PTSD following a road traffic incident

Causes of PTSD: Road Traffic Incidents

One of the biggest misconceptions about post-traumatic stress disorder is that it only affects people who directly experience a harrowing incident. Including being involved in a road traffic accident as a driver, passenger or a person who is hit by a vehicle.

In fact, it’s important to understand that witnessing an incident that results in death or a life-changing injury – or even the potential for those things – can also lead to PTSD.

Drivers and passengers of cars, lorries, buses & motorcycles, cyclists, horse riders, pedestrians – all users of the road and their surroundings – are all at risk of PTSD from a road traffic incidents.

Every cause of PTSD is valid. Also, everyone is entitled to help for PTSD, whether you are a driver prosecuted for your actions or a witness to a tragedy involving strangers.

The likelihood of post-accident PTSD

Five people die on UK roads every day. Those 1,850 deaths a year are the tip of the iceberg as there are over 25,000 serious injuries on British roads annually.

That means there’s a fatal or serious road accident in the UK every 20 minutes.

Even a ‘near miss’ can leave someone involved or nearby with a traumatic imprint. You may have experienced a surge of emotion and a sense of danger and helplessness. If you’re a driver in an accident, you could also potentially feel shame and guilt.

A study from the American Academy of Pediatrics also showed that not only were child victims of road incident were at risk, but their parents too – even if they’d not directly been involved in the incident. 25% of the children in the study and 15% of the parents suffered diagnostic PTSD.

It’s easy to see why road incidents are thought to be one of the leading cause of PTSD in the general population.

Triggers and accident trauma

Trauma such as witnessing or being involved in a road accident reveals to you how precious and precarious life is. It demonstrates that a terrible event can unfold in minutes, in ways you can’t always predict or control. It’s natural for this to leave you distressed and disturbed.

You may find it impossible to avoid reminders. You, your friends and your family will travel by road or walk across them daily. Potentially leaving you in a constant state of high alert for the ‘next time’. Even being around the sound of traffic could leave you hypervigilant and suffering from flashbacks.

Do you have physical challenges because of a road accident? Studies have shown that pain can feel worse due to heightened sensitivity from PTSD. Also, as one medical journal reports: “Physical pain exacerbates PTSD,” particularly as pain is a “trauma reminder or resource loss.”

Spotting PTSD symptoms after a road accident

As with other traumatic events that can cause PTSD, you might experience symptoms and feelings of anxiety, irritability, nervousness, despondency, and vulnerability following a road traffic incident. You may also experience nightmares, numbness, flashbacks, avoidance behaviours, and interruptions to your previous lifestyles and routines.

One of the most common symptoms is avoidance behaviours. This natural defence mechanism prevents you from reliving the danger or distress. For example, you find it impossible to drive a car or get back on a motorcycle. You could have severe anxiety being a passenger or feel compelled to avoid certain roads or situations. Avoidance such as this actually strengthens the belief that driving, or being near a certain road is dangerous, and this thought pattern can maintain your heightened fear response. The avoidance of thoughts and emotions can interfere with the healthy processing of your emotions, which can also increase the risk of PTSD.

Flashbacks are also a feature of PTSD and could be triggered by bangs, vehicle horns, shouts, screeches or revving engines.

You may startle easily and react in a way some view as out of proportion. For instance, becoming angry or scared if another vehicle gets ‘’too close” or a driver goes too fast. Your anxiety about loved ones travelling by road could be extreme too.

This involuntary hypervigilance may have physical symptoms including a racing heart, excessive sweating or tense muscles.

Treating post-accident PTSD

Sometimes milder PTSD symptoms resolve themselves as you travel around and begin to feel safer on and around the roads. Your confidence in yourself and other drivers can improve with support and reassurance from others.

However, road accidents can leave you with PTSD that’s more deeply ingrained. Particularly when it’s blended with other mental health challenges such as depression. PTSD makes normal life difficult: we tend to rely on our cars, especially in towns and villages which are not well-served by public transportation. Avoidance or cars or certain roads can be particularly troublesome for victims, who may feel that their whole life has changed in an instant.

Any or all of these symptoms may occur which are part of your body’s natural response to a traumatic life event. They’re designed to keep you aware of potential dangers in your environment and prevent you from experiencing a similar event again.

These symptoms should naturally subside over time, but keep an eye on them. If you notice they’re getting more severe and/or more frequent, if you’re avoiding more situations or the symptoms are beginning to interfere with your life, then you may be at risk for developing PTSD. If that happens, please seek some help.

If you feel that you or a loved one may require PTSD support following an incident, please visit your GP who can refer you for diagnosis and treatment as required.

NICE guidance updated in 2018 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you

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Treatments for PTSD

It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.