Understanding the Emotional Toll of Road Accidents: A Comprehensive Guide

Katherine McCallum
Apr 22, 2024
min read
Man looking emotional in a car

Understanding the Emotional Toll of Road Accidents: A Comprehensive Guide

With 64% of Australians experiencing at least one road traffic accident in their lifetime, it’s worth remembering that the emotional and mental toll can be just as impactful as the physical ones. Here is our guide to understanding the emotional toll of road accidents. 

A Traumatic Experience

Trauma occurs when a person experiences an event that is particularly distressing, stressful, or frightening. Usually, these events lie outside of their control, meaning that they are difficult for the person to cope with and come to terms with. 

An incident like a road accident perfectly fits the category of an event capable of causing trauma. Often they involve factors that may be outside of our control, can be loud and frightening, and cause significant distress for both yourself and loved ones. This means that a trauma response is natural, and you shouldn’t feel ashamed of your initial reaction if you find yourself in one. 

Common emotional responses

One of the most common responses to a road traffic accident is shock. This can manifest itself in different ways depending upon the person. Some people may scream and be vocal, whereas others might go silent or only be capable of mumbling or groaning. People suffering from shock may also find it hard to move or start to shake or tremble. 

It’s important if someone is suffering from shock to keep them warm and hydrated and take things slow and steady. 

After the road accident, strong emotions can still linger. These can include:

  • Anger, at whoever was at fault, society, and even yourself. 
  • Anxiety and fear are also common, and these can be much more generalised than just worries about getting back into a vehicle. 
  • Guilt, especially if there were other persons involved in the incident.
  • Sadness, that leads to low mood and negative thoughts. If you feel this way and it does not seem to be getting better, please do seek help.

Physical responses

It isn’t just emotional responses that can be altered after a bad car crash. Often, people also experience physical symptoms as part of the trauma response, too. These can include:

  • Disturbed sleep
  • Muscle tenseness, leading to pains like headaches
  • Issues with digestion
  • Feeling faint or dizzy
  • Shortness of breath or a choking sensation
  • Heart palpitations

These physical reactions to the trauma caused by a road accident can often be quite scary or unexpected, however, it is important to know that they will go in time. If you are concerned about any new symptoms, it is always best to check with your doctor just to make sure there are no underlying issues.

Road traffic accidents and PTSD: a common correlation

Road traffic accidents are the leading cause of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the general population. While other emotional and physical reactions to an accident can go on for weeks, often PTSD is much more prolonged, sometimes taking years to address. Even if you may feel fine again after a crash, the symptoms of PTSD can sometimes only start to manifest weeks, months, or even years after the incident. 

One of the main things that people associate with PTSD are flashbacks. These are intrusive thoughts that take the person back to the event and can happen when awake or in their dreams. Often these flashbacks occur with a trigger that reminds the person of the incident, however, sometimes they can occur independently. 

This being said, it is important not to ignore or brush aside some of the other ways that PTSD can present. They may also experience mood changes that can sometimes make it appear like they have a different personality, which can often alienate loved ones. Often it can be hard for them to find enjoyment, even in things that they once loved to do, and their thought patterns can often be negative and avoid anything that might remind them of the event. They may be easily frightened, and suffer from disturbed sleep. 

One way that some people suffering from PTSD may try to cope is by the use of substances such as drugs and alcohol use. If this is the case, you can seek help and advice from various organisations and charities 

It is important to remember that although it may seem scary, the PTSD response is simply your body’s way of trying to keep you safe from potential harm. Unfortunately, sometimes our body’s way of protecting us isn’t as helpful as it should be and ends up being harmful. This is why practices such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be incredibly useful in treating PTSD as it helps to reframe thinking processes to be more productive.

Getting back behind the wheel

Returning back to driving or stepping back into a car can feel incredibly daunting. However, it is best to give it a try as soon as you feel you are able to, as the longer that you put it off, the more the fear and pressure can build. 

Start slow, and stick to roads you know and are familiar with. It may also help to have a friend or family member in the car with you to help you feel more secure and to offer positive encouragement. You may also find breathing exercises like this one helpful, or come up with a positive mantra you can tell yourself to remind yourself of how strong you are. 

Some people may wish to brush up on their driving skills in order to help them feel safer on the roads. This doesn’t mean retaking your licence test again, but instead opting for a defensive driving course. These courses help you to gain new skills and emotional resilience to be able to cope in busy or complex driving situations. 

When to seek professional help

If at any point your symptoms worsen to the point where they are stopping you from being able to manage the ins and outs of everyday life, there is a dramatic shift in your mood, or things are taking a lot longer to get better than they should, there is no harm in reaching out to your doctor or a mental health professional. 

This can be a tough decision for some people to make as the stigma around mental health still plays a factor, especially among men. However, like Smith’s Lawyers’ client Alex, who was left with PTSD and anxiety after his crash knows, it can be one of the best decisions you make and allow you to speak to someone who truly understands. They aren’t there to judge you and can offer you the necessary skills, tools, and interventions to help you regain a brighter path forward. 

If you have been involved in a road accident and want to know what your next steps are, Smith’s Lawyers can help. Our experienced team includes the firm’s founder, Greg Smith, whose experiences after his own road traffic accident led him down the path to help others. Schedule a chat with us today.

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