About every ten seconds, someone becomes the victim of a car accident injury.

Motor vehicle accidents can cause all kinds of serious, catastrophic, and even fatal injuries. All injuries are painful, but car accidents can cause more than physical pain. Research shows that about one-third of people in car crashes suffer from mental or emotional trauma due to the injuries, the recovery process, or the actual collision.

The effects can be debilitating and last long after the car crash itself.

What are anxiety and emotional distress?

Emotional distress is a state of mental anguish that can take various forms, including depression and anxiety. For legal purposes, emotional distress is “a highly unpleasant emotional reaction (as anguish, humiliation, or fury) which results from another’s conduct and for which damages may be sought.”In some cases, a mental health issue causes distress, but it may also result from trauma.

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Can a car accident cause anxiety and emotional distress?

Some people experience an anxiety disorder after an accident. They may have trouble functioning or be unable to control their emotions under challenging circumstances.

Car accident victims may suffer from symptoms such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Stress
  • Panic attacks
  • Shock
  • Nervousness
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Worry
  • Apprehension
  • Mood swings
  • Changes in appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Loneliness
  • Embarrassment

Do car accident victims have post-traumatic stress disorder?

Everyone reacts differently to trauma. For some people, the psychological effects of a car accident may cause a condition, often seen following a traumatic event, known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

According to the American Psychological Association, car accidents are a primary cause of post-traumatic stress disorder among the general public and military personnel. Studies show that almost 40 percent of individuals who did not receive mental health treatment for PTSD resulting from either a motor vehicle accident or other cause within six years after the trauma continued to suffer from PTSD for up to ten years after the accident.

Signs of PTSD resulting from a car accident include:

  • Frequent upsetting thoughts or memories about a traumatic event
  • Recurrent nightmares
  • Flashbacks to the accident
  • Avoiding people, places, or situations that remind you of the accident
  • Staying excessively busy to distract yourself
  • Being keyed up or constantly on guard, also called hyperarousal
  • Having a hard time falling or staying asleep
  • Negative thoughts about yourself and others
  • A loss of interest in activities you previously enjoyed
  • Feeling distant from others
  • Feeling sad or lonely
  • Feeling as though something may shorten your life

Common symptoms may also include:

  • Heart palpitations, shortness of breath, or angina
  • Nausea
  • Faintness
  • Shaking
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Mood swings, irritability, or impatience
  • Cognitive problems, such as difficulty with concentration

Treatments for anxiety and emotional distress

Each situation and each individual is unique. As with any health issue, your doctor or health care professional will determine the best treatment for you. However, treating anxiety and emotional distress can include psychotherapy, medication, self-help, or a combination of these approaches.

Psychotherapy treatment for anxiety, emotional distress, and PTSD

The National Center for PTSD estimates that only 9 percent of those whose condition goes untreated recover after three months. However, 53 percent of people who receive trauma-focused psychotherapy recover after three months.

Psychotherapy is probably the most common treatment for emotional and psychological issues. The many types of psychotherapy take different approaches. Doctors, therapists, counselors, and other mental health professionals use these methods depending on the patient’s symptoms and situation. They typically perform a physical and psychological evaluation before starting treatment.

Common psychotherapeutic approaches for treating trauma include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The goal of cognitive behavioral therapy is to teach someone how to change the thoughts and feelings they’ve been struggling with since the traumatic event. The treatment may involve various coping strategies, such as breathing techniques.
  • Exposure therapy. This type of therapy helps the individual gradually relive the traumatic event in a careful, controlled way.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). This therapy helps the person focus on the traumatic memory while simultaneously experiencing bilateral eye movements, sounds, or taps.

Medications commonly prescribed for anxiety and emotional distress

In some cases, the doctor may prescribe medication to treat symptoms. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are drugs frequently prescribed to treat anxiety and depressive disorders and other psychological conditions. It is not safe to self-medicate or take medication provided by anyone other than your doctor.

Examples of SSRIs include:

  • Zoloft
  • Paxil
  • Celexa
  • Lexapro
  • Prozac

Did the other driver’s negligence cause the accident?

To have a personal injury claim, the injured person must prove that someone else’s negligence caused their injuries. The theory of negligence is “a failure to behave with the level of care that someone of ordinary prudence would have exercised under the same circumstances.” In some situations, negligent behavior consists of an omission or failure to act.

Common examples of driver negligence include:

  • Driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • Distracted driving, such as texting while driving
  • Fatigued driving
  • Aggressive driving behaviors
  • Violating traffic laws, such as exceeding the speed limit or failing to yield
  • Disregarding traffic signals
  • Failing to properly maintain a vehicle.

Can a car accident victim recover damages for anxiety and emotional distress?

If you were in a car accident that someone else caused, you will want to receive monetary compensation, also known as “damages,” for any loss you suffered. In addition, typically, you need to demonstrate that you have suffered prolonged emotional or mental health issues diagnosed and treated by a qualified mental health professional.

People can recover damages for mental anguish resulting from a car accident. In negligence claims, the injured person (the plaintiff) must prove the at-fault person (the defendant) was negligent and that the plaintiff suffered severe emotional anguish from the negligence. In a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress, the victim does not need to prove intentional conduct by the defendant. Instead, they must prove that the defendant acted without exercising reasonable care. The negligent conduct may have been directed at the victim or have injured the victim as a bystander.

In California, a person injured in a motor vehicle accident can file a claim for emotional damages under the legal theory of negligent or intentional infliction of emotional distress, even if they were not physically injured.

With the intentional infliction of emotional distress, the victim must establish that the person at fault:

  • Caused the plaintiff’s emotional distress intentionally;
  • Acted in a heinous, outrageous, or extreme manner; and
  • Their behavior caused the plaintiff emotional distress.

Suppose a bystander to the accident claims negligent infliction of emotional distress. In that case, they must show that the bystander witnessed the injury or fatality and that the negligence of the personal fault injured or killed someone the bystander knew. Therefore, they suffered emotional distress.

Lawsuits seeking damages for emotional distress can involve complex legal issues. It may be challenging to prove the connection between the accident and the victim’s anxiety or emotional distress.

Proving the damages to your mental and emotional health

Many forms of evidence may establish a claim of anxiety or emotional distress. Your attorney must establish that the anxiety or distress directly and substantially impacted your daily life.

Examples of evidence frequently include:

  • Medical records. These show the extent of both your physical injuries and the psychological effects of the accident. It helps prove your case but is also valuable for determining damages.
  • Expert testimony. In addition to your medical records, doctors and other expert witnesses can testify about how the accident has degraded your quality of life. They can also testify about treatment options and the prognosis of your condition.
  • Your journal or notes. If a car accident injured you, keep a journal or daily notes to record your pain, incidents of anxiety or emotional distress, the intensity of your symptoms, and other ongoing effects of the accident. In addition, if your attorney recommends that you testify, your testimony can be a powerful form of evidence.
  • Testimony from other witnesses. Family members, friends, co-workers, and others who know you well can testify about how the accident has changed your life.
  • Photos or videos. Pictures of the accident scene, your injuries, or videos that may have recorded the accident as it occurred can also prove emotional distress. A dramatic triggering event may support your claim for damages.
  • Proof of financial losses. Documentation such as receipts for any medications, therapy sessions, proof of lost income, and other expenses related to the claim will support your case.

Emotional distress is non-economic damage. The goal of these damages is to compensate you for the daily adverse effects of someone else’s negligence or intentional misconduct.

Why emotional injuries can be just as real and harmful as physical injuries

Those who suffer anxiety or emotional symptoms due to a motor vehicle accident are just as injured as those with broken bones or other physical injuries. In some cases, they are worse off because physical injuries typically can heal after medical care. However, some psychological injuries could last for many years or even forever. Therefore, they can affect the lives of the injured person and their loved ones.

Often, people do not see mental health as important as physical health due to misconceptions. Also, even though mental health problems are common, there is a stigma attached to them. That is slowly changing, as people recognize the importance of mental health, but the existing stigma still creates an atmosphere where those suffering from such problems may be reluctant or ashamed to seek help.

Tips for dealing with car accident trauma

At some point after being in a car accident, you may become aware of anxiety or emotional distress. It can be challenging to recognize because the symptoms can vary widely from one person to another. If you have concerns, you should always consult a health care professional.

Here are some tips to help you deal with anxiety, stress, or other symptoms you may be experiencing:

  • Admit what you’re feeling. You may have been raised to be stoic or never admit that you are in pain. However, seeking help is an act of courage.
  • Visit a qualified healthcare professional. If you are unsure whom to call, your family doctor is usually a good place to start. Do not feel embarrassed or downplay your symptoms. They are real injuries and are impacting your life. Your doctor may refer you to a mental health care provider, such as a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. They usually start with a full evaluation and then develop an individualized treatment plan. If you are not comfortable talking openly with the doctor, keep looking until you find the right person for you.
  • Follow the treatment plan. Stick with your recommended treatment plan. It is your roadmap to feeling better, so compliance is essential. Don’t make changes in your medication on your own. Compliance is essential. Any time you have concerns about medications or other aspects of your treatment plan, consult your doctor, who may adjust your treatment accordingly.
  • Call a car accident lawyer near you. All of the above takes money and time that you should not need to spend if someone else harmed you. A car accident lawyer can help you recover the compensation you deserve to put your life back in order.