Four Steps to Coping with Emotional Trauma after a Car Accident

September 21 2020

No one thinks twice about treating physical injuries that result from a car accident. First responders arrive at the accident scene immediately to assess and address any physical damage. If you have whiplash, you’ll likely visit a doctor or chiropractor multiple times until your pain becomes manageable. If you experience long-term health effects, you’ll continue to visit a physical therapist to learn coping strategies for returning to normal life.

However, unlike physical injuries, emotional injuries can be easy to ignore. We often tell ourselves we just need to “get over” the anxiety and PTSD that often follow a car accident, even though we would never tell ourselves to “get over” a broken leg or a brain injury.

Being the victim of another person’s error is traumatic, no matter the extent of the accident. This emotional trauma from a head and brain injury can be just as disabling as a physical injury, which means that coping emotionally is just as important to your quality of life as coping physically.

Don’t neglect your mental and emotional health after an accident. Instead, follow these tips to assess your emotional damage, manage your anxiety, and start feeling better.

1. Learn about PTSD

We commonly associate post-traumatic stress disorder with people who undergo extreme stress, such as soldiers who have been in combat situations. However, PTSD can affect anyone who lives through something stressful, including a car accident. In fact, according to a 2008 study in Canada, 9.2% of all respondents experienced lifetime PTSD, and 76.1% of participants had lived through at least one situation that could have caused PTSD.

Not everyone who goes through something stressful has PTSD—you may or may not experience its symptoms after your car accident. However, you should familiarize yourself with some of the signs and symptoms so you can recognize them in yourself and others who were in the car with you.

Some of the most common indicators of PTSD following a car accident include:

  • Constantly reliving the trauma, such as frequent flashbacks or recurring nightmares.
  • Avoiding anything associated with the accident, such as driving or talking about the accident with others.
  • Reduced emotional contact with others.
  • Hyperarousal, meaning exaggerated reactions, in everyday situations unrelated to the accident. This can include startling easily, feeling exceptionally irritable, or being unable to sleep.

If these symptoms lessen after a few weeks, you may be suffering from Acute Stress Disorder (ASD). If symptoms last much longer than that, you’re more likely to have PTSD.

While no one is sure exactly what causes certain people to develop PTSD over others, chronic pain can be a large factor. According to a 2005 study, ongoing PTSD symptoms in car accident victims can be linked to ongoing physical disability and a lack of pain management.

Children can experience PTSD differently than adults. Their symptoms could include some of the following:

  • Refusing or being unable to speak
  • Becoming exceptionally clingy
  • Bedwetting after being toilet trained

There are a variety of treatments available for PTSD. Instead of letting PTSD go untreated, seek medical attention. You don’t have to continue to suffer silently. Your mental health professional can recommend cognitive behavioral therapy or psychotherapy to help you manage your symptoms, among other things. Your medical doctor can also teach you pain management techniques that could help.

Remember, you should be compensated for any emotional harm that occurs in a car accident – not just physical harm. Talk to your personal injury lawyer about any PTSD symptoms you have and treatments you are receiving.

2. Learn How to Manage Anxiety

Whether or not you have ASD or PTSD, heightened anxiety after an accident is common. Recognize that anxiety is both normal and manageable. Try the following things when you find yourself becoming anxious:

  • Practice mindful breathing. Take slow, deep breaths.
  • Focus on the world around you. Notice physical objects in the present moment instead of mentally reliving the accident.
  • Learn and use muscle relaxation techniques.

A therapist or mental health professional also can help you learn anxiety-controlling techniques specific to your personality and situation. Contact a mental health specialist if you feel unable to cope with anxiety, if anxiety interrupts your everyday life, or if you’re worried about your anxiety in any way.

3. Take Care of Yourself

You’ve just been through a very scarring experience. It’s okay to give yourself time to cope. Be patient with yourself; as with physical injuries, emotional scars take some time to heal.

In the meantime, focus on feeling as good as you can. Eat healthy foods, drink plenty of water, and do some light exercise, if your injuries allow for it. Do something that you particularly enjoy, like reading a book or listening to your favourite music.

4. Talk to Someone

Suffering silently can only add to your mental anguish and distress. Talk to a trusted friend or family member about your experience and how you’re coping. You don’t have to share details of the accident if you don’t want to. Just make sure someone is available to help you process your own emotions.

It can also be helpful to find a therapist who can help you work through your issues. He or she is qualified to give you advice on managing your stress and coping with your trauma. Talk to your medical provider about how to find the right therapist.


You don’t need to suffer alone after an accident. Make sure you seek the right treatment for your emotional injuries, not just your physical ones. Similarly, you deserve to be compensated for all types of damages incurred. Talk to your personal injury lawyer about how your accident affected your mental health, then make sure you receive the treatment you both need and deserve.

Note: This post was originally published in August 2018 and has since been updated to include relevant information