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Traumatic Stress

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Children and adults can experience traumatic stress.

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Traumatic Stress Overview

Within the first month after a crash many people re-live the event. Children experience this, too. Unwanted thoughts about the events are common. People may avoid situations that remind them of the crash, such as driving. They may feel a sense of separation with the crash. This is a feeling of unreality or emotionally numbing.

These feelings can be Acute Stress Disorder (ASD). If the feelings persist for more than three months and interfere with daily life, they are symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

It’s a response to a violent or life threatening experience. The three main symptoms include:

  • Re-living the event (flashbacks, nightmares, or obsessive thoughts)
  • Avoidance (avoiding places and activities related to the event)
  • A deepened sense of threat when in a situation related to the event (such as traveling in a car)

When you re-live the event:

  • You may feel intense fear, helplessness or horror.
  • You may become irritable and unable to sleep when reminded of the event.

Symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may begin 3 - 6 months after the crash. The symptoms may be more intense on the anniversary of it.

PTSD is not as understood as other disorders. At this time, medications for depression are being successfully used as part of the treatment.

How Common is PTSD after a Crash?

Few studies have examined the incidence of after a recent car accident. One study found that 90% experienced some form of PTSD at 3 weeks after the crash (1). A study of families with children showed that 90% had at least one symptom of PTSD. Broad symptoms of distress were seen in 28% of children and 23% of parents.

The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that 40% of people seriously injured in a car crash have PTSD during the first year after the crash (2). The rate in people less seriously injured in the accident is lower, at 20%. The Department of Transportation indicated that most people’s symptoms go away within 1 to 5 years. After that only 5% of those who initially experienced PTSD still had symptoms.


1) Acute stress disorder symptoms in children and their parents after pediatric traffic injury, Pediatrics, 2002, June; 109(6): e90.
2) NHTSA's report The Economic Impact of Car Crashes 2000, DOT HS 809 446

Links for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

More Information on Post Traumatic Stress in Children:

Do you need professional help?

Generally anyone who has been involved with an event that causes a casualty or serious injury will have a time of difficulty. In some, however, the level of difficulty is such that their day-to-day living is nearly impossible.

Warning signs of a more serious problem include

  • you are unable to resume a functional life,
  • your relationships with other people are greatly suffering or even dropped,
  • you have self-destructive thoughts, and/or
  • you cannot think about the event or accept your changed life.

If these warning signs are present you should look for a psychologist or psychiatrist who has experience helping people following a trauma. You may benefit from counseling and medication. Your family physician or sometimes your health insurance call center can help.

How to find good professional help

  • Look for an experienced therapist who has been in practice for a number of years treating trauma victims.
  • A therapist with a PhD may be more aware of current treatment practices and options
  • Ask about treatment practices and experience.
  • Be honest. There is probably nothing you can say that these people have not heard before. Only an open, honest dialogue will help you doctor formulate a treatment plan that is right for you. If you do not feel comfortable speaking with the doctor or psychologist - FIND A NEW ONE!