Impact of Car Accidents Can Be Long-Lasting

Aug. 20, 2001 -- Approximately every 10 seconds someone in the U.S. is injured in a motor vehicle accident, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Fortunately, most accidents are not fatal, but even minor ones can cause long-term anxiety as well as fears and phobias about driving or riding in a car.

The latest study by British researchers suggests that at least one-third of all people involved in nonfatal accidents have posttraumatic stress disorder, persistent anxiety, depression, and phobias one year after the incident.

The study suggests there may be "rather large psychological complications even when the motor vehicle accidents have medically not been in the least bit serious," says study author Richard Mayou, FRCPsych, professor of psychiatry at the University of Oxford's department of psychiatry at Warneford Hospital in Oxford, England.

"In the past there has been an assumption that people who have more severe injuries are more likely to get psychiatric complications, but that is not so," he tells WebMD. His study appears in the August issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Most of the more than 1,000 men and women in the study who had been taken to a hospital after an accident recovered from the psychological impact within three to 12 months. Others had persistent problems or suddenly developed anxiety and other symptoms months after the accident. Interestingly, most people with persistent anxiety were passengers in the accident rather than drivers.

Mayou says anxiety about traveling may mean feeling anxious when driving or riding in cars or avoiding cars altogether. You also may feel nervous or anxious when passing the site of the accident, seeing similar road conditions or traveling in the vehicle involved in the accident or a similar type or color of car.

The most important factor in recovering from the trauma of the accident is recognizing that you are having a problem and getting help, Mayou says.

Like other types of trauma, car accidents can cause long-term stress that affects your work and relationships and can eventually lead to depression, anxiety, and sleep problems, says Alan Steinberg, PhD.

Steinberg, director of research at the UCLA Trauma Psychiatry Program, says studies show people can have increases in their levels of stress hormones for months after even minor traumatic events.

He says if two or three months have passed since an accident and you still feel anxious, avoid certain driving situations, or have persistent thoughts or dreams about the accident, you should seek help from someone qualified in treating posttraumatic stress disorder.

"These kinds of reactions are normal and to be expected in the [short-term] aftermath of whatever has happened. I don't think people should run to a psychiatrist or psychologist a week or two after. But if they start to become persistent, that's a sign that they may become [long-term] and can become very debilitating," Steinberg says.

Treatment may include anxiety management, breathing and relaxation exercises, or medications to relieve anxiety and/or help you sleep.

Mayou has also found that like adults, young children often suffer anxiety and phobias after an accident. For some children the situation may be made worse by having no choice about when and where they're traveling and also because their parents may voice their own fears and phobias about the accident to them. Perhaps not surprisingly, Mayou says he also has documented two cases of family dogs involved in serious accidents who became afraid of riding in cars.