Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 1999;60(2):531

See related article on post-traumatic stress reactions following motor vehicle accidents.

Each year over 3 million Americans have traffic accidents. If you've had an accident, you might have had a lot of reactions at the time of the accident and in the days following it. Some of these reactions might be:

  • Shock

  • Trouble believing it really happened

  • Anger

  • Nervousness or worry

  • Feeling uneasy or scared

  • Guilt

In addition, you might keep going over the accident in your mind. You might feel like you can't stop thinking about it.

All of these reactions are common. Most people who've been in an accident have some (or all) of these feelings. Sometimes, though, these feelings are so strong they keep you from living a normal life after the accident.

What's the difference between reactions after an accident that are normal and reactions that are too strong?

Most of your reactions will get better with time, but some reactions can continue or increase. This could change the way you think and act. These strong feelings can stay with you over a long time and start to get in the way of your everyday life. This condition is called post-traumatic stress. If you have post-traumatic stress, you may have some of these problems:

  • An ongoing, general feeling of uneasiness

  • Problems driving or riding in vehicles

  • Not wanting to have medical tests or procedures done

  • Overreactions or being too worried or angry

  • Nightmares or trouble sleeping

  • A feeling like you're not connected to other events or other people

  • Ongoing memories of the accident that you can't stop

How can I cope with the feelings I have after my accident?

  1. Talk about the details of the accident. Talk to your friends and relatives about the accident and how you thought, felt and acted at the time of the accident and in the days after.

  2. Stay active. Exercise and take part in activities (anything that doesn't bother your injuries). Your family doctor can help you figure out how much you can do and still be safe.

  3. Follow up with your family doctor. He or she can give you any referrals you may need, watch over your recovery and give you any medicine you might need.

  4. Try to get back to your daily activities and routines. Traffic accidents can make some people limit what they can do. It's important to try to get back to your usual everyday activities, even if you're uncomfortable or scared at first.

  5. Learn to be a defensive driver. Driving or riding in cars might be hard after the accident. You can lower your risk of future accidents or injuries by driving carefully, wearing your seat belt at all times and avoiding distractions while you're driving. Never drive when you're tired. Don't drive if you've had alcohol or taken drugs or medicines that affect your judgment.

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