AnnaStills

Car accident trauma: understanding the impacts 

Car accidents are common, with over 5 million happening yearly in the US. Because of their prevalence, it may seem that these accidents aren't that traumatic. However, the physical and mental aspects of car accidents are regularly underestimated, regardless of the accident's severity or damage sustained.

Whether you are pulling out of a parking spot and accidentally bumping into an unanticipated pole or driving alone and rolling your car off a hill, a car accident is a break in your imagined and anticipated routine. While a break in routine is not enough to cause trauma, the sounds and sensations involved in car accidents are often more jarring than a change of plans. These sensory barrages can cause trauma. 

In larger, more significant car accidents involving injury, massive property damage, or death, the possibility for trauma is more widespread. Prior to having a car accident, people often perceive their vehicle as safe. 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 damage to the human body, including large lacerations, broken bones, and impalement, all of which can prove physically and mentally traumatizing. The speed with which car accidents occur can also be a source of trauma. For example, if you were speaking to the driver one minute and they are gone the next, it can cause a significant 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 also experience trauma. These images and sounds can be haunting and challenging to understand, as the human mind may struggle with witnessing death, mutilation, and destruction without support or intervention. 

Can car accidents cause PTSD? 

Determining whether a car accident has resulted in PTSD can be difficult. Because PTSD often develops months after an incident, you might not think to look back on the accident you had six months ago when anxiety, fear, and avoidance start to impact your life negatively. If you show the core symptoms of PTSD, such as avoidance, personality changes, and hyperarousal, your car accident may be a cause. 

If you have a sudden or unexplained resistance to getting into a car or driving a vehicle, PTSD could be involved. If you are avoiding the site of a past accident, the people with whom the accident occurred, or where you began your journey, you might be experiencing symptoms of PTSD.

Anxiety may be involved if you are constantly on edge, easily startled, or constantly overwhelmed, even if it is not a result of PTSD. It may be a sign of an underlying mental illness if you notice that you have grown increasingly irritable, sad, angry, or isolated. Intrusive memories of the accident or nightmares may also be present as a symptom of this condition. 

Any car accident can lead to PTSD, even if you believe the accident was not 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 often personal and unique to you and your precise disposition. What might qualify as trauma for you can look different to someone else's sources of trauma.

Getty/AnnaStills
Even minor car accidents can trigger PTSD

How to move forward healthily 

Cars can be valuable tools. However, when a car accident occurs, health and wellness may decrease significantly. Any car accident can prove traumatic for individuals involved or 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 more minor levels of harm and injury or no injury can prove traumatic to someone.

If you or someone you love has begun to exhibit hyperarousal symptoms, personality alterations, and avoidant behavior following a car accident—even if months or years have passed—consider contacting a mental health professional for an evaluation. PTSD may not immediately be life-threatening, but the condition's symptoms can cause alienation and isolation and are often the source of additional mood disorders, including anxiety and depressive disorders.

If you struggle to find in-person support, you may also consider online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp. Studies show that online therapy is also highly effective. One study found that online EMDR and CBT modalities could reduce symptoms of PTSD and trauma by 55% for clients. 

Working with an online therapist, you can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions, offering flexibility to your schedule. In addition, online therapists often work outside of standard business hours, which may be helpful for those with challenging schedules. 

Takeaway

Car accidents can be a cause of PTSD development for some people. If you have been through a car accident or witnessed one and have been experiencing symptoms of this condition, consider reaching out to a licensed therapist for further support and guidance.

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