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Understanding the Psychological Effects of Auto Accidents

Published Date: 
March 19, 2024
A black car that has been in an accident with front end damage.

Beyond physical injuries, victims experience the psychological effects of auto accidents. It helps to explore coping mechanisms for healing.

The Psychological Aftershocks: Coping with the Emotional Toll of Auto Accidents

Auto accidents are a common occurrence. According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), millions of car accidents happen every year. These accidents range in severity and impact. Some are fatal, some result in serious injuries, and others are minor. No matter how severe someone’s physical injuries are, there can be long-lasting and devastating psychological consequences. Accidents take an emotional toll, even when physical injuries are minimal or even non-existent.

The Spectrum of Psychological Effects

People can experience a wide range of psychological effects following an accident. This is true whether or not their injuries are serious or permanent. It’s even possible for someone who experiences no physical injuries in an accident to suffer psychological effects.

Unfortunately, the psychological impact of an accident is often downplayed, but these issues can be just as devastating – in some cases more so – than physical injuries.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s common among people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, such as a car accident. Symptoms of PTSD can significantly impact daily life and may persist long after the traumatic event has occurred. They include:

  • Intrusive memories
  • Avoidance behavior
  • Negative thinking
  • Mood changes
  • Hyperarousal

The risk of developing PTSD after an accident is higher when the accident is serious, or someone experiences severe injuries. But this doesn’t mean the risk is eliminated for those involved in less serious accidents, especially if they lack social support, have pre-existing mental health conditions, or have previous unresolved trauma.

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders often arise following car accidents. They manifest in various ways and can significantly impact someone’s life. Some of the most common anxiety disorders experienced by car accident victims include:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) occurs when someone experiences excessive worry and anxiety about everyday events and situations. Car accident victims with GAD may experience persistent, uncontrollable worry about driving or being involved in another accident. They may also exhibit physical symptoms such as muscle tension, restlessness, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating.

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder involves recurring panic attacks. The symptoms of a panic disorder include:

  • Sudden episodes of intense fear or discomfort
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Seating, trembling
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain

Driving Phobia

Driving phobia, also known as vehophobia, is an intense fear or anxiety related to driving or riding in cars. Car accident victims with driving phobia may avoid driving altogether or experience extreme emotional distress or psychological distress when attempting to drive, leading to significant disruptions in daily life and functioning.


Depression can be common among car accident victims. Symptoms of a depressive disorder may manifest differently but often include persistent feelings of:

  • Sadness
  • Emptiness
  • Guilt
  • Shame
  • Hopelessness
  • Worthlessness
  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Difficulty experiencing pleasure

There are also cognitive and physical symptoms of a depressive order, including:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory loss
  • Problems with decision-making
  • Catastrophizing
  • Changes in appetite
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Fatigue
  • Physical aches and pains without a medical cause

Other Potential Effects

In addition to PTSD, anxiety, and depression, car accident survivors are also at risk of developing a wide range of other issues, including:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Relationship problems
  • Guilt
  • Survivor’s remorse

Understanding the Road to Recovery

The good news is that even if someone who was in a car accident develops mental health challenges after the fact, there is hope. Understanding that recovery is a process that often requires external support makes a significant difference on the road to recovery.

Healing Timelines

There is no set timeline for someone to heal from mental trauma after a motor vehicle accident. Unlike broken bones, whiplash, and other common physical car accident injuries, doctors cannot provide an estimated healing time. How long it takes you to move beyond the mental health impact of a car accident varies from person to person. It depends on their mental health at the time of the accident, as well as the support they receive after the accident and whether or not other life events interfere with their healing.

Seeking Professional Help

One of the most important things you can do to reduce the mental health impact of a car accident is to seek professional help. Psychotherapy offers many options for helping those involved in car accidents, including:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • EMDR
  • Medication, when needed

Self-Care Strategies

In addition to seeking professional support, you can also do things on your own to support healing after a car accident. Some of the best strategies for dealing with accident-related mental health challenges include:

  • Exercise
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Healthy eating
  • Sleep hygiene
  • Mindfulness practices

Social Support

Seeking the support of loved ones and people who have been in your position after a car accident is essential to healing. It’s important to speak to people you trust, participate in support groups, or look for online communities for people affected by car accidents if you are struggling with a mental health issue after the event.

Finding Resources and Support

There are several resources and support tools available for people who have been impacted by car accidents.

Hotlines, Online Resources, and Mental Health Organizations

In most cases, support is just a phone call away. The following hotlines provide help to those in need after a motor vehicle accident or during any other mental health crisis:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255 (TALK)
  • Samaritans: 877-870-4673 (HOPE) (call or text)
  • Crisis Text Line: Text “HOME” to 741741
  • National Mental Health Hotline at 866-903-3787

Other online resources and mental health organizations include:


Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) offers the support of victim advocates who can be reached 24 hours a day at 1-877-MADD-HELP  (1-877-623-3435). In addition to advocating for laws that reduce the risk of drunk driving, the organization provides:

  • Emotional Support: MADD offers emotional support to accident victims and their loved ones by providing a compassionate listening ear, a shoulder to lean on, and a supportive presence during difficult times.
  • Victim Advocacy: MADD has trained accident victim advocates stationed across the country who are dedicated to assisting victims. These advocates offer guidance through the criminal and civil justice systems, accompany victims and survivors to court proceedings, and help prepare car accident victim impact statements.
  • Resource Referral: MADD connects accident victims and their families with appropriate resources for additional help, including counseling services, support groups, legal assistance, and financial support programs.
  • Awareness and Education: MADD raises awareness about the dangers of drunk and drugged driving through public education campaigns, community outreach events, and advocacy efforts. By educating the public about the consequences of impaired driving, MADD aims to prevent future accidents and save lives.
  • Support Groups: In some areas, MADD offers support groups for accident victims and their families to connect with others who have experienced similar tragedies. These support groups provide a safe and understanding environment for sharing experiences, seeking advice, and receiving encouragement.

Legal and Financial Resources Available to Accident Victims

In addition to mental health support, legal and financial support is needed after a car accident. This is practical support, but it also reduces the risk of developing mental health issues after an accident. When issues regarding money and legal issues are handled by an experienced professional, you can focus on your physical and emotional healing.

The following information can be useful in the hours, days, weeks, and months following a car accident:

Dealing with the Mental Health Impact of Car Accidents

Involvement in a car accident can be an isolating experience. This is true no matter your role in the accident and whether or not you experienced significant injuries. Often, the diversity of experiences makes it difficult to move forward after the accident. It can feel as if nobody understands what you went through. This is especially true when the people around you minimize the impact and tell you to “get over it” or point out that you didn’t suffer any serious injuries.

The truth is, it’s normal for someone involved in an accident to experience lasting psychological injuries, no matter the severity of the experience. It’s important to seek help regardless of your physical injuries.

There is hope. There are many support options available. And just as many people heal from physical injuries after an accident, you can heal from the mental health impact.


Dr. Eric Neumann D.C.

Dr. Eric Neumann grew up in Alberta, Canada where he majored in Chemistry at the University of Calgary. During his time at University, he obtained licensure as a Massage Therapist. It was clear that hands-on healing would be his calling. After suffering multiple sport-related injuries he became interested in Chiropractic. Dr. Neumann graduated from Western States Chiropractic College in 2009. He has since specialized in the treatment and management of acute spinal injuries.

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