After a car accident, you’re often in shock. We have other articles about what to do if you crash your car, but when the initial impact fades, you may be more concerned about managing the emotional effects of car accidents.
Those involved in a car accident can feel any number of different emotions – all of which are totally normal. Recovery after a car accident can be hard, but it’s important to recognise that these emotional effects are normal and to speak up if you need help to manage it.
Trauma after a car accident
In most car crashes, the traumatic event happens unexpectedly, so you may feel you were unprepared for it or powerless to stop it. When you look at it this way, the emotional effects of car accidents make much more sense.
If you’re struggling after a crash, it’s important to get help. Mental health is a huge issue in Australia, and there are many organisations in Australia where you can get free help if you feel like these emotions are lasting longer than they should, or stopping you from doing your normal daily activities. We’ve listed some self-help strategies and the organisations that can provide extra help at the end of this article.
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The emotional effects of car accidents
Shock, denial, or disbelief
Immediately after a car accident, and for several days afterwards, people usually experience being in shock. Shock can feel different for everyone, but common symptoms include feeling numb, being in emotional distress, continuing to feel afraid even though the event is over, or having unpredictable mood swings.
You can also experience shock after an accident even if you weren’t driving the car at the time, if you were a passenger, a pedestrian walking past, or even an observer in another car nearby.
Anger, irritability, agitation
After an accident, the driver can feel angry at the driver of the other car, whether they were at fault or not. Many passengers can also feel angry at both the drivers involved in the accident.
It’s easy to take this anger out on everyone around you when these irritated, agitated feelings continue. A helpful way to deal with feelings of anger is learning some simple relaxation breathing exercises that can help you calm down when these feelings arise. The feelings are a valid part of your stress reaction, but it’s good to know that you don’t have to act on them.
If you’re a parent trying to help your teenage child who was involved in a car crash, they may not want your support and may seem angry at family members. Allow them to turn to their friends instead for a short time, but keep the lines of communication open so they can still talk with you when they’re ready. Helping with your child’s recovery from a car accident can be a struggle, but every effort on your part will make a difference.
Guilt, shame, self-blame
Many drivers beat themselves up over the accident, especially if they think it was avoidable.
Sometimes even those who witness a crash can blame themselves for not being able to prevent the crash or provide first-aid, or other ideas they may have about what they “could have done”. It’s helpful to remind yourself that these expectations of yourself are not realistic; accidents happen.
Anxiety, worry, fear
Anxiety is a natural reaction to a stressful incident such as a car accident. Some people experience no symptoms of anxiety at all after a crash, and most people who do experience anxiety will recover in time.
Common symptoms include:
- Unable to relax or sleep properly
- Finding it difficult to concentrate
- Feeling unsociable, not wanting to talk
- Feeling upset, confused, out of control, or helpless
- Feeling irritable
- Having no energy
- Keeping busy to avoid thinking
- Unwanted thoughts
One of the easiest ways to fight anxiety is to talk about it. If you can, it’s helpful to talk about the accident and your feelings with the people you trust. Family, friends, and a qualified counsellor or psychologist can really help.
Returning to your normal routine is also a great anxiety-buster. But give yourself time, and be patient with what you are feeling.
Taking care of yourself even when you’re feeling anxious is vital. Eat balanced meals, get plenty of sleep, and go for walks often. Avoid drinking too much caffeine, taking alcohol or drugs, or smoking – these may feel good at the time but actually make anxiety worse. Replace these things with your favourite hobbies instead, to keep your body relaxed.
If the anxiety doesn’t go away:
You should seek help from a professional counsellor if your anxiety has lasted longer than 3 months after the accident, if it’s stopping you from doing your job or schoolwork, or if your family and friends say they’re worried about you.
These things may mean that you have developed an anxiety disorder like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which involves flashbacks and still becoming distressed when you think about the accident. This doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you. It just means that you will need extra help to tackle the anxiety and move on from the trauma after the car accident.
Seeking counselling does not mean you are crazy – it just means you know there are people out there with extra skills who can help you to manage your own thoughts and reactions better.
Counselling can also really help your kids or teens if they have witnessed an accident or been involved in one and you know they have been struggling at school or at home since then.
Getting back in the car:
Most people will eventually have to get back in the car after an accident. It is very normal to feel anxious about returning to driving, and driving more cautiously than before.
This writer once had to drive home in another car immediately after an accident, since the crash happened several hours’ drive from home. This is not impossible, and can even be helpful in conquering your anxiety sooner. But you shouldn’t expect yourself to just “get over it” straight away, and you may find that anxious feelings only arise after you have already returned to the road.
Feelings of sadness or depression after a car accident are very common, and often go hand-in-hand with the symptoms of anxiety. As with anxiety, the best way to treat depression after a car accident is to talk about it, take care of yourself, and get help when you need it.
Social withdrawal and isolation
During shock, it’s natural to steer clear of people who may want to talk about the crash because you may feel isolated, as if no one understands what you’re going through. Ironically, those feelings of isolation can be countered by surrounding yourself with family and friends to receive love and reassurance.
Physical symptoms that come with the emotional effects of car accidents
After an accident, the emotions of shock, anxiety, or depression can cause the following physical symptoms, which tell you that your body is currently stressed out:
- Insomnia or nightmares
- Racing heartbeat and dry mouth
- Fatigue or low energy
- Muscle tension, aches, or pains
- Stomach distress
- Crying spells
- Hypervigilance or an exaggerated startle response
Mental (cognitive) symptoms that come with the emotional effects of car accidents
- Difficulty concentrating
- Memories or flashbacks that interrupt your train of thought
Self-help strategies for dealing with trauma after a car accident
- Take care of yourself. Eat a balanced diet, exercise often, and get plenty of sleep and rest.
- Keep a balanced schedule between work or school and home. Try to stick to your normal daily routine and activities.
- Talk about your experience with your family, friends, qualified counsellors, or other advisors.
- If other family members were involved in the crash as well, talk about the crash as a family and let them know that it is helpful to share their thoughts and feelings. Try not to argue about who was to blame for the crash. Give each other plenty of love and reassurance.
- If a child or teenager was involved in the crash, make sure that their school teachers and the principal know about the crash and are willing to cut them some slack. Let your child know that you have spoken with their teachers, so they know you didn’t go behind their back.
Where to get more help
Australia has several organisations dedicated to helping you get the help and treatment you might need, and information about self-help strategies for recovery after a car accident:
- Lifeline: Phone 24/7 helpline on 13 11 14 or chat online.
- Australian Psychological Society: Find a psychologist in your area or phone the Referral Service on 1800 333 497. Your local GP can give you a referral for free counselling through Medicare. There are even organisations of counsellors for particular faith backgrounds, e.g. the Christian Counsellors Association of Australia.
- Beyond Blue: Phone 1300 22 4636.
- SANE Australia: Phone 1800 18 7263 to chat with a mental health professional on weekdays, 9am-5pm.
- ReachOut Australia: Download their Toolbox of mental health self-help apps.
- headspace National Youth Mental Health Foundation: There are headspace centres all over Australia for you to talk in person – or you can chat online or phone 1800 650 890.
- National Centre for PTSD: For more information and help finding mental health professionals who specialise in PTSD.