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Henry: Motor Vehicle Accident

It was around 11pm and Henry was only a couple of kilometres from home when another vehicle smashed into the driver's side of his car. It was as if out of nowhere and he had only seen it coming at the last moment.

Victim’s response and symptoms

Seeing the headlights racing towards him that day, he found himself gripped with fear and was certain that his time was up.

Was it 30 seconds or 30 minutes later when he managed to pull himself unhurt out of his car? Having felt so removed from the situation, he could not be sure. This strange feeling lasted until emergency services’ units arrived only a short while later, which felt to him ‘like an eternity’.

Commencing a few days after the event , Henry began to notice that he was having frequent lapses in concentration and moments when images of the accident would overcome him. When going to bed at night he often feels anxious and relives the accident in dreams when he does finally manage to get some sleep. He has tried everything, in vain, to forget his accident.

Henry refuses to drive since the accident happened. He feels nervous when riding the subway and he constantly feels as if another accident is about to happen. He is constantly hyper-alert, and has to fight the urge to jump off at each stop. He needs to travel for his work, and this avoidance behaviour is causing him difficulties. His employer’s patience has reached its limit.

Henry refuses to talk about the accident for fear that this will only make him feel worse. His wife, however, is constantly encouraging him to open up in order that he can ‘move on’ and because she feels that he is no longer his old self. He feels that she is pestering him, however, and also feels that this gets him more and more wound up.

The psychologist’s observations

Henry has had a road accident. This is one of the most common types of traumatic events we see. Road accident victims who, like Henry, exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress often have a driving phobia.

Traumatic event and peritraumatic response

The event Henry experienced is clinically traumatic. He experienced an intense fear during the accident and thought he was going to die. The fact that Henry felt removed and that time was moving slowly after the accident is a symptom of dissociation.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Since the accident, Henry has exhibited various symptoms of post-traumatic stress:

  • Intrusive thoughts and nightmares: Henry relives the accident involuntarily. These thoughts come to him in the daytime in the form of images and at night in the form of nightmares. At times, he can even have the feeling that he is reliving the accident.
  • Disturbed sleep: Henry becomes anxious around the same time of day that the accident occurred. He is also reluctant to fall asleep for fear of having nightmares about the accident.
  • Avoidance: Henry employs strategies that enable him to avoid driving. He uses public transportation and feels anxious at the very thought of getting in a car.
  • Hyperarousal: When taking public transport, Henry is hyper-alert and keeps his complete attention focused on the traffic.

Related symptoms

  • Henry has a phobia of driving.

Last updated: 1/1/2010 | © info-trauma 2009