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Managing trauma after a car accident

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Car accidents can be incredibly scary, especially if there are serious injuries or fatalities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the rate of fatal accidents increased significantly, even as fewer drivers traveled on U.S. roads. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there were 38,690 motor vehicle deaths in 2020, the highest rate in 13 years.

After a major collision, most drivers are aware of the legal and financial implications, such as filing an insurance claim to cover medical bills and vehicle repairs. However, it’s also important for drivers to recognize the mental and physical aftermath that a car accident can have.

Mental trauma can have a long-lasting effect following an accident, which can make some drivers hesitant to get back behind the wheel. If you have recently been in a serious car accident, you should take the time to understand how a car crash can affect your mental wellbeing.

Fortunately, there are ways to feel more comfortable in a vehicle after an accident, whether you are a driver or a passenger. We’ve provided some tips for reducing stress and anxiety after a crash and resources that can help you cope with the mental impact of a car accident.

What happens immediately after a crash?

Immediately after a car accident, some drivers may find themselves in shock. Even if you typically know what to do after a crash, you might not remember in the moment. Here are the steps you might want to consider taking after getting into an accident before you leave the scene and afterward.

At the scene

If you get into a car accident, consider following these steps while you remain at the scene:

  1. Call 911: Pull over to a safe area if possible and immediately call 911.
  2. Check for injuries: Assess any injuries that you, your passengers and other drivers might have. If anyone needs emergency medical treatment, you can ask the 911 operator to send an ambulance or the responding police officer can request aid.
  3. Exchange information with other drivers: Exchange information with the other drivers involved in the crash. Make sure to write down their full names, addresses, phone numbers and insurance information.
  4. Write an accident statement: Depending on the situation, it might be a good idea to write down a statement of what happened in the accident and collect statements from other drivers involved. If the police arrive, they will take statements and file an official police report.

Following the crash

After a car accident, you will want to start the insurance claim process as soon as possible. Here are some tips before and after filing a claim:

  • Gather information for your insurance company: Before you contact your car insurance company, spend some time compiling the information you will need for the claim. This includes the police report, photo evidence from the scene, copies of your medical treatment if you were injured and statements from all drivers involved.
  • File an insurance claim: The next step is to notify your insurance company of the accident. An agent will walk you through the process of filing a claim, and they can also review your policy to determine what is and is not covered, and how much money you could be eligible to receive.
  • Receive your insurance payout: If the claim is approved, you or the auto shop doing your car repairs will receive your payout, minus your deductible (if you have one). Typically, collision and comprehensive insurance require a deductible, which is taken out of your claim payout.

Nervous to drive after an accident? You aren’t alone.

If you think you’re the only person dealing with post-accident anxiety, you are not the only one. Many drivers feel uneasy getting behind the wheel after a car accident. Data shows that many drivers suffer from physiological trauma stemming from a crash even if they aren’t seriously injured physically.

More than 1% of Americans sustain injuries in car accidents at some point during their lifetime. Statistics also show that a majority of drivers in the U.S. will experience at least one minor motor vehicle accident by age 30. Even minor accidents can lead to psychological distress and lingering trauma, such as:

  • Mood swings, causing feelings of anger, frustration and guilt
  • High levels of stress and anxiety that doesn’t go away
  • Difficulty sleeping, including insomnia and recurring nightmares
  • New fears and phobias, such as a fear of driving or riding in a car

In addition, many drivers experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after a serious motor vehicle accident. Data shows that between 25%-33% of drivers display PTSD symptoms at least 30 days after a serious crash. Among accident survivors that suffer from PTSD, more than half have been shown to have mood disorders, and many have symptoms of a major depressive episode.

Tips for reducing stress and anxiety about getting behind the wheel again

If you’ve been in a serious motor vehicle accident, feeling stressed or anxious to drive again is a normal response. However, being stressed can actually impact the way you drive. When you are experiencing heightened emotions or mental distress post-accident, you could be more likely to drive below the speed limit, slam on the brakes or perform other unsafe driving habits due to the fear of another crash.

To ease your stress around driving, you may find that counseling or therapy is necessary. In addition to professional help, there are various other ways to cope that are free and can be done at home. For example, journaling can be a great way to process your emotions, identify your triggers and track your symptoms.

Taking care of your mental health after a car accident is extremely important. There are also a few things you can do to reduce your risk while driving, which could potentially lower the chance of another crash. Here are Bankrate’s top five tips for reducing risk while driving under stress:

  1. Take deep breaths: While you are driving, taking deep breaths can make a big difference in your mood. It signals to the body that you are safe, which can help you relax, so you avoid making potentially dangerous maneuvers.
  2. Listen to a podcast or music: Although you should always be attentive when you drive, consider listening to a podcast or your favorite album to help distract you from anxious thoughts.
  3. Sit in a comfortable position: Being in a comfortable position when you drive is very important because it can help you feel more at ease. Avoid gripping the steering wheel too tight or clenching your jaw, which can make your body feel tense.
  4. Get enough sleep: Driving while you are tired increases the likelihood of an accident, so make sure you are getting enough sleep before you drive. You should also avoid drinking lots of caffeine to stay awake, which can make you feel even more anxious.
  5. Leave extra space between cars: When you drive, you should always remember to leave enough space between your car and the car in front of you. It might make you less fearful of getting into another collision, and if you do have to slam on the brakes, you will have plenty of room to stop safely.

Safe driving tips

After a car crash, it’s a good idea to review the foundations of safe driving, whether you were at fault or not. In most cases, accidents are preventable. Taking the proper safety precautions can help you avoid a crash, or lower your risk of a serious accident with injuries. Here are some safe driving tips to remember before you get back in the driver’s seat:

  1. Always wear your seat belt: Not only is wearing your seat belt a legal requirement, but it can also save your life in a car accident. In 2019, 22,215 people were killed in passenger vehicle accidents, and 47% of those people were not wearing seat belts. According to 2017 crash data from the NHTSA, seat belts saved an estimated 15,000 lives and could have saved an additional 2,549 people if they had been wearing them.
  2. Obey traffic signals: Remember what you learned in driver’s ed about following traffic signals. Don’t be tempted to speed up at yellow lights and drive straight through stop signs. These signs are meant to keep drivers safe on the road, so it is important to follow them correctly, even when other cars are not around.
  3. Don’t drive over the speed limit: Over the last 20 years, speeding has been a factor in roughly one-third of all fatal car accidents. When you drive too fast, it becomes harder to stay in control, which can increase the risk of a collision. Make it a point to avoid driving over the speed limit, even if you’re in a hurry.
  4. Avoid rush hour when you can: Avoid driving during rush hour whenever possible. During rush hour, traffic is stop and go, and oftentimes, bumper to bumper. It can be more difficult to avoid accidents during the evening work commute, especially when people are not paying close attention.
  5. Limit distractions in the car: Distracted driving is one of the leading causes of car accidents, particularly among young drivers. Texting, taking a phone call, eating and putting on makeup are all forms of distracted driving that can increase your chance of an accident. Limit distractions in the car at all costs.

How to feel more comfortable riding in someone else’s car

After a serious motor vehicle accident, you may find that driving isn’t your only fear. You might also be nervous to ride as a passenger in someone else’s car. For some people, riding as a passenger can be even more nerve-wracking because you have to put your trust in the other driver. Here are a few ways to make yourself feel less uneasy about riding with other people:

  • Accept the fear: It can be difficult to deny the fear of riding as a passenger with someone else, whether it’s an Uber driver, a friend or your spouse. However, denying your fear can make it harder to conquer in the long run.
  • Distract yourself: In the car, find ways to distract yourself from your anxiety. Consider reading, texting a friend or listening to music. If you get car sick, listening to a podcast is a great way to distract yourself without looking at your phone or a book.
  • Take a test drive with the other driver: If you have a car trip planned with another driver, ask them to take a test drive so you can experience riding with them in a safe setting. It will also give you an opportunity to discuss your fear with them, so you can work together to make yourself feel as comfortable as possible.
  • Ride in the backseat: Generally speaking, the passenger seat is the most dangerous spot in the car if you get into an accident. Riding in the backseat can be much safer, which might make you feel less anxious.
  • Try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is a form of psychotherapy that can help solve mental disorders like depression and anxiety. This treatment aims to help you reshape your negative thought patterns and find healthier ways to cope with distressing beliefs. By working with a CBT-trained therapist, you can learn to reframe your negative thoughts about driving or being in the car so you can face your fears.
  • Look into Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP): NLP is another therapy technique that is used to change people’s negative thought patterns. It can help you overcome limiting beliefs, help you deal with distressing situations and improve your mindset overall.

Resources

There are dozens of resources available to help you overcome your anxiety around driving after a car accident. Here are a few:

Topic Resources
Car accident trauma After the Crash (By Edward B. Blanchard and Edward J. Hickling)
How to Cope with Trauma After an Accident (Anxiety & Depression Assoc. of America)
Can I be Compensated for Mental Health Trauma After a Car Accident? (Rafi Law Group)
Post-accident PTSD The Risk of PTSD After a Car Accident (Very Well Mind)
Post-traumatic Stress After a Traffic Accident (Family Doctor)
PTSD Assessment (Professional Psychology Research and Practice)
Overcoming fears and phobias Phobias and Irrational Fears (Help Guide)
6 Tips To Overcoming Anxiety and Phobias (Psycom)
Ten Ways to Fight Your Fears (NHS Inform)
Counseling after a car accident When to Consider Therapy After a Car Accident
(Bey and Associates)
Why You Should Consult a Psychologist After a Car Accident (In Motion Health Centre)

Apps for dealing with stress and anxiety

In addition to the resources listed above, you might also consider downloading a mobile app that can help you manage stress and anxiety following a car accident. Below is a list of popular apps that are available for all smartphones:

  • Headspace: Headspace offers meditations and other mindfulness tools to help users relax, reduce stress and improve overall mental wellbeing.
  • Calm: The Calm app is advertised as the number one app for meditation and sleep.
  • Breathe2Relax: Breathe2Relax helps users unwind and destress using breathing exercises, which can help decrease the body’s fight or flight response.
  • Sanvello: With Sanvello, users can access on-demand live therapy from licensed counselors, as well as peer-to-peer support and personalized coaching.
  • Happify: Happify provides activities and tools to help users take control of their emotions and overcome stress.
Written by
Elizabeth Rivelli
Insurance Contributor
Elizabeth Rivelli is a contributing insurance writer for Bankrate and has years of experience writing for insurance domains such as The Simple Dollar, Coverage.com and NextAdvisor, among others
Edited by
Insurance Editor