­­Losing Your Drive: Traumatic Response to Motor Vehicle Accidents

by   Michael Alter, LCSW

 For survivors of motor vehicle accidents (MVAs), the choice to get back in the car or truck is often a difficult, emotionally wrenching and psychologically complex decision. And they find it impossible to just go on, not only with normal driving, but also with many routine aspects of their lives as a whole.

In many ways driving has become safer with dual airbags, seat belt laws, child car seats, traction control devices and the like. Yet none of these protect against the acute stress and frequently chronic or long-term effects of surviving an MVA – even when there are no physical or visible signs of injury. The symptoms suffered by MVA survivors are fairly predictable; fear of driving, anxiety, poor sleep, irritability, reduced joy, body aches, fatigue, relationship and sexual difficulty, and preoccupation with the accident. These symptoms may emerge within hours to months after an accident. More severe symptoms in the aftermath of an MVA include depression, panic attacks, inability to work, social isolation, guilt and shame, and full-blown Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). There are over three million MVA survivors annually in America, about 1 percent of the population. Yet getting help for the emotional impact remains elusive.

Take the case of Lisa, 43, mother of two, who was taken to the hospital for observation and discharged several hours later after an MVA.  Lisa was severely shaken up though her injuries did not appear serious. But her mind kept racing back to the accident. At work she felt unusually tired, struggled to concentrate, and felt disengaged from her tasks. At home, she had trouble sleeping, had frequent headaches, was irritable with the kids, short-tempered with her husband, and generally felt guilty. Driving became an ordeal.

Three weeks after the accident her condition worsened. Crying jags, nightmares and anxiety added to the fatigue, restless sleep, neck pain and headaches she was already suffering. Her doctor gave her medication for sleep. Over the next several months physical therapy, anti-depressant medication, pain medication for her neck, and massage therapy were added to her treatment regimen. Four months after the accident Lisa began psychological counseling. Her constant anxiety interfered with her confidence to drive and motivation at work. She was becoming isolated socially and could not explain what was happening to her. Lisa had lost her drive.

Lisa learned in therapy that her symptoms were a normal reaction to an extreme situation. She was not crazy, oversensitive, selfish, weak, a drama queen, or playing the victim. Her situation finally began to make sense. In time, with acceptance of her self and her condition, she was able to resume joyful activities. She still had moderate anxiety driving but was coping reasonably well.

Lisa’s case may be called typical though in fairness each MVA survivor’s experience is unique. Key elements to successful treatment include finding ways to talk about the impact of the traumatic event, using effective tools to relax, processing traumatic memories, returning to normal activities, and developing a sense of self free of trauma.  Unfortunately, these objectives are often elusive because traumatic reactions to an MVA remain misunderstood, treatment may not be started in a timely manner, medical professionals may not identify symptoms, and survivors may not implement treatment recommendations.

An important aspect of trauma is that the mind and body are deeply connected through our biochemical and neuromuscular system to process events, both new and old. When there is trauma, our responses form the basis of the fight, flight or freeze response, part of the primitive adaptive wiring central to our survival. The system is masterful. The problem with trauma is that this ingenious brain-body system develops a hair trigger reaction to perceived threat even when there is no actual danger. The program in our brain designed to protect us may backfire by overcompensating. This leads to alarming, enduring mistakes in perception and reactive behavior. And years of struggle for some survivors.

The road to recovery does not have to be long or painful. Proper treatment, particularly with a clinician well versed in treating trauma, and familiar with the unique impact and subtle course of MVA issues, can make the difference between prolonged emotional turmoil and regaining the sense of self the accident displaced.

Soma Trauma Therapy specializes in healing both the cognitive (thinking) process and the neurophysiological (body) disturbance associated with trauma. Soma’s short-term-trauma-therapy helps clients achieve pre-accident functioning in 10-15 sessions compared to 30 or more treatments of conventional talk therapy. Soma coordinates care with other providers to maximize support and efficient use of resources. Soma helps clients regain their drive.

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