Updated April 20, 2023 – Awhile back, I was binge watching a new series when I got a phone call. It was my dad. Quietly he said, “Your mom and I are at the hospital. We were in an accident, but we are okay.”
My heart dropped. Luckily they were alright even though their car flipped. They were T-boned while driving 55mph by a young driver who didn’t stop in the median. The car was totaled even though it was a relatively new car.
Over the next few days, I researched car insurance company information and a host of other things.
One of my biggest concerns was how they would be confident to drive again after such a serious car accident. Here is what I found out.
What is the best thing you can do to regain driving confidence? The best way to regain confidence after a car accident is to start small and work your way up to the same level of driving you were used to before the accident. If you feel you may have PTSD, speak with a licensed mental health professional to identify causation and treatment.
It is normal to have a fear of re-injury and to be apprehensive about your first drive (or more) after a road accident.
Fear is a good thing – it’s a survival mechanism. It is designed to keep you safe, but sometimes the fear that is designed innately to keep us safe can be so debilitating to your emotional health that it prevents you from taking the appropriate actions.
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What Happens To A Person Mentally After A Car Accident?
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is defined as a mental health condition triggered by a traumatic event. It is common to experience PTSD after a car accident, regardless of if you were the driver or passenger.
Motor Vehicle Accidents (MVAs) are considered the leading cause of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the general population and car accidents are the number one trauma for men and the second most frequent trauma for women.The American Psychological Association (see more info here).
What Are Signs Of PTSD From A Car Accident?
If you do suffer from PTSD, the symptoms you may experience can include:
- sleep problems
- concentration issues
- avoidance of stressful situations or places related to the trauma (e.g. avoiding driving or certain roads).
It is important to seek professional help if these symptoms persist longer than a few weeks.
A serious accident (frankly, even minor accidents) can leave you with physical injuries, emotional distress, and cause you to feel like you’ve lost your sense of control.
Rebuilding Confidence Behind The Wheel
Generally speaking, the best way to regain confidence after a minor car accident is through exposure therapy. You should start small with short drives and work your way up to the same level of driving you are used to.
It’s important to accept that a newly formed fear of driving is normal. Gradually, turn your short trips into longer trips.
What is exposure therapy? Exposure therapy is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy where you gradually face the fear or trigger that causes anxiety in a controlled and safe environment.
This helps to overcome the fear and regain confidence.
The first time (or more) that you do this may simply involve getting used to sitting behind the wheel again. You might even experience anxiety just from looking at your car.
Isolating what specific aspect of driving triggers your uneasiness can be done as follows:
- Stand facing your car. Monitor how you feel. Do you have a reaction? If yes, set a goal to be able to look at your car without feeling awkward.
- Sit in the driver’s seat. Monitor how you feel. Does it trigger anxiety? If yes, set a goal to get used to sitting in the driver’s seat without feeling triggered.
- Once you feel confident with steps 1 and 2, go for a short drive (maybe even just driving in an empty parking lot), repeating the concepts discussed above. Gradually increase your driving distance until you regain that confidence behind the wheel again.
- Practice mindfulness and self-care – It is important to practice mindfulness and self-care during this time. This can involve deep breathing exercises, practicing gratitude, and engaging in activities that bring joy.
How Do I Overcome Anxiety After A Car Accident?
If you are feeling anxious or scared to drive after a car accident, try these tips:
- Take a break from driving for a while if necessary
- Practice deep breathing exercises before getting behind the wheel
- Talk to a therapist about your anxiety and/or panic attacks
- It might be a good idea to drive with a trusted friend until your confidence is regained.
- Consider taking a defensive driving course. Even if the accident wasn’t your fault, defensive driving classes can help you take back control.
- Depending on the severity of the accident, any physical injury, and the depth of your emotional trauma, you may want to consider speaking with a car accident lawyer as soon as possible after the accident.
How Do You Deal With Emotional Trauma After A Car Accident?
Identify the emotional trauma (and what is bringing it to an unbearable level), then embrace the healing process.
You need to discover what you made it mean about yourself, your life and your driving habits. So, try to identify your emotional trauma (and what is bringing it to an unbearable level).
For instance, if the accident is your fault, you may blame yourself and question your abilities as a safe driver. If the accident wasn’t your fault, you may feel unsafe. Living through dangerous situations can leave you feeling raw.
You may be dealing with a sense of a loss of control. It is quite common after a traumatic experience.
The best way to discover this that I have found is to sit down in a quiet place and take out a sheet of paper.
Give yourself 3 minutes on a clock or timer and simply be with the accident. Begin to jot down everything that comes to mind.
I did this recently. I felt like my relationship wasn’t going the way I wanted so I sat down and wrote, “I’m sad. I feel like I’m always left having to choose. I don’t feel free to love the way I want…
It was liberating. You have to let the emotions out. Chances are when you do, you will (like I did) start feeling better and more connected to how you are feeling.
The reason I like to give myself and just write, write, write is that I know that if I do that, I won’t deliberate and spend half the day writing a book about something I most likely will never read.
It’s really about letting the emotions out. You’d be surprised what it does to us all when we keep how we are feeling a secret.
Second, you need to begin small when it comes to getting back behind the steering wheel.
Depending on how deeply the accident has affected you, you may want to schedule a short drive in minimal traffic (down a dirt road) or somewhere close where you know it won’t tax your driving abilities and the speed limit is low.
Run to the store to pick up milk or to a local coffee spot to grab that irresistible brew of your choosing. The point is: it’s important to be okay with a short journey at first. Then you can build up.
The important part is not to judge yourself for how the accident has impacted your life.
How Do I Get Over My Fear Of Driving After An Accident?
One of the most common things for people to do during the recovery process is to avoid the crash site. Don’t avoid it. It’s important to go back to it the scene of the accident. You don’t have to spend much time there, but it’s important to get closure with the place where you experienced a life changing accident.
Give yourself a lot of space emotionally to deal with this.
It’s okay. I’d work on trying to let yourself experience gratitude that you are still alive and that you have been given a second chance at life. When you consider all of the what if’s of the accident, you may find that you have a real opportunity at life.
Next, if you are still finding yourself reeling from the accident, look for an opportunity to learn more defensive driving skills. Most of us overestimate how good of a driver we really are.
It’s okay to realize that there is an area for improvement. You’d be surprised that though you might consider it silly to get a lesson on driving after you may have been driving for decades there are important things that you can learn.
If you have ever ridden with a professional driver, you’ll notice that their relationship to a vehicle is different than ours. They seem to wear the car.
Finally, if you still can’t quite shake the feeling that your car accident has gotten a hold of you emotionally, I recommend you consider counseling.
You can talk to a professional counselor about how to work through your trauma. A licensed mental health therapist is trained to help you navigate the dark times and dark emotions that can come with this type of difficulty.
Although you may think that this type of situation is reserved for soldiers coming back from war and individuals who have deep scars of trauma from their past to resolve, it can impact ordinary people who have found themselves involved in situations with extraordinary amplitude and discomfort.
If you want to take a whack at the problem before seeing a counselor, you can also try the following to help resolve the PTSD. These are things that counselors are trained to help you with.
Here they are:
- Mindfulness Meditation (relaxation techniques)
- Physical Activity (running, sports)
- Art Therapy (Ted talks – watch Melissa Walker’s Healing Invisible
- Pets for PTSD
It’s important to learn to relax. The best way that meditation has been described to me is the ability to go deep. I know that might sound strange, but if you consider a submarine, it goes deep below the surface of the waters above. Once it dives deeper, it isn’t influenced by what is going on the surface.
Learn to go deep into relaxation, recognizing that something that has happened in the past isn’t happening now.
Learn breathing techniques that promote better oxygenation and a healthy mindset. Our body is a machine and just like an engine without the proper fuel begins to sputter and not run efficiently when deprived, so is your mind.
Make sure that you are breathing well.
I like to pay attention to myself at work or in an activity. Often times, I find myself holding my breath. When I discover that I’m holding my breath. I stop and take a deep breath and consider all of the things that bring me joy and a sense of gratitude.
I recently began taking my training seriously. I joined a CrossFit gym.
I’m not saying that is right for you especially if you are still recovering from injuries, but I will say that finding a way to spend at least half an hour engaged in a physically demanding activity is super helpful in recovering a healthy mindset.
If you are looking for a zen-like experience, here is how I’d recommend involving aromatherapy in your trauma recovery. I would recommend keeping a bottle of an aromatherapy oil that you like with you.
When you find yourself in a relaxed state or having fun, take out the bottle of oil and smell it. The goal here is to get you to connect good feelings with the aroma you have chosen.
I personally like a smell that reminds me of progress I’ve made at work or in an area in life I enjoy. I keep some peppermint recovery gel in the center console of my car. It reminds me of the physical activities and massages I’ve gotten, so any time I smell it, it brings a smile to my face.
This was a bit new to me, but I get how it works. The reality is that whatever you complain about, whatever your automatic response is to a situation reveals (or gives us a clue) about what is going on for you.
For instance, my husband told me that he was recently hit on by a famous athlete. I noticed my automatic response was a feeling of jealousy.
In this case, the clue is that I care deeply for my husband and our marriage’s well being as well as a not so good feeling about my athletic behavior. This says a lot about what I’m dealing with and what is true for me or bubbling just beneath the surface of my conscious mind.
It’s important to accept what comes up. It really says nothing about you other than indicating what you might be wrestling with.
Art therapy has given patients the ability to express things that are simply difficult to put into words. Let it be what it will be and I think you will be amazed at what you uncover and what you can deal with once it’s “out there.”
Pets for PTSD:
Pets for PTSD
Great idea. Get a pet that is suitable for you. I remember speaking with a gentleman who had 10 dogs. He told me that there was so much love in his household.
My husband and I were so inspired by the man’s enthusiasm, we bought a dog. He has become such a critical element to our home that we don’t know what we would do without him.
Our pets bring us joy and having them is a great way us to focus on the lighter side of life. Recovery is about making sure that you can let go of the significance of your accident and begin moving to new memories and experiences.
What can I do about nightmares after a car accident?
It is normal to experience nightmares after experiencing a car accident. My mom had them. She dreamed that she needed to slam on her brakes and woke up sitting fully upright in bed.
Although this is disturbing it will subside over time. I recommend that you consider counseling and following the steps listed above to begin to cope with these types of nightmares.
Clearly, the accident has created an emotional impact on your subconscious mind. It’s time to take action. Write it out and begin looking at ways to deal with the post-trauma stress you are dealing with.
How long does anxiety last after car crash?
Every accident is different and every person who suffers a car crash will react differently. Anxiety and PTSD could be something you experience for a couple of weeks after the accident, or it could follow you for months or even years.
That’s why it is so important to seek help from a mental health professional if your anxiety lasts for more than a few weeks or if it is seriously impacting your day to day life.
What if you don’t want to drive after a car accident?
I recommend that you enlist the help of a close friend or family member that cares about you. Don’t keep this to yourself. It is perfectly normal.
Tell your friend that you’d like them to ride along with you until you are comfortable again. While certainly if you have access to public transportation, you can choose this alternative for a while, but eventually you will want to get behind the wheel again.
Even if it is your own peace of mind after adequate time, force yourself to take action.
Note: This article is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as professional therapeutic or legal advice. Please consult a trained professional for individualized assistance.