PTSD following a road traffic incident

Causes of PTSD: Road Traffic Incidents

In the UK alone, approximately 1,850 people die annually on the roads, with over 25,000 sustaining serious injuries. Road traffic incidents are not just a leading cause of physical injury and death worldwide, but they also represent a significant source of psychological trauma.

These UK statistics translate to a serious or fatal incident occurring every 20 minutes, each potentially leaving survivors and witnesses with lasting psychological effects, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Complex PTSD (C-PTSD). These conditions can arise not only in those directly involved such as drivers, passengers, motorcyclists, cyclists, horse riders, and pedestrians, but also in witnesses, underscoring the pervasive impact of such traumatic events.

Why Road Traffic Incidents Trigger PTSD and C-PTSD

1. Suddenness and Severity: The abrupt and often violent nature of road incidents can shock the system profoundly. Human beings are naturally equipped to handle stress, but the extreme, life-threatening nature of these incidents can overwhelm normal coping mechanisms, leading to PTSD or C-PTSD.

2. Fear of Death or Serious Injury: Being involved in or witnessing a severe incident where there is a genuine fear for life or observation of serious injury can trigger trauma responses. 

3. Loss of Control: Incidents often happen quickly and without warning, leaving individuals feeling helpless and out of control. This loss of control is a significant factor in the development of PTSD and C-PTSD, as it shakes the foundational belief in one’s ability to protect oneself and others.

How PTSD and C-PTSD Manifest After Road Incidents

Studies show that after a road incidents, about 25-33% of people involved may develop PTSD within 30 days and is considered a major cause of PTSD, indicating a significant public health issue.

The symptoms of PTSD and C-PTSD following road incidents can vary widely but may include:

  • Intrusive Thoughts and Flashbacks: Survivors may relive the incident repeatedly, experiencing flashbacks that are vivid and distressing. These can be triggered by related stimuli, such as the sound of screeching tires or sirens.

  • Avoidance: Individuals might avoid reminders of the trauma, which can include driving or even being a passenger in vehicles, visiting certain locations, or discussing what happened.

  • Negative Changes in Thoughts and Mood: This can include feelings of hopelessness, memory problems, negative thoughts about oneself or others, and emotional numbness.

  • Hyperarousal: Being constantly on edge, exhibiting irritability or anger, having difficulty sleeping, and experiencing hypervigilance are common.

For those experiencing C-PTSD, these symptoms might be accompanied by difficulties in emotional regulation, a persistent sense of threat, and issues with personal relationships.

Treatment and Recovery

Effective treatment for PTSD and C-PTSD following road traffic incidents typically includes:

It is crucial for those showing signs of PTSD or C-PTSD to seek professional help. Early intervention can significantly improve recovery outcomes, helping individuals regain a sense of normalcy and safety in their lives.

Conclusion

Recognising the psychological impact of road traffic incidents is crucial not only for the people affected themselves but also for healthcare providers, policymakers, and the public. Awareness and proper treatment are key to helping those affected by road traffic-related PTSD and C-PTSD to recover and regain control of their lives. By providing knowledge, raising awareness of this issue and fostering a supportive environment, we can aid in the healing process and help mitigate the long-term effects of these traumatic events.

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.