Resources for Victims of Car Accidents

Understanding the impacts on mental health and how to cope

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Last updated: May 30th, 2024
Supporting a victim of a car accident

In 2021, almost 2.5 million people in the United States were injured from motor vehicle crashes. In that same year, fatal traffic accidents were responsible for an additional 42,939 deaths on our roadways. These staggering numbers represent a disturbing upward trend of car accidents in our country. And while we know that the physical recovery from a wreck can be long, stressful, and challenging, what about the additional psychological impact of a traumatic accident? Recent research has shown that 1 in every 3 crash victims suffers from moderate to severe mental health symptoms.

The psychological trauma that can occur after a serious vehicle accident is not something to downplay. The shock of the impact, along with injuries (sometimes life-threatening), financial strain, and grief, are bound to significantly affect your mental health. The resulting fears, stress, depression, or even posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can make it difficult to return to how life was before the accident. This emotional trauma should be handled with attention and care. We’ve taken a closer look at the impacts car accidents can have on mental health and provided resources to guide you on your way to finding help and support.

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The psychological impact of trauma from a car accident

If you’ve been in a car accident and are experiencing effects on your mental health, you are not alone. In the aftermath of an accident, the busyness of dealing with insurance woes, lawyers, vehicle repairs, medical expenses, and doctor visits may keep you preoccupied. But when the initial shock and stress calm down, you may find yourself struggling with your mental health in addition to everything else. Indeed, decades of data have shown that motor vehicle accidents put people at increased risk for mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD.


Depression is one of the most common psychological responses that impact car accident victims. A 2020 study of 155 accident survivors found that 17.4% of car accident victims suffered from depression symptoms, with factors like economic status and medication use impacting symptom prevalence. These symptoms include:

  • Numbness, feelings of detachment
  • Loss of interest
  • Low mood
  • Poor concentration
  • Irritability
  • Sense of hopelessness
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Suicidal thoughts or self-harm
  • Persistent sense of guilt

The severity of depression experienced also coincides with accident injuries; clinical studies have demonstrated that the more injured you are, the more likely that you may suffer from depression during recovery. Also, if you’ve experienced depression before your accident, it makes sense that you have a greater chance of dealing with it again afterward.

So, if you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms, please consider speaking with someone you trust or reaching out to a healthcare professional. If left unaddressed, depression symptoms can escalate into a major depressive episode. They can also appear hand-in-hand with anxiety or PTSD, which we examine in depth further below.

There are many treatment options for depression. You may wish to explore psychotherapy and medication or alternative therapies such as acupuncture or meditation. This is a personal choice that depends on what you’re comfortable with and the severity of your symptoms.

If you decide to pursue therapy, you should know that it’s more accessible than ever, thanks to the expanding world of telehealth services. Check out our Guide to Best Online Therapy for help getting started. We’ve also compiled other free resources at the bottom of this page, including support groups; meeting others going through a similar experience can be invaluable as part of the healing process.

Throughout your healing process, keep in mind that there is hope. A 2016 study followed a group of survivors for one year after experiencing injury in a serious car accident. Researchers found that participants were at a 79% and 88% lower risk for depression at their 6-month and 12-month follow-up visits, respectively, than they were at their initial baseline appointments. That isn’t to say you should be “over it” in any specific time frame. Each person’s experience and their response to it is unique; treating the process with care and patience is the kindest thing we can do for ourselves.


As troubling as they are, anxiety symptoms are common among those involved in serious car accidents. Research has found that 55% of survivors experienced moderate to severe anxiety before being discharged from a hospital post-accident, with decreasing symptom severity in the months following. Here are some of the most common symptoms of anxiety.

  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Sense of impending danger or doom
  • Feeling nervous or tense
  • Increased heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Feeling weak

In an accident, the body’s automatic fight-or-flight response kicks into gear on impact, with the nervous system working hard to protect you from a perceived threat. The problem arises when this response lingers long after the accident took place, keeping you from returning to a calm, regulated state. The stress of not just the terror of the accident but also the medical diagnosis, bills, insurance, and repair costs can quickly become overwhelming and feed chronic anxious thoughts.

Unfortunately, living in a state of chronic stress and anxiety can have negative impacts on your overall health, making you more susceptible to infection and chronic conditions. Researchers have also found that anxiety is even more prevalent in car crash victims with a history of chronic illness, psychiatric illness, or permanent pain experience.

As with depression, speaking to your doctor may be helpful if you are having lingering anxiety symptoms after an accident. It can also be a symptom of another issue — PTSD, which we discuss further below.

Phobias – driver and passenger

Amaxophobia is the fear of being in a vehicle. The lasting impact of an accident can often manifest as a new fear of driving, riding in a car, or both. This phobia can persist long after an accident occurs. Research from 2017 has found it to be more prevalent in women, especially as vehicle passengers, and that it’s also closely associated with PTSD and depression.

You may be dealing with amaxophobia if you’ve experienced intense anxiety symptoms (sweating, shortness of breath, and dizziness) that stop you in your tracks. The following indicators are additional signs of phobia:

  • The anxiety symptoms you have do not match the actual threat or danger.
  • The fear of being in a vehicle interferes with your ability to enjoy life.
  • You miss out on work or social events because of your fear.
  • Symptoms last more than six months.

As much as you may want to avoid getting on the road again, that probably isn’t a practical solution. At some point, you have to return to work, school, or other responsibilities. So, what do you do if you are stuck in a cycle of fear and want to move forward? The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), a type of talk therapy, is the gold standard for treating phobias such as this. A therapist can help you process traumatic events and also give you the tools to relax your body and mind as you face your lingering fears.

Another way to approach specific phobias is through the use of exposure therapy – exposure (in a controlled environment) to the very thing that you fear. Interestingly, a 2020 pilot study explored the use of virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) as part of a program for individuals struggling with driving phobia. The treatment, consisting of preparatory psychotherapy sessions and VRET tailored to each patient’s needs, proved to be very effective for overcoming driving fear and avoidance behaviors. In their final test, patients took a “real driving test,” and all of them could master tasks they had previously avoided.

Survivor’s guilt

Survivor’s guilt is a common symptom associated with mental health conditions like PTSD, anxiety disorders, and depression. When you survive an accident where others did not, or you emerge unscathed when others were significantly injured, it’s not unusual to have feelings of guilt for what happened to you. The matrix of grief and trauma can lead you to believe that perhaps you shouldn’t have come out alive. Often, survivors feel responsible for the death or that they could have prevented it, even if they had no power over the situation at all. When these feelings linger, they can lead to depression and even suicidal ideation.

If you’re experiencing survivor’s guilt, you may be dealing with some or all of the following:

  • Numbness
  • Disconnection from self and others
  • Shame
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Depression
  • Headaches
  • Feeling consumed by the event
  • Suicidal thoughts

A lot of people who experience survivor's guilt are also affected by PTSD, so you may benefit from the cognitive therapy techniques used to treat PTSD (discussed in further detail later). Also, you should take time to grieve and allow yourself to feel your feelings. Journaling and mindfulness exercises may help you process the complex emotions you have bottled up.

Connecting with others who have been through a similar experience may help you heal (you can find a list of networking resources at the bottom of this page). Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) also has a resource for car crash victims struggling with survivor’s guilt, which you may find helpful.


One of the most significant impacts you can face from a serious car accident is PTSD, a condition that can affect your mental, social, physical, and spiritual well-being. Of all the psychological disorders studied in accident victims, PTSD is the most common and thoroughly researched. A 2018 meta-analysis of 15 relevant studies, including almost 7,000 accident survivors, found that an overall 22.25% of victims had PTSD. Below, we discuss the telltale signs of PTSD and what you can do to heal.

Signs and symptoms of PTSD

The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM) identifies specific criteria a patient must meet for a PTSD diagnosis. The symptoms fall under four categories:

  1. Intrusion: having recurrent and intrusive memories or dreams related to the accident, flashbacks, or intense distress to cues that symbolize or resemble the accident

  2. Avoidance: avoiding feelings or memories of the traumatic event or avoiding external reminders of the accident (e.g., people, vehicles, locations) that may trigger distressing emotions

  3. Changes in mood and thoughts: difficulty remembering the accident, persistent negative beliefs about yourself and others, self-blame, a negative emotional state, diminished interest in things that used to be enjoyable, detachment, or inability to feel positive

  4. Changes in reactivity: irritability, angry outbursts, recklessness, hypervigilance, or problems with concentration and sleep

For an official diagnosis, you must have one or more intrusion symptoms, one or more avoidance symptoms, two or more mood symptoms, and two or more reactivity symptoms. All of these must have occurred for at least a month.

In addition to the above symptoms, you might experience further dissociative characteristics, such as:

  • Depersonalization: feeling detached from your thoughts or physical body
  • Derealization: experiencing the unreality of your surroundings (i.e., the world around you feels dreamlike or distant)

It’s worth noting that PTSD can occur even if you witness a car accident or see a loved one get hurt, regardless of whether or not you were involved in it.

How to cope with PTSD after a car accident

Experiencing a traumatic accident and subsequent PTSD is a heavy load to bear. Research has found that people who have PTSD are also more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders, highlighting the importance of addressing your psychological well-being before your symptoms become unbearable.

Fortunately, you aren’t alone, and there are things you can do to heal. In addition to seeing a licensed therapist or taking prescription medication, you may wish to incorporate the following strategies as part of your recovery process:

Dealing with unwanted memories or images

When unwanted images pop up, focus on breathing slowly in and out. Remind yourself that you’re safe in the present moment. To reset your mind, consciously observe and focus on objects in the room around you, describing how they look and feel out loud to yourself. If it’s helpful, consider finding a creative outlet, like journaling or painting, to express how you feel.

Prioritizing rest

Ample rest is crucial to your recovery. Try to stick to a regular bedtime routine. If you find yourself lying in bed thinking negative or intrusive thoughts, get up, drink some water, and momentarily do something calming before trying again to sleep. It’s best to avoid alcohol or caffeine in the evenings so that you encourage your body to wind down.

Avoiding isolation

When you go through a traumatic experience, you might feel that no one can understand what you’re going through, that your PTSD symptoms are “too much” for others to handle, or that your negativity will bring others down. The reality is that we all need connection. Clinical research has shown that social support protects our mental health in multiple ways, including lowering the risk for adverse psychological outcomes and reducing PTSD symptoms. Even short interactions can do wonders for your mood and outlook. Also, your loved ones may want to help in any way they can, so try to communicate with them and explain how you’re feeling.

Regaining concentration

You may find yourself struggling at school or work after a traumatic accident, which is common among people experiencing PTSD. When your brain feels fuzzy, make a to-do list. Breaking down your day into small goals can make your responsibilities feel more attainable. If your problems with focus persist, consider speaking to your employer or teacher about what’s going on and work together to seek solutions.

Exercising for stress relief

Regular exercise can help with trauma and depression. For example, research shows that veterans with PTSD have reductions in symptoms and improvement in coping strategies when they incorporate physical activity into their routines.

Your exercise doesn’t need to be high-intensity to be effective. Starting slow and gradually increasing in intensity is ideal for PTSD, as you avoid overwhelming an already tapped-out nervous system. Mindfulness exercises and diaphragmatic breathing are other excellent techniques to try during your recovery.

Treatment with a professional

The most common strategy for treating PTSD is psychotherapy, either alone or in combination with medication like antidepressants. There are many different approaches a therapist may suggest for processing PTSD. To give you an idea, here is a quick overview of some therapeutic methods recommended by the American Psychiatric Association for PTSD patients:

  • CBT: a type of talk therapy that helps manage problems by changing your thought and behavioral patterns
  • Cognitive processing therapy (CPT): a type of CBT that helps you modify unhelpful beliefs directly related to the trauma you experienced
  • Prolonged exposure: another type of CBT, one that teaches you how to gradually approach trauma-related memories and situations so that these cues are no longer dangerous
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR): a therapy in which you briefly and safely focus on a trauma memory while experiencing bilateral stimulation, effectively reducing the vividness and strength of the emotion associated with the memory.

Getting on the road again – tips for managing anxiety and stress

You will likely need to get back into a vehicle at some point, either as a driver or a passenger. Though the thought may be terrifying for someone who has experienced a traumatic car accident, there are several ways you can manage the anxiety and stress associated with returning to the road. The following tips can help you not only to remain calm but also to be a safer driver:

Try relaxation methods

A relaxation routine at home, before you step foot in a vehicle, can set you at ease enough to get back into the driver’s seat. Breathwork is a known intervention for people with anxiety; even the simple practice of slow, regular inhalation through the nose and exhalation through the mouth can help you gain control over your stress.

Progressive muscle relaxation is another good technique, one that can yield an immediate physiological response. This exercise involves intentionally contracting specific muscle groups, one by one, and then releasing them. Guided imagery, where you describe and focus on a safe, peaceful image, can also help you overcome anxiety.

Travel with a friend

You don’t have to go it alone. Feel empowered to invite people into your recovery and let your loved ones be there for you. If possible, ask a friend or family member to travel with you for support as you reacclimate yourself to driving. Whether it’s encouragement, silence, or something else entirely, communicate exactly what you need from your passenger.

Take it step-by-step (or mile-by-mile)

Breaking down your journey into smaller, more manageable pieces can make it seem less overwhelming. Instead of viewing your drive as a massive expedition, focus on reaching specific checkpoints and taking breaks before you continue. Give yourself permission to turn around and head home or (if you’re traveling with a friend) to change drivers at any time. Take a path with less traffic and a lower speed limit if that makes you more comfortable.

Stay away from stimulants

You may have heard that drinking caffeine is like “pouring gasoline on your anxiety.” Indeed, caffeine consumption can exacerbate symptoms in people already dealing with anxiety. So, while you may love a big cup of coffee or an energy drink first thing in the morning, you should avoid such stimulants when you’re learning to drive again. Maybe, though, you can treat yourself to a caffeinated treat once you reach your destination.

Tune in to your senses

Acknowledging your anxiety may seem counterintuitive, but doing so can help take away some of the fear. If you begin to feel the anxiety overwhelming you, take note of what you’re experiencing without any self-judgment; maybe even say out loud exactly how you’re feeling. Also, make a conscious effort to perceive your environment. Feel the seat underneath you, the car’s vibration, the texture of the steering wheel, how the weather looks outside, and the number of vehicles in front of you. Doing these things can help you feel more in touch with your body and encourage feelings of safety in the present moment.

Surviving with significant injuries

As you recover physically and adjust to your ailments, there’s also work to do on your mental health. Clinical research demonstrates that people who suffer debilitating injuries from a vehicle accident are significantly more likely to have psychological consequences like PTSD, depression, anxiety, and phobias. Feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, and frustration are common, too, especially among people who’d previously been independent or whose injuries prevent them from partaking in things they once loved.

The psychological consequences can be long-lasting. According to a 2016 meta-analysis of clinical research, accident victims with spinal cord or traumatic brain injuries are likely to experience psychological distress for three years or more after their accident. Healing takes time, so it’s vital to be patient and find ways to cope after enduring significant injuries from a car accident. Here are some suggestions:

  • Strive to accept responsibility for your healing.
  • Set a daily routine with attainable goals.
  • Go slow and take things one day at a time.
  • Allow family or friends to help you.
  • Acknowledge your feelings and share them with others.
  • Keep a journal to process your feelings
  • Seek the help of a therapist if mental health symptoms persist.

Coping with the loss of a loved one

When you lose someone to a vehicle accident, the suddenness and randomness of the event can feel unfair. You were denied the opportunity to say goodbye or have one last conversation. You may also find yourself ruminating over their final moments and becoming consumed with finding answers that may never come. These circumstances of grief can result in myriad impacts on your mind and body, such as:

  • Shock
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Regret
  • Loneliness
  • Panic
  • Chest tightness
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Insomnia
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Confusion
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Dreaming about the loss
  • Feeling overstimulated
  • Over- or undereating

Researchers have found common patterns and stages of grief among those moving through the healing process. You can read more about them, along with coping tips, in our Mental Health Resources for Those Who Are Grieving. Understanding the typical behaviors that attend grief can help you feel that you’re not alone and that your experiences are normal.

Remember also that no two people grieve exactly the same. Extend compassion toward yourself as you wade through a traumatic loss. Consider reaching out to a support group (resources are listed below), leaning on someone you trust, or contacting a licensed therapist for help.

Resources for victims of car accidents

If you’ve experienced a traumatic accident and are looking for support, you should know that many resources are available to you. Below is a list of organizations that specialize in helping individuals with diverse needs. In addition to these resources, you can also find a licensed therapist by using the American Psychological Association’s psychologist locator. If you’re interested in online services, our Best Online Therapy guide may help you find options.

For those in an accident

  • Crash Support Network: 24/7 helpline, "Ask-a-Lawyer" assistance, and a private Facebook group, including a group for fatality accidents
  • MADD: chat, email, 24/7 helpline, and excellent educational material, especially for those dealing with grief
  • The Hyacinth Fellowship: online meetings and one-on-one peer support for those who have unintentionally harmed someone
  • Trauma Survivors Network: locating nearby trauma centers and local programs for recovery
  • United Way: assistance with housing, utilities, or food

Mental health

For those with injuries

  • Grief in Common: live chat, forums, and online support groups (fees may apply for some services)
  • GriefShare: nationwide, in-person, faith-based grief support groups
  • HealGrief: online support, coaching, and resources
  • Soaring Spirits: online and in-person support for widowed people
  • Survivor Resources: online support group, with in-person opportunities in Minnesota


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