Trauma & Motor Vehicle Accidents


Every year in Canada, over 250,000 people are involved in car accidents. These accidents are sometimes referred to as motor vehicle accidents (MVAs). These accidents are the leading cause of trauma and PTSD. It’s a common belief that an accident of any kind must be ‘severe’ to cause psychological impact. Did you know, trauma has more to do with how a person perceives and responds to an event, not just the event itself? This means even an accident with no physical injuries can have mental health impacts.


What causes trauma?

Trauma is the internal response to an external event. Basically, something that happens outside the body creates a response inside the body. For example, if someone is in a car accident, it can cause fear, distress, and in some cases traumatic injury. Trauma can be a single event, or many events piled up on one another over a period of time.


What is PTSD?

Each person processes, stores, and holds on to events throughout their life differently. One singular event, such as a car collision, can open old wounds and past negative experiences. This will lead to shock, overwhelm, and eventually a disconnect. Approximately 39% of motor vehicle accident survivors develop PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

PTSD can sometimes take months to develop. Motor vehicle accident survivors can include drivers, passengers, pedestrians, or witnesses. Any person involved can develop PTSD. PTSD can be hard to notice, as symptoms often develop over time. If you or someone you know has been in an accident, here are some signs of PTSD to be aware of:

Reactivity Symptoms of PTSD

  • Emotional numbing
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Sleep disruption and disturbance
  • Problems concentrating


Reexperiencing symptoms of PTSD

  • Nightmares
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Flashbacks
  • Easily triggered (environmental circumstances that cause distress to the person with PTSD)


Avoidance symptoms of PTSD

  • Avoiding driving or being a passenger
  • Avoiding the accident route
  • Avoiding traveling due to poor weather conditions/peak traffic times
  • Substance use to avoid emotions or thoughts


People who have survived a traumatic event may not show all the above symptoms. Early intervention in treating trauma and PTSD can make a world of difference! Please know that it is never too late to begin healing. Identifying the need for support and seeking help is often one of the hardest steps.

Can trauma and PTSD be cured?

Even without an official diagnosis of PTSD, symptoms can be reprocessed and managed. Over time, this will help lessen and even eliminate big reactions in the body.


Having a good team in place gives survivors the best chance of healing and moving forward. What does a good team look like?

  • A good family doctor
  • A psychologist or counsellor
  • Trusted friend or family member
  • Physiotherapist
  • Neuro specialist if needed (if there is a suspected brain injury)
  • Massage therapist


Any professional or person that will help you through this tough period is good to have on your team!


What can I do right now?

With each year that passes, more information is available about trauma and the brain. More available information makes tough conversations about PTSD and trauma less uncomfortable. Inviting a support person to attend a session or workshop can help in educating those around you.

o Kells’ one-day Tools for Trauma workshop, suited for people with PTSD or support persons.

o Mental Health Screens – these brief assessments provide insight into our mental health. Depression, anxiety, and markers of PTSD are also screened for.


Checkout one of these fantastic book recommendations about trauma:

o “When the Body says No” – Gabor Mate

o “The Body Remembers” – Babette Rothschild

o “Waking the Tiger” – Peter A. Levine & Ann Fredrick


Always seek supports if you’re suffering. Call 211 or the Distress line at 780-482-4357 (HELP) if you need immediate support.