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The Psychological Effects of Motor Vehicle Accident

By James Beauchamp, D.C.

Musculoskeletal injuries are always accompanied by some form of emotional reaction. A motor vehicle accident (MVA) may result in both physical injury and significant emotional trauma. In 2008 alone, there were over 1.5 million non-fatal car accidents in the US. While most of these will not result in significant long-term psychological problems, even a one-percent rate of PTSD from MVA’s will leave 15,000 people affected. To better understand the potential impact that Western civilization’s most common trauma can have on your life, I will discuss the nature of emotional trauma in general and how to tell when a normal reaction begins to look like something more serious. How does one then recover from both temporary emotional trauma and more severe reactions such as PTSD?

Beauty and horror both lie in the eye of the beholder. It is your individual response to any accident, physical injury or unfortunate event that will determine if and how badly you will be emotionally injured, rather than the specific nature of the event itself. The apparent severity of an MVA is therefore not a reliable indicator of its potential for injury. However, the more life-threatening an event appears to you, the greater the chance that it may cause long-term problems.

The body’s reaction to the initial stress of trauma is called fight-or-flight, which is when the body, including the brain, prepares for potentially violent action. Immediately after an accident, you may feel your heart race, your hands shake and feel a surge of anger and energy. You may also have a feeling of being spaced out, dazed or in shock. These are normal reactions and— in healthy people— often fade away within hours or days. Secondary psychological stressors that stem from MVA’s include:

  • Loss of enjoyment in meaningful activities such as exercise, caring for one’s children, hobbies, etc.
  • Pain from injury.
  • Potential financial loss.
  • The protracted legal process that often accompanies an MVA.
  • Transportation struggles.
  • Worry over injury permanency and disability.

Pre-existing stressors in these areas will compound the severity of emotional trauma. 

You should begin to suspect that the mental component of your MVA is becoming problematic when it begins to interfere with your life. Your thoughts may become intrusive; maybe you can’t stop thinking about the accident or you may obsess with anger towards the other driver to where it becomes a distraction. You may experience flashbacks or have nightmares. Travel problems may interfere with your ability to work or seek treatment. For instance, many people become so fearful of traveling in a car that they can barely get to doctor’s appointments, let alone work. At times, this fear may only be experienced at the physical scene where the event took place. One begins to suspect PTSD when you develop intense emotional reactions that don’t fit the context of the moment. These intrusive thoughts, at their worst, can become flashbacks. Any of the following that develop within a month after an MVA has occurred is cause for concern:

  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • Hypersensitivity to being startled
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability

Recovery from the emotional component of injury takes time. There is a stigma in our culture about mental health issues that leads people to denying that they have a problem. The invisible nature of many MVA injuries, such as whiplash or an acute stress reaction, lends itself to skepticism from friends, family and insurance companies as to the truth of your injury but only you know how you feel. You must be honest with yourself and take your symptoms seriously, both physical and mental. Medical options start with your treating physician or your regular doctor. Tell them about your problems. From there, you may be referred for further testing or evaluation by a psychiatrist or a neuropsychiatrist. You may be referred to an orthopedist for musculoskeletal injury treatment, or you might end up seeing a chiropractor like me. Your team of doctors will guide you through your options.

What can you do for yourself to relieve the stress of a car accident and its subsequent emotional trauma? Exercise is a good start. It helps your mental state, relieves stress and is crucial for musculoskeletal injury recovery. I’m not talking about competitive sports here. The purpose is to gently condition and rehabilitate your mind and body. Yoga, light cardiovascular work or even simple walking (preferably outdoors) are often a great way to start. You should ask your doctor for guidance first. There are relaxation techniques you may employ to calm yourself, meditation and even some forms of prayer that will relax you. Stay away from fast food and processed foods, alcohol and stimulants, such as caffeine and energy drinks.

Emotional trauma from an MVA can be treated very successfully. Just like physical injuries, symptoms can develop over time and also take time to heal. Both kinds of injuries should be evaluated and if needed treated by your doctor. Time alone does not heal all wounds. 

Dr. James Beauchamp is a Multi-Specialty HealthCare provider specializing in Chiropractic Care. He is certified in spinal trauma, manipulation under anesthesia, and as an automobile accident reconstructionist. He is also a member of the advisory board for Operation Backbone.

References available by request. Copyright James W. Beauchamp, DC