Car accidents are a leading cause of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to a book titled After the Crash: Psychological Assessment and Treatment of Survivors of Motor Vehicle Accidents.
PTSD is a common psychological ailment, affecting as many as five million Americans each year according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Symptoms of PTSD include reliving the traumatic incident through flashbacks or nightmares, sleep problems, depression, anxiety, irritability and anger.
The authors, psychologists Edward B. Blanchard, PhD, from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany, and Edward J. Hickling, PTSD, in private practice in Albany, New York, provides information from a new study of motor vehicle accident survivors and PTSD.
The researchers followed up 161 car crash survivors for five years after they had their accidents. The study subjects were at least slightly injured and sought medical attention after their accidents.
In this group, 110 subjects were diagnosed with PTSD, and 60% of them also experienced major depression.
Practically all—95%—of the crash survivors had become anxious when driving and many avoided certain situations, such as driving at night or highway driving.
J. Gayle Beck, a professor of psychology at SUNY Buffalo who specializes in treating PTSD after an automobile crash, says that those are common behaviors for people who have lived through a serious accident.
"These people tend to refuse to drive or are unbelievably nervous drivers," Beck says.
And, she notes, a serious accident doesn't necessarily have to be one in which someone was seriously injured.
Any accident that scares someone or makes him/her believe that they might die has the potential to cause PTSD, she says, recalling a patient whose car rolled over. He was not seriously injured, but during the accident, he believed that he was going to die, and those memories haunted him.
According to Beck, PTSD isn't easy to diagnose. Many PTSD symptoms are not obvious. The most common symptom, for example, is having recurrent and intrusive thoughts about the accident. This may make the person appear to be unable to concentrate. Beck says people suffering from PTSD often are hyperactive and have trouble sleeping.
Clearer signs that someone may need help after they've been in an accident is refusing to drive or exhibiting very nervous or altered driving behavior.
Although these signs can be common right after an accident, if any symptoms persist for more than six months, it's time to get treatment, Beck says. The experts agree that cognitive behavioral therapy is helpful for many people, as is supportive psychotherapy. Beck says researchers are experimenting with new ways to treat PTSD. In her lab, she is using virtual- reality driving simulations as a way to get people with PTSD driving again.
To learn more about this disorder visit the National Center for PTSD at www.ptsd.va.gov.