Blog, Injuries

Car Crashes: The Psychological Effects

Car Crashes: The Psychological Effects

You are likely to be involved in an automobile accident every 18 years. According to this article on Forbes, that means you will on average experience 3 to 4 car crashes in your lifetime. Among the general consequences of car crashes, some of the most debilitating effects end up being psychological in nature, as even after the physical injuries have healed, the psychological trauma will usually remain. Here are the psychological effects of car crashes, their implications, and the methods in which they are treated.

Potential Psychological Effects of Car Crashes

According to this study, car crashes that result in physiological conditions such as whiplash, spinal cord injury, and traumatic brain injury, show evidence of elevated levels of psychological distress. Further studies of MVC (motor vehicle crash) survivors concluded that:

• 21%-67% experience depressive mood.
• Up to 47% experience elevated anxiety and driving phobia.
• 20%-40% suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Additionally, high levels of pain and fatigue have been found in people suffering from a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and spinal cord injury (SCI)—ultimately leading to a reduced quality of life. To make matters worse, it is found that “when MVC-related injury results in psychological distress, medical and rehabilitation costs have been found to double.”


In regards to experiencing depressive mood, any persistent feeling of sadness or lack of interest is usually characterized as major depressive disorder—leading to a wide range of behavioral and physical symptoms. Such symptoms may include:

Mood changes: such as hopelessness, loss of interest, general apathy, and sadness.
Physiological problems: like fatigue, loss of appetite, and/or excessive hunger.
Changes in behavior: irritability or social isolation for instance.
Changes in weight
Sleeping changes: insomnia, excess sleepiness, or restless sleep for example.
Suicidal thoughts

In general, treatment for depression usually consists of taking medication, or engaging in talk therapy—if not both. The most common medication for depression is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), an antidepressant. One of the most common therapies is cognitive behavioral therapy.

Car Crash and Psychological Impact


Anxiety disorder is usually presented through feelings of worry or fear that are strong enough to interfere with an individual’s daily activities. Usually self-diagnosable, anxiety symptoms include feelings of stress that are considered out of proportion to the triggering event, restlessness, and the inability to set aside one’s worries. Other symptoms may include:

Physiological experiences: such as sweating, fatigue, nausea, palpitations or trembling.
Behavioral changes: irritability and hypervigilance for instance.
Mood changes: like excessive fear, worry, and feelings of impending doom.
Cognitive changes: racing or unwarranted-thoughts, and a lack of concentration for example.

Most often, treatment for anxiety includes some form of counseling or medications, like antidepressants for instance. There are also paths for self-care that you can take, such as avoiding alcohol and reducing your caffeine intake. Engaging in physical exercise is also a great choice.

PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, is a type of anxiety, presented through an individual’s inability or difficulty in recovering after witnessing or experiencing a terrifying or traumatic event. This experience may last for months or even years, and there are usually triggers that can bring forth unpleasant memories of the trauma, as well as the intense emotional and physical reactions associated with it. General symptoms can include unwanted memories of the trauma, avoidance of triggers, and anxiety. Other symptoms may include:

Mood changes: such as feelings of guilt or loneliness, as well as a loss of interest, and emotional detachment.
Sleep changes: like insomnia and nightmares.
Behavioral changes: hostility, self-destructive behavior, social isolation, hypervigilance, and irritability for instance.
Physiological experiences: such as flashbacks to the event, severe mistrust or anxiety, and fear.

For the most part, PTSD is treated through medications that manage symptoms as well as trauma-focused psychotherapy. The most common medication for PTSD is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), and one of the most common therapies is cognitive behavioral therapy.

At the end of the day, patients may experience any one or a combination of these forms of psychological distress. While not an extensive list, depression, anxiety, and PTSD are the most common instances found to arise from car crashes with their effects afflicting one long after the MVC itself. If at any time you find yourself experiencing one or more of these symptoms, please consider consulting your primary care physician and requesting a visit with a psychologist or psychiatrist.

Medically reviewed by Levon Margolin, Ph.D., MSCP, QME

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