Car accidents don't only leave physical scars. Survivors of car accidents may also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – long after their injuries have healed.
PTSD is classified as an anxiety disorder that arises as an immediate, delayed and/or protracted response to a traumatic or stressful event of an exceptionally threatening or catastrophic nature. While PTSD is often associated with the aftermath of wars, a car crash can also cause PTSD.
*Elizabeth (32), a clinical psychologist, shares the story of how she survived a car crash. She not only suffered physical pain, but was haunted by emotional turmoil for several months.
“I have survived two bad car crashes, but the first one was by far the worst. On a rainy day in August 2008, I drove alone from Stellenbosch to Kleinmond along the scenic R44. It was rainy and the roads were wet and slippery, but I still wanted to drive the scenic route. Then, when a bakkie cut a corner, I got a fright and lost control over my vehicle.
"My vehicle shot off the road and, according to eyewitnesses, it rolled five times before coming to a halt – on a rock at the edge of a cliff. I was trapped, but luckily eyewitnesses were on the scene quickly. They helped me out of the vehicle and towards the top of the road, where we waited for a very long time for medical help.
"The emergency unit initially diagnosed me with shock and multiple muscle spasms, and I was discharged from hospital after five days. Three weeks after being discharged, I went back for an MR scan, which then revealed that I had broken my back in two places. I had to wear a neck and back brace for several months.
'Fear turned into panic'
"Although I can’t remember specific details and my initial feelings right after the accident, I think I lost consciousness. As I regained consciousness, I realised that I was trapped in a car hanging over a cliff. My fear turned into panic – I started shaking violently and also started yanking at my seat belt to free myself – with little success.
"However, when I was taken out of the vehicle, the panic turned into an increased sense of taking charge – I even gave strict instructions to the policeman on which family members he should inform first."
Not only physical aftermath
After the accident, Elizabeth started struggling with several symptoms of PTSD-related anxiety:
- Reliving the accident: "I had repeated flash-backs in slow motion and I could remember every single bit of detail. I also had regular nightmares of scenarios that were so much worse than I actually experienced – one of them being that I had a passenger with me who didn’t survive, and the vehicle plummeting into the ocean."
- Avoidance: "For a while after the accident I experienced anxiety and guilt. Whenever I got into a car, I got extremely anxious and panicky. I was also riddled with guilt and wondered what would have happened if there had been a passenger with me. I also didn’t want to be social or watch TV – things I used to enjoy before the accident. The one mistake I made was that I never mentioned this anxiety to anyone."
- Hypersensitivity: "This was probably the worst of all the symptoms. I constantly felt on edge. I was tense and jumpy and got frightened so easily – even noises on the TV or people chatting were too much for to me to handle. I had severe irritability and couldn’t sleep in spite of trying many medications and even sleep therapy. This is the one symptom that made me realise that something was wrong – something you wouldn't understand unless you experienced it yourself."
According to Health24, symptoms of PTSD can also include:
- Inability to recall important aspects of the trauma
- Loss of interest in participating in normal activities
- Feeling detached from others, having a restricted range of emotions and being unable to have loving relationships
- Feeling hopeless or empty
'I had to change my focus'
"At first, it was difficult for me to talk about the accident. I approached my experience factually, telling it like a children's story, without much detail. I was confused about my feelings and alternated between feeling grateful for surviving, and anger and frustration – while feeling extremely uncomfortable (both physically and emotionally).
"I realised that I had to shift my focus in order to heal completely. I had to make the conscious effort of focusing on the positive rather than the negative. I needed to take control over the way I was thinking, the emotions I experienced and how I was going to react.
“With this new way of thinking, I became increasingly aware of having a good support structure. I also decided to get behind the steering wheel of a car again as soon as possible, and to drive past the scene of the accident – hoping that the details of the accident wouldn't replay in my head so much anymore.
"The more I repeated what had happened to me to others, the more it helped to relieve that gripping feeling of fear and panic.”
The importance of recognising PTSD
When a person fails to work through the initial fears and anxiety after a car crash, it can only become worse and even turn into full-blown PTSD, Elizabeth says.
"To be able to work through the trauma, one should be aware of the way it influences you physically and emotionally. Although I was studying psychology during that time, being aware of the textbook symptoms of PTSD, I still denied the symptoms. It took me a while to realise that these symptoms do not suddenly appear and disappear – they have a useful function! The increased adrenaline and sensitivity are there to “protect” our bodies against any future danger.
"I could only receive the help I need once I realised that I was hypersensitive and that my symptoms had a severe impact on my daily functioning. As a clinical psychologist, I strongly recommend that people seek professional help to prevent the onset of PTSD.”
Phone the South African Depression and Anxiety Group helpline for free telephonic counselling and support at 0800567567, or visit their website at www.sadag.co.za for a support group in your area.
*Not her real name
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