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Post-Accident Psychological Health: When Walking Away From A Car Accident Is Just The Beginning

The accident wasn't so bad, you think. You're alive, your family is alive, and everything is okay. So why don't you feel okay? Why do you suddenly dread getting behind the wheel, or being a passenger in a car? And why are your children acting weird—so unlike their normal selves?

It may help to realize you are not strange and what you are experiencing is not as uncommon as one might think. Recently, researchers of a U.K. study report that one third or more of survivors of car accidents have significant psychological issues even after a year from the date of the accident. Many of these people developed these problems even after walking away from the accident physically un-injured.

Accident victims have been known to develop these conditions:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Phobias
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)


You may feel sad at times after an accident, and then feel guilty for not counting your blessings. These mixed feelings can do a number on your head, so it is important to talk over your feelings with a caring friend. Pick someone that has good listening skills and won't say "just get over it already."

If your feelings are persistent and are robbing you of the normal enjoyments of life, you are experiencing depression. To overcome this, you would benefit from counseling and medication.

The symptoms of depression following an accident include:

  • Unexplained fatigue
  • Losing interest in favorite activities
  • Problems with concentration and focus
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Feelings of sadness, and tearfulness
  • Feelings of guilt

Children, in particular, are subject to depression after an accident and will do better in the long-term if they receive some short-term therapy very soon after the accident (even if they aren't showing symptoms yet), such as at a place that is familiar with behavioral health. Teenagers will possibly need more sessions to talk it out.

Some symptoms particular to children and teens are:

  • Falling grades and inattentiveness at school.
  • Withdrawing from social activities.
  • Episodes of crying.
  • Feeling misunderstood.

Phobias and Panic Attacks

Some people develop phobias about being a passenger in a car and also driving one. Phobias are irrational but compulsive fears to certain things and situations that can develop following a traumatic event.

Your anxiety level may be high and it is possible that you might even develop panic attacks. Panic attacks are characterized by:

  • Feeling like you can't catch your breath.
  • Chest pains.
  • Racing heartbeat.
  • Shakiness or trembling.
  • Having feelings of unreality or detachment.

Phobias and panic attacks can be successfully treated with a systemized therapy that involves taking baby steps and rewarding yourself while tackling your fears at a pace that is comfortable to you.

Children and teens can also have anxiety and develop phobias along with depressive feelings, which makes it doubly important that they receive the short-term (or longer) therapy.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

PTSD is a disorder that soldiers develop as a result of repeated traumatic experiences ("shell-shock"). There is a branch of the disorder that applies to car accident victims. Persons can develop it from the single event of a car accident, and it has been estimated that from 10 to 45 percent of accident survivors can develop it.

If you have this disorder, as time goes on you will gradually feel worse instead of better. However, the sooner you seek help for it, the easier it is to treat.

PTSD symptoms include:

  • The numbing of your emotions.
  • Reliving the event over and over.
  • Striving to avoid anything to do with the accident or the people you were with.
  • Feeling a constant state of hyper-vigilance (looking-over-your-shoulder kind of anxiety) that interferes with focus, rest, and peace of mind.
  • Being easily startled all the time.

Treatment for PTSD will involve anxiety or antidepressant medication and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This therapy involves using techniques to identify disturbing thoughts and learning how to replace these with more helpful ones that will make you feel safer. You will become better equipped to handle the intrusive memories that threaten your peace of mind. You would also work to improve your personal relationships with family members and others.

Family therapy is important as well so that your loved ones can understand better what you are going through. It will also help them cope with their own issues related to the accident and its aftermath. Confronting these problems will require some work on your part (and of your children if they are experiencing problems), but with time, patience, and persistence, you will eventually feel better.