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Recovering From an Automobile Accident: Healing the Emotional Wounds

Reviewed Mar 18, 2014

Summary

  • Emotional recovery is a part of healing from an auto accident.
  • Trauma reactions include physical, emotional and cognitive symptoms.

Anyone who has experienced an automobile accident knows that it is traumatic. In addition to wreaking havoc on machines and bodies, auto accidents inflict psychological wounds.

Psychological trauma requires healing

Psychological trauma is as real as physical trauma. Emotional wounds must be healed as part of the recovery process.

Psychological trauma is what happens after surviving an extraordinarily frightening experience. While traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety, any situation that results in a person feeling emotionally overwhelmed or devastated can be traumatic—whether there are physical injuries or not.

Auto accidents are one of the most common, yet overlooked, sources of psychological trauma. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there were more than 6 million motor vehicle crashes and 41,059 traffic fatalities in 2007. This translates to a death every 13 minutes and an injury every 13 seconds.

Reactions to the event

After a traumatic event such as an auto accident, survivors have a wide range of responses. Even though these can be disturbing, they are normal reactions to abnormal events. You may have all or some of these in the days, weeks or months after the accident.

Emotional

  • shock, denial, disbelief
  • anger, irritability, agitation
  • guilt, shame, self-blame
  • sadness, hopelessness
  • anxiety, worry, fear
  • social withdrawal and isolation
  • emotional numbness, mood swings

Physical

  • insomnia, nightmares
  • racing heartbeat
  • fatigue, low energy
  • muscle tension, aches, pains
  • headache, stomach distress
  • crying spells
  • hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response

Cognitive

  • confusion, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness
  • intrusive memories, flashbacks

Everyone responds differently

Even though these trauma reactions are common, individuals respond to experiences differently. What is traumatic to one person may not bother another person. Allow yourself to have your own reactions, without judgment or guilt.

Recovering from a traumatic event is a process that takes time. Everyone heals at his own pace. You may not “get over it” as quickly as you (or others) think you should. The longer you avoid dealing with your reactions, the longer you will be affected by the trauma.

Self-help strategies for healing psychological trauma

Take care of yourself. Eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly and get adequate rest.

  • Maintain a daily routine. Keep a balanced schedule between work and home. Stay active and involved.
  • Seek support from others. Talk about your experience with trusted friends, family members or clergy.

Know when to seek help

Seek professional help if:

  • symptoms persist for weeks
  • you have trouble functioning at home or work
  • you avoid things that remind you of the accident
  • you use drugs or alcohol to cope

In a split second, an automobile accident can turn your world upside down. The goal of recovery from emotional trauma is to restore control over your life. By addressing the psychological impact of trauma, you will hasten a return to a sense of personal well-being.

Resources

Crash Course: A Self-Healing Guide to Auto Accident Trauma and Recovery by Laurence and Diane Poole Heller. North Atlantic Books, 2001.

Surviving an Auto Accident: A Guide to Your Physical, Economic and Emotional Recovery by Robert and Dana Saperstein. Pathfinder Publishing, 1994.

By Karen Szmyd Dickason, LCSW, CEAP
Source: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition
Reviewed by Akin Akinlawon, M.D., M.P.H., Vice President/Medical Director, Texas NorthSTAR

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