After the crash - the mental battle

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If you’re involved in a road crash, chances are the biggest challenge will be your physical recovery. Here are some ways to help you cope.

Winning the mental battle

Some people can struggle mentally in the wake of a crash. If this happens to you, it’s important to get help.

It might be a crash where you were the driver, a passenger, a pedestrian or even just an observer.

Lynda Matthews, the Head of the Rehabilitation Counselling Unit at the University of Sydney, says that while many people will recover totally, even from severe road crashes, up to 30 per cent of people will have to deal with a negative psychological response.

“It’s not so much the severity of the crash or the severity of any resulting injury that counts – it’s how someone perceives it,” Dr Matthews says.
“If you perceive the crash as life-threatening, or if someone is killed in the accident, then that can influence your response.”

The good news is that most people will recover from the anxiety which is a natural reaction to a stressful incident. Some people will have no symptoms of anxiety at all, others will have a few, while others will run the full gamut.

Common symptoms of anxiety include worrying, being very active, feeling irritable, unable to relax or sleep properly, having no energy, finding it difficult to concentrate, feeling upset, angry, confused, tired, helpless or ‘out-of-control’.

Anxiety can make a person feel unsociable and you may have unwanted thoughts or experience problems with personal relationships.

Dr Matthews says that most people recovering from a crash generally focus first on physical recovery – treatment in hospital, visiting physiotherapists and the like. Saying it’s also very important for people to tell doctors if they are feeling anxious or distressed.
And that there are simple things you can do if you feel anxiety taking control.

“If you feel like it, it’s good to talk with people about the accident.

One of the most important parts of recovery is having support from family and friends,” says Dr Matthews.

“It’s also very important to try and re-engage with your social scene and get back to work – to get back to your pre-crash lifestyle.”

Looking after yourself

The State Insurance Regulatory Authority (SIRA) offers the following tips to look after your mental health following an accident:

  • Give yourself time. Any difficult period in your life needs time to heal. Be patient with yourself and what you are feeling. Anxiety is normal for everyone.
  • Talk to someone about the accident. It may be a friend, family member or someone you feel comfortable with. Just talking about your experiences, getting information about anxiety and meeting any practical needs is often all that is required to help you manage your anxiety.
  • Look after yourself. When people feel anxious they often neglect themselves. Eat balanced meals and try to get plenty of sleep. Do some exercise, like going for a walk. Avoid increasing the amount of alcohol you drink and avoid drugs that have not been prescribed by your doctor.
  • Take some time for yourself and do a hobby or other enjoyable activity.

When to seek help

You should seek medical advice if your symptoms:

  • Are worrying you.
  • Are preventing you from doing your normal activities.
  • Have lasted longer than three months after the accident.
  • Are causing your friends and/or relatives to be worried about you.

If your symptoms don’t ease after 3 months, or if your symptoms are severe enough to stop you living your normal life, then you have may an anxiety disorder, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Most people who are involved in a road crash won’t develop an anxiety disorder. If you do, you may experience extreme anxiety and disturbing irrational thoughts and fears. Every part of your life suffers and you seem overpowered by the experience of the crash.

Some people may:

  • Have flashbacks to the accident.
  • Dream about the accident.
  • Become distressed when exposed to reminders of the accident.
  • Feel like they are continually in a daze.
  • Be out of touch with the world or feel that their life does not seem real.
  • Avoid thoughts, feelings or conversations associated with the accident even when they may be beneficial.
  • Feel guilty about the crash.

Getting back in the car

Dr Matthews says that necessity will get most people back into a motor vehicle, but some people might experience difficulty.

“The general principle is, where there’s fear of something then it’s good to take it in small steps,” she says.

“Make sure you have people with you to offer support, and take it slowly.”

Treatment and support

It’s important to know that, with the right treatment and support, you can recover from an anxiety disorder.
Your GP is the best person to speak to first. Other health practitioners, like psychologists, social workers, counsellors and psychiatrists, can help to treat anxiety disorders.

For more info on getting help, go to the If you've been injured section of the State Insurance Regulatory Authority website. They have comprehensive info on managing anxiety after a crash.

Where to get help

The following organisations and websites provide information on getting treatment for anxiety.