When you think of a car accident, you probably think of the physical injuries and car damage that happen during a collision. These things are usually visible to the naked eye and are expected when two heavy objects collide at speed. What you may not be aware of is the invisible damage that can happen to the brain and psyche during and after the incident. Brain injuries and the shock of the incident often result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), leaving an accident victim suffering long after the physical injuries have healed. Not everyone will suffer from PTSD after an auto accident, but many will and need treatment to deal with the lingering issues that are caused by PTSD.

What is PTSD?

PTSD was once called “shell shock” and was recognized as a syndrome during WWI. It wasn’t until 1980 when the symptoms were organized under one umbrella and termed post-traumatic stress disorder. Combat veterans experienced PTSD symptoms that include:

  • Anger or hostility
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Emotional detachment
  • Hyper-awareness of surroundings
  • Intrusive thoughts


The non-stop noise of the battlefield along with the knowledge that one would be very lucky to get out alive creates a type of stress that alters the mind. There is also a sense that the noise will never stop and the traumatic experiences are never going to end even though it eventually does. And when the soldier returns home, they are left dealing with the invisible damage for years, even decades. While a car accident lasts for seconds, not years, the effect is the same due to the fact that the people involved had no expectation of getting into an accident that day. The shock of impact does more than damage the body.

How a Car Accident Can Cause PTSD

Car accidents are largely unexpected incidents that can occur with no warning whatsoever. One moment you’re driving your car to a destination and everything is fine. Then someone fails to yield to a sign or traffic signal and rams into your car. Your sense of safety and normalcy are instantly upended while your fight or flight response is activated. The body and mind prepare for the worst possible outcome while focusing on survival. This leads to you not knowing what damage your body has sustained because you can’t feel it immediately due to the surge of adrenaline. Shock also comes into play as your mind tries to catch up with the body and figure out if it needs to flee the scene. All of the trauma gets stored in your mind and puts you in fear of it happening again, although you are not immediately aware of it.

Why the Effects of PTSD are not Immediately Noticeable After an Accident

After a car accident, you’re spending your time healing your injuries. If you’ve had a brain injury, even a mild one, you’re going to be focused on recovering from the damage that’s been done. All of your energy is focused on recovery and rehabilitation. Most people start to experience the symptoms of PTSD anywhere from one to three months after the incident which is also around the time that the worst of the injuries are healed. However, it is possible for the symptoms to lay dormant for years until there’s something that triggers a flashback and opens up the floodgates of PTSD.

What Triggers the Symptoms of PTSD?

PTSD has both active and unknown triggers. An active trigger is witnessing or experiencing something that triggers a flashback, whereas an example of an unknown trigger involves recurring nightmares that have no known cause. Science has not been able to determine what exactly causes the symptoms to become noticeable, but it’s acknowledged that someone can have an episode of PTSD with no obvious trigger.

The most well-known symptom is a flashback caused by viewing an event or hearing something that looks or sounds similar to the incident that caused the PTSD in the first place. Someone who was the victim of a car accident can get a flashback by watching a TV show that features a car accident, especially if there was no foreshadowing of an accident about to happen. The accident victim may find themselves transported back to the accident and react physically without being aware of their surroundings or what they’re doing.

Many people suffering from PTSD have trouble with sleep and nightmares. Anxiety plays a role in keeping the mind from slowing down and letting sleep take over. Sometimes the anxiety is the result of being in a state of hyper-awareness, but it can also be caused by the desire to avoid nightmares. Nightmares tend to consist of endless replays of the incident or variations on the incident with the same bad outcome. Research has yet to come up with an explanation as to why the subconscious mind engages in these nightmares apart from the concept that the conscious mind can’t suppress the memories as easily during sleep.

How do You Know if You Have PTSD After an Auto Accident?

As previously mentioned, the symptoms aren’t immediately obvious after an accident and when the signs do become noticeable, they can be mild or overwhelming. Intrusive thoughts may be subtle or overt, the nightmares happen consistently over a period of time, or you find yourself feeling depressed or in a bad mood for no discernible reason. If you find that you’re experiencing any of the aforementioned symptoms, you may be dealing with PTSD and you should seek a consultation with a professional who specializes in the disorder.

Cars may be safer than ever and do an excellent job of protecting the occupants from serious injury, but they can’t prevent invisible damage from happening. Accident related PTSD is something that should be taken seriously along with all of the other injuries sustained from the accident. The mind needs healing as much as the body does.

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