PTSD After a Serious Car Accident

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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychological or emotional ailment that afflicts people who have been through horrific experiences. The concept was identified and first explained as “shell shock” following World War I and to this day its primary association is with soldiers returning from overseas combat.  However, PTSD is not limited simply to combat situations; in fact, car accidents are one of the leading causes of PTSD nationwide.

What is PTSD?

The common thread through all cases of PTSD is that the victim has suffered or witnessed a traumatic, stressful, or fear-inducing incident.  PTSD itself is a pathological anxiety disorder that basically occurs when the brain is unable to properly turn off the fight-or-flight reactions and anxieties associated with a traumatic event.  Reactions that can be life-saving during the course of a dangerous event may be devastating in other situations where no actual risk exists.

PTSD Symptoms

Though they vary in terms of how they come to the surface, PTSD is characterized by four primary types of symptoms:

  • Intrusion - the victim experiences recurrent recollections of the event
  • Numbing - the victim keeps an emotional distance from the world around them; experiences feelings of depression, feelings of hopelessness, and a growing inability to feel emotions
  • Avoidance - this symptom can include avoidance of people, places, or other circumstances associated with the trauma; may include development of social phobias, panic, and anxiety
  • Arousal - constant alertness, which can include hyper-vigilance, sleep disturbance, paranoia, and an inability to focus.

One of the most frustrating things about trying to identify and treat PTSD is that it arises in different ways for different people.  For some people, PTSD surfaces as bad dreams; for others, as anxiety in crowded places; and for yet others as repeatedly reliving a traumatic event as though it were actually happening again (flashbacks). 

The most severe cases of PTSD can combine auditory hallucinations, paranoid ideation, and thoughts of hurting yourself or others (cases of this severity, despite media sensationalism, are exceedingly rare).  Additionally, PTSD may manifest within hours of the traumatic incident for some people, but in others it may not be apparent for days, weeks, or even years later; even if a person develops some symptoms fairly soon after the event, it is not unheard of that he or she could develop new symptoms much later.

PTSD in Children 

Young children experience PTSD differently than do adults.  For instance, for children experience symptoms of intrusion, event-specific nightmares generally turn to generalized nightmares about monsters or other generic dangers.  Children may recreate the incident during play, but may also have more difficulty than adults in expressing their feelings verbally.  Parents and teachers should be carefully attuned to detect expressions of the numbing, avoidance, and arousal behaviors mentioned above.

PTSD by the Numbers

According to recent studies, every year between 10 and 45 percent of the three million people involved in car accidents develop some level of PTSD.  Other relevant numbers are that approximately forty percent of people who endure a traumatic event will develop PTSD, and approximately eight percent of the United States population meets the criteria of PTSD sufferers.  People with depression and anxiety disorders are more prone to PTSD and women tend to get PTSD more often than do men. 

Complex PTSD. Scientists are beginning to distinguish between PTSD and Complex PTSD (C-PTSD), in which exposure to prolonged, repeated trauma causes severe behavioral problems, including difficulty controlling emotions, substance abuse, eating disorders, or mental difficulties, including amnesia.  Due to the repetitive- exposure aspect of C-PTSD, it is extremely unlikely to arise in the situation of an automobile accident.

Treatment of PTSD

Treatment of PTSD can be as individual as its sufferers.  Some people are able to treat it with medication, others with talk therapy, others with confronting the behaviors or situations they have been avoiding. Treatment can take as little as six to twelve weeks, but often takes longer. PTSD is not a problem with an easy solution.

What Should You Do?

If you have any symptoms of PTSD following an automobile accident, you should consult your physician and seek whatever help you need. If a lawsuit arises from the car accident, you should consider hiring an experienced personal injury attorney who will fight to make sure that you are properly compensated for your mental anguish and all costs associated with your treatment. It is not in your best interest to settle the case immediately, as PTSD symptoms may take a long time to fully manifest after the accident, and it may take longer to fully understand what treatment will be necessary.

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