Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that may occur after a traumatic event such as a car accident. Without treatment, it can have long-term effects, including flashbacks, difficulty sleeping, and depression.

Car accidents can be traumatic experiences that may trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Understanding PTSD in relation to car accidents is crucial for recognizing symptoms, seeking timely treatment, and recovering from the condition.

In this article, we look at the symptoms and causes of PTSD after a car accident, when to contact a doctor, treatment methods, and support options.

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Experiencing or witnessing a sudden and unexpected event, such as a car accident, can increase a person’s risk of developing a mental health condition such as PTSD.

Each year, more than 50 million people around the world experience trauma due to traffic accidents.

What is PTSD?

PTSD is a mental health condition that a person may develop after a frightening or traumatic event. It affects about 6% to 9% of people and is more common in women than in men.

PTSD can affect a person’s ability to function in daily life and can have an impact on their mental health, well-being, and relationships. It may also cause chronic issues, lead to other mental health conditions, and increase the risk of suicide.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects if it’s safe to do so.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Find more links and local resources.

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Learn more about PTSD.

PTSD usually begins within 3 months of a traumatic event but can sometimes occur years later. Symptoms of PTSD after a car accident may vary widely but generally fall into four categories:

Intrusive thoughts and flashbacks


  • avoidance of places, situations, or objects that remind the person of the event
  • avoidance of thoughts or feelings that relate to the event
  • emotional blunting

Negative changes in thoughts and mood

  • difficulty remembering some aspects of the event
  • ongoing feelings such as guilt or blame
  • loss of interest in life
  • feelings of social isolation or detachment
  • difficulty feeling positive emotions such as happiness and satisfaction
  • the development of other mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and phobias


People may experience upsetting and confusing thoughts after a car accident, but these do not necessarily indicate PTSD.

It is crucial for a person to seek medical attention if:

  • they experience symptoms that last more than a few weeks
  • the symptoms are particularly troublesome or interfere with everyday life
  • the person considers harming themself

Early intervention and prompt treatment can prevent symptoms from worsening and significantly improve outcomes. Therefore, a person should not hesitate to contact a doctor if they suspect they are experiencing PTSD.

Car accidents can be overwhelming. Several factors may contribute to the development of PTSD after a car accident, including:

  • Suddenness and severity: The sudden, abrupt, and sometimes severe nature of car accidents can cause shock, which can overwhelm a person’s regular coping mechanisms.
  • Fear of death or serious injury: Experiencing or witnessing a severe incident that causes a person genuine fear for their life or fear of serious injury can trigger trauma responses.
  • Loss of control: Car accidents often happen quickly and without warning, leaving people feeling helpless and out of control.
  • Loss of a loved one: Witnessing the injury or death of people involved in an accident can worsen trauma.

To assess whether a person has PTSD after a car accident, a mental health professional will perform a comprehensive screening. This typically lasts 45 to 60 minutes and includes:

  • Clinical interviews: discussing the accident and symptoms
  • Questionnaires: filling out a PTSD criteria assessment to gauge the severity of symptoms

To get a diagnosis of PTSD, a person must meet the specific criteria for the condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR), which include:

  1. Experiencing exposure to actual or a threat of death, a serious injury, or sexual violence, whether through direct experience, as a witness, through the experience of a loved one, or during professional duties
  2. Experiencing the following for at least 1 month:
  • at least one re-experiencing symptom
  • at least one avoidance symptom
  • at least two arousal and reactivity symptoms
  • at least two cognition and mood symptoms

A thorough diagnosis is essential to help healthcare professionals devise an effective treatment plan.

Treatment for PTSD after a car accident usually involves a combination of therapies, which may include:

The outlook for a person with PTSD after a car accident can be positive if they have the right treatment and support. Recovery times vary — some people may experience significant improvement within a few months, while for others it may take longer.

People who receive treatment for PTSD tend to see an improvement in symptoms in comparison to those who do not engage in treatment. Ongoing support and maintenance strategies can help prevent relapses and promote long-term well-being.

Support groups can be helpful for people who experience PTSD after a car accident, giving them a space to talk and connect with others who have had similar experiences.

The following organizations may offer in-person or online support groups:

Additional support and resources for people with PTSD may include:

  • Accessible treatment: Local or low cost treatment options can make it easier for people with PTSD to get the help they need. Universities may also offer clinical trials.
  • Emotional support: This can come from helplines, support groups, online forums, and peers.
  • Financial support: Financial assistance may be available to help people with living expenses.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can develop after someone experiences or witnesses a traumatic event, such as a car accident. While PTSD is a serious condition, it is treatable.

People with PTSD after a car accident might have intrusive thoughts and might consciously or unconsciously avoid places or people that remind them of the accident. They may also have difficulty sleeping and feel tense, anxious, or irritable.

It is important for a person to consult a doctor if they have symptoms that disrupt their home, work, or social life after a traumatic event. A healthcare professional can determine whether a person has PTSD and provide necessary support.

Recognizing the symptoms, seeking timely medical advice, and engaging in effective treatment can lead to recovery. Treatments such as psychotherapy, medication, and peer support are crucial in the recovery process. Understanding and addressing PTSD can help people reclaim their lives and regain a sense of normalcy after a car accident.