How to Deal with the Emotional Impact of a Motor Vehicle Accident

Did you know that the very first car accident ever recorded dates all the way back to 1891? An engineer by the name of James Lambert was driving a gasoline-powered buggy — which he had designed and built himself — when he ran over a tree root, causing the vehicle to swerve. Ironically enough, it crashed into a hitching post! Neither Lambert or passenger James Swoveland were seriously hurt.

These days, the potential for injuries and even fatalities is much greater than it was in the late 19th century. In addition, being involved in a wreck can be emotionally difficult. Today, we’re taking a closer look at how accidents affect our psyches and how to cope in the aftermath.

You May Be in Shock

Immediately after the impact, while first responders are sorting things out and trying to make sense of what has happened, you may go into a state of shock. At first, it can be difficult to wrap your mind around the idea that an accident has occurred. This may result in a slow or delayed response to the events.

Over the hours and days to come, you may also find yourself replaying the sequence of events over and over again in your head. This may be especially true if your action played a direct part in causing the crash. It’s not unusual to come down with a case of the “What If”s. Thoughts like “If only I had left ten minutes sooner,” or “What if I hadn’t glanced down at my phone trying to read that text” or “I knew I should have taken back roads instead of the highway” may plague you.

Try not to dwell on such thoughts, however. Distract yourself by spending time with friends and family, watching a feel-good TV show, or reading a riveting novel or nonfiction book. Talking to a therapist may also help; we’ll touch more on that topic a little later.

Anger and Guilt

The shock will recede fairly quickly, but you might then begin experiencing negative emotions like anger and guilt. It’s common to be angry not only at the other drivers involved in the crash, but also at yourself, the “powers that be” but that failed to make repairs on the road or maintain its safety, and even at the world in general.

Legal professionals, such as San Diego car accident lawyers The Barnes Firm, advise that it’s vital not to act on angry impulses. This is as true at the scene of the accident as afterward. It may be tempting to vent your spleen by accusing another driver of wrongdoing or threatening them, but don’t take matters into your own hands. Consult an attorney if you think that your accident could have been caused by someone else’s negligence, and never engage directly with anyone you believe was at fault.

Guilt can arise when someone has been seriously injured or killed in the accident. Depending on the circumstances — if you were driving someone else’s car and it got totaled, for example, or if you were driving while intoxicated — the guilt can seem overwhelming.

PTSD, Depression, and Anxiety

Many people think of post-traumatic stress disorder, aka PTSD, as something that only happens to military service members or victims of sexual abuse. In fact, this disorder is frequently diagnosed in people who have undergone a traumatic car accident or other intense, life-changing event.

Be on the lookout for symptoms of PTSD in the days, weeks, and months following a collision. These include:

  • Persistent negative emotions like anxiety, anger, worry, or guilt
  • Anxiety about or avoidance of driving, or even riding in a car again
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Insomnia, nightmares, or excessive sleep
  • Inability to stop mentally rehashing the accident, or feeling oppressed by thoughts of it

Even if you do not meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, anxiety, and depression are also common after a car accident. It’s possible that you will:

  • Feel detached from reality
  • Lose interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Become less social and withdrawn
  • Find it difficult to sleep, or sleep more than usual
  • Turn to alcohol, drugs, or food to numb your pain
  • Rapidly lose or gain weight
  • Have trouble concentrating at work
  • Experience anxiety attacks

These symptoms have the potential to disrupt your daily life, but that they won’t last forever. And even though you may want to hide under the covers until you feel better, it’s important to work through the emotional trauma of a car accident.

The Importance of Therapy After an Accident

Just as you need to take steps to heal physically — by following doctor’s orders, undergoing physical therapy, and taking any medications that are prescribed to you — taking a proactive approach to your mental state will help you get back on track and put the car wreck behind you.

Speaking with a trained therapist or counselor can be tremendously helpful during this time of upheaval. A counselor provides a safe space where you can process what has happened and your emotional response to it all. They can also teach you techniques to alleviate your anxiety or deal with the symptoms of PTSD. Speaking with a professional therapist, social worker, psychologist, or other mental health practitioner is especially helpful if your life has been significantly and/or permanently altered as a result of an accident, but anyone can benefit from counseling.

When All the Dust Has Settled

Last but not least, be gentle and patient with yourself. It’s frustrating when you can’t live life normally because of bodily injury, having a car that’s been taken out of commission, or involvement in a legal case. It’s equally hard to grapple with emotions such as fear, anxiety, depression, anger, guilt, and remorse — but if you take an active role in your own recovery, you will overcome these obstacles.