Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a condition that stems from witnessing or being the victim of a violent event or other traumatic experience. In the past, PTSD was not widely understood, but today, it’s recognized that as much as 8 percent of the population in the United States is suffering from the condition at any given time.
Because our understanding of PTSD is still being developed, we’re still finding new common sources and triggers for the condition, and one that has continued to crop up in research and treatment is car accidents. There are thousands of people who have anxiety about driving (or even riding in) a motor vehicle because of a severe accident in their past that may have resulted in physical injuries. We’ll also be talking about the other side of the event: emergency first responders who frequently are the first people on the scene at catastrophic car accidents and other fatal and life-threatening events.
What we’re finding is that it’s easier to develop PTSD than previously realized: here’s how people can get PTSD from a car crash, and how rehab centers are developing the knowledge necessary to help patients cope with PTSD symptoms.
Understanding the Ways PTSD Can Manifest
Post-traumatic stress disorder can develop after a person has been an up-close witness or a victim of a traumatic event. When someone is suddenly exposed to something jarring, the memories of the event can cause fear and anxiety about something similar happening. PTSD causes patients to exhibit irrational behavior in avoidance of these triggers and experience intrusive thoughts and dreams.
The Types of Violence That Causes PTSD
One of the most common situations that people associate with a high rate of PTSD is war, and for good reason. According to the VA, 15 percent of Vietnam veterans struggle with PTSD, and between 10 and 20 percent of veterans of the last few decades’ conflicts deal with the condition.
Here are examples of the violence and trauma that often results in the development of PTSD. It should be noted that after one of these events, PTSD isn’t guaranteed by any means, but it is extremely common.
- Rape and other sexual violence
- Up-close military violence
- Kidnapping and human trafficking
- Catastrophic accidents and natural disasters
- Terror and mass murder events
PTSD From Car Accidents
An overlooked cause of PTSD is severe car accidents. Many people are apprehensive to take the wheel of a vehicle to begin with, and a terrible accident can further develop extreme anxiety about driving or riding in a car.
Research finds that of the population of people who have been in severe car accidents, around 9 percent develop PTSD in the months after the crash. In accidents where one or more people die, that percentage is significantly higher.
Update: recent research shows 39% of a study of Motor Vehicle Accident victims developed diagnosable PTSD.
First Responders to Car Accidents
Not only do those involved in traffic accidents have a higher rate of PTSD, but so do the first responders who arrive on the scene to help. In general, first responders are at an increased risk for trauma-related illnesses simply because they frequently respond to traumatic events. A popular myth is that first responders are desensitized to violence, but studies find the opposite: 69 percent of EMS professionals reported that they didn’t have enough time to recover emotionally before having to respond to another grisly scene.
A notable example is the first responders to the wreckage in New York City immediately after the 9/11 terror attacks. There has been a public call for federal policymakers to approve an extension of a budget increase for these firemen, police officers and EMS, due to the long-term need to treat PTSD.
Triggers for Anxiety After an Accident
Depending on the circumstances of a car accident, triggers can vary greatly. For some who are involved in a fatal accident, simply getting back into the vehicle or behind the wheel can cause extreme fear and anxiety.
Other triggers can be more specific; something as common as another driver running a red light or the feeling of an abrupt stop can transport a person with PTSD right back into their traumatic event.
The Guilt and Shame Felt With PTSD
PTSD also commonly comes with feelings of guilt and shame, causing sufferers to dissociate, often resorting to using drugs and alcohol to escape. Here are two reasons why.
- Often, PTSD is internalized by the person suffering. They convince themselves that they were at fault for the initial trauma, even when there was no way to avoid it.
- Some people feel that PTSD caused by so-called lesser events, like a car accident, somehow makes them weaker. It needs to be widely known that PTSD is not something that can be controlled, and PTSD from a car accident is no less valid than PTSD from something “more serious.” like war atrocities.
The Consequences of Untreated PTSD
When left untreated, PTSD can be so severe that the person suffering from it loses the ability to accomplish daily activities and live a normal life. It’s one reason why rates of homelessness are so much higher among veterans with PTSD than those without. Other consequences include:
- Mental illness like depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Addiction and substance use disorders
Treatment Options for PTSD From a Car Accident
There are several treatments that people with PTSD from car accidents and other sources can undergo with the aim of helping them become more comfortable with their triggers.
- Exposure therapy, in which a patient has controlled sessions where they’re gradually exposed to more and more of a specific stimulus
- Counseling, where a patient talks one-on-one with a counselor about their trauma
- Support groups, where people with PTSD get together to talk about their experiences and grow through a common recovery journey
Although the idea of inpatient treatment can seem overwhelming, it is worth considering and learning more about what a day in the life of treatment for PTSD and other traumas at a facility is like.
Does It Vary From Other Treatments?
Exposure therapy has relatively narrow applications, but in group meetings and one-on-one counseling, PTSD treatment resembles other mental health and addiction treatment. All these take a different approach to helping patients learn about themselves and understand how they got to this point with the goal of reducing anxiety about certain situations.
Addressing PTSD at FHE Health
At FHE Health, we treat PTSD as well as a number of other mental health conditions. Our goal is to help you recover to the point where you can live a normal life. To learn more about your options, contact us today.