It doesn’t matter if you suffer an injury or walk away unscathed—being involved in a car accident is scary. Though car accidents are common, they don’t happen to most people every day, which means they can be traumatizing to experience in a variety of ways. And if that trauma is severe enough and goes unrealized or unaddressed for too long, it can have a bigger impact on your life than you might realize by manifesting as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

If you aren’t sure if you might be suffering from PTSD after being involved in a car accident, it’s important to ask yourself some relevant questions that may help you realize it’s time to seek out the support and guidance you need to start feeling better.

Q: What is PTSD?

A: When you hear the phrase “post-traumatic stress disorder,” it might conjure images of anxious soldiers returning home from war. While this can absolutely be a scenario in which someone might develop PTSD, the disorder encompasses a much larger variety of people and situations than that.

According to the Mayo Clinic, PTSD is a “mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event—either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.” This kind of stress and anxiety can be overwhelming and cause strain on your life in a variety of ways, primarily when it comes to the relationships in your life or daily activities you used to partake in regularly and with ease.

Q: How can a car accident cause PTSD?

A: Any traumatic event in which one’s life is threatened, feels threatened, or causes feelings of severe responsive stress can result in PTSD. That being the case, it may not be surprising to learn that car accidents can easily cause victims to suffer PTSD, because they often can be such life-threatening scenarios—even when your own accident hasn’t threatened your life. Research has found that roughly 30% of car crash survivors have shown some type of symptom of PTSD at least 30 days after their crash.

Even if no one involved in your car accident might have suffered serious injuries as a result, it’s still possible to develop PTSD after the fact. That’s because your brain knows and understands the serious implications and possible results of being involved in a car crash; either consciously or subconsciously, you may realize that you very well could have been seriously injured or even killed. That being the case, you may develop a natural fear of cars and driving, which can result in heightened feelings of stress and anxiety that can then develop into PTSD.

Q: How do I know if I have PTSD from a car accident?

A: It can be hard to self-diagnose PTSD with 100% certainty without the assistance of the proper medical professional, but there are some signs to watch for that could point to suffering from PTSD if you were involved in a car crash in the past. These types of symptoms can include:

  • psychologically re-experiencing the trauma of the accident via intrusive thoughts or distressing dreams about the accident
  • a deliberate and persistent avoidance of thoughts or situations involved with the accident, like refusing to drive or be a passenger in a vehicle;
  • a degree of emotional numbing that can involve reacting less or detaching from people and situations in an effort to reduce the emotions you experience;
  • an increase in a variety of physical reactions to situations, such as startling more easily, becoming more irritable, or disturbed sleep.

Q: How long does PTSD from a car accident last?

A: PTSD symptoms can start hours, days, or even months after the accident has happened. And if left unrecognized and untreated, the symptoms can persist for years. No two cases of how a person experiences PTSD are the same, so there is no finite number to put on the timeline of how a person experiences the disorder. But it’s entirely possible that your PTSD might not manifest until there’s a separate, triggering event, at which time you could experience related symptoms on a variety of scales.

For example, some people may only experience symptoms when around cars, while others may experience symptoms at all hours of the day. And others still may only experience symptoms while sleeping, when they dream about the incident and the stress it has caused them. Every person and the way they experience their car accident is different, so the duration that each person’s symptoms can last is different. The one element of PTSD that tends to be similar across types of people and accidents is that if it goes unaddressed, its symptoms have the potential to last much longer.

Q: Is PTSD curable?

A: As with most other mental illnesses, the reality is that PTSD isn’t entirely curable. That’s because the memories of the event that caused the PTSD will likely always be something you carry with you. But people who suffer from the condition can absolutely improve significantly and see many of their symptoms of PTSD become resolved. For that reason, we prefer to say that PTSD is highly treatable rather than completely curable. The underlying factors causing your PTSD will likely always be present—it’s just a matter of learning to understand and control your reactions to those factors in a more positive way so that they don’t continue to negatively impact your life or the lives of those around you.

Q: What should I do if I get PTSD after a car accident?

A: If you believe you might be suffering from PTSD on any level, it’s often best to seek the help of the right kind of trained medical professional. Talking with a doctor or a therapist can help you to recognize why you’re feeling the way you are, what might be triggering specific negative emotions and responses, and generate ideas for how to start coping with your symptoms. When not working directly with a professional, there are positive ways you can cope with PTSD symptoms on your own. Learning about the disorder is key to understanding it, and understanding it is key to taking back control over it. Car accident PTSD can often leave victims with a sense of powerlessness and vulnerability pertaining to cars and driving, so regaining that sense of power is a great step toward managing PTSD symptoms. That kind of progress can come from safe exposure to triggers, open conversation about what you’re experiencing, reading or reciting positive affirmations, and participating in a healthy release of endorphins, such as through spending time outdoors or exercising regularly.

If you’ve suffered PTSD after a car accident, the last thing you want to do is ignore it and hope it will just go away. You don’t need to silently suffer through it alone, and it’s always easier to lean on others when they offer you their support. Remember, treating your PTSD symptoms is a gradual and ongoing process. Healing doesn’t happen overnight, and the memories of the trauma experienced will never completely disappear. So be willing to let the people in your life who care about you help you.

Q: How can I support someone who may be suffering from PTSD after a car accident?

A: Reading this FAQ page is an excellent place to start! If you believe someone you know may be suffering from PTSD after being involved in or witnessing a car accident, it’s important to first make sure you understand what PTSD is and how it can present itself so that you can try and relate to what your loved one is experiencing. Don’t be afraid to talk about the topic with them, and encourage them to seek the professional treatment they need in order to address their symptoms. Do your best to provide a peaceful, judgment-free environment for them, and above all, be patient as they work their way through it.

Also, don’t be afraid to encourage them to seek the legal damages they could be entitled to if their car accident was caused by a negligent driver. It’s possible that the ongoing expenses required to treat their PTSD could be compensated for, so they don’t have to worry about covering those costs out of their own pocket.