PTSD After a Serious Car Accident

Drivers and passengers involved in serious car accidents have been known to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the crash. Here's how that kind of diagnosis affects a car accident claim.

Especially when a car accident involves high-speed impact and/or significant injuries, it's not unusual for those involved in the crash to experience symptoms that resemble post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In this article, we'll cover the basics of PTSD and how it can affect a car accident claim.

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychological condition that can affect people who have been through particularly harrowing experiences. The condition may have been first identified and explained as "shell shock,” associated with soldiers returning home from the first World War, but today the American Psychiatric Association has identified PTSD in its go-to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

The common thread through all cases of PTSD is that the victim has suffered or witnessed a traumatic, stressful, or fear-inducing incident. PTSD itself is a pathological anxiety disorder that basically occurs when the brain is unable to properly turn off the fight-or-flight reactions and anxieties associated with a traumatic event. Reactions that can be life-saving during the course of a dangerous event may be devastating in other situations where no actual risk exists.

PTSD Symptoms

Though they vary in terms of how they come to the surface, PTSD is characterized by four primary types of symptoms:

  • Intrusion - the victim experiences recurrent recollections of the event
  • Numbing - the victim keeps an emotional distance from the world around them; experiences feelings of depression, feelings of hopelessness, and a growing inability to feel emotions
  • Avoidance - this symptom can include avoidance of people, places, or other circumstances associated with the trauma; may include development of social phobias, panic, and anxiety
  • Arousal - constant alertness, which can include hyper-vigilance, sleep disturbance, paranoia, and an inability to focus.

One of the most frustrating things about trying to identify and treat PTSD is that it arises in different ways for different people. For some people, PTSD surfaces as bad dreams; for others, as anxiety in crowded places; and for yet others as repeatedly reliving a traumatic event as though it were actually happening again (flashbacks).

The most severe cases of PTSD can combine auditory hallucinations, paranoid ideation, and thoughts of hurting yourself or others (cases of this severity, despite media sensationalism, are exceedingly rare). Additionally, PTSD may manifest within hours of the traumatic incident for some people, but in others it may not be apparent for days, weeks, or even years (like other car accident injuries that don't show up right away). Even if a person develops some symptoms fairly soon after the event, it is not unheard of that he or she could develop new symptoms much later.

PTSD in Children

Young children usually experience PTSD differently than do adults. For children experiencing symptoms of intrusion, for example, event-specific nightmares generally turn to generalized nightmares about monsters or other generic dangers. Children may recreate the incident during play, but may also have more difficulty than adults in expressing their feelings verbally. Parents and teachers should be carefully attuned to detect expressions of the numbing, avoidance, and arousal behaviors mentioned above.

PTSD and Car Accidents by the Numbers

According to the American Psychological Association, car accidents are the leading cause of PTSD among the general (non-military) population. And the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 9 percent of car accident survivors develop PTSD.

A Note on "Complex" PTSD. Scientists are beginning to distinguish between PTSD and Complex PTSD (C-PTSD), in which exposure to prolonged, repeated trauma causes severe behavioral problems, including difficulty controlling emotions, substance abuse, eating disorders, or mental difficulties, including amnesia. Due to the repetitive-exposure aspect of C-PTSD, it is extremely unlikely to be linked to a car accident.

Treatment of PTSD

Treatment of PTSD can be as individual as its sufferers. Some people respond well to talk therapy, others to medication, and some to a combination of both. Some methods of treatment involve "immersion" or the confronting of behaviors or situations that the PTSD sufferer has been avoiding. Whatever form treatment takes, PTSD is not usually a problem with a quick and easy solution.

What Should You Do?

If you have any symptoms of PTSD following an automobile accident, you should consult your physician and any recommended specialist and get whatever treatment you need, just as you would with any other kind of car accident injury.

If a car insurance claim or lawsuit arises from the crash, it might be time to discuss your situation with an experienced personal injury attorney who will fight to make sure that you are properly compensated for all costs associated with your mental anguish and all steps taken to treat it. The effects of PTSD might be included in a claim for "pain and suffering," or they might be deemed a separate category of car accident "damages."

When it comes to PTSD-like symptoms after a car accident, keep in mind that it is almost certainly not in your best interests to settle your car accident case immediately. You never want to settle until you have a clear sense of the nature and extent of your damages, and since mental health treatment can be longlasting in the wake of any kind of trauma, it's wise to hold off reaching any kind of settlement agreement until you have a complete picture of your losses.

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