Tom (not his real name) could not believe what had just happened! For the fourth time in two years, he had been hit again; each time the car had been on his left side. The first time, he was hit when he attempted to merge into traffic from an on-ramp; others happened in an intersection, in a parking lot. Today he ran into a car when he moved into a passing lane. Prior to these accidents, he had never been in a car accident and he had not been under the influence of any substances in any of the four accidents. He reasoned that something must be terribly wrong, but the visits to his doctor after the accidents never revealed anything. He had become irritable and depressed and the frequent recurring dreams about the accidents drained his energy.

Perhaps you have had a similar experience as Tom. There is a pattern to the kinds of multiple accidents that keep occurring for you and you are left wondering what’s wrong and how to stop them from happening.

High Price To Pay

Multiple car accidents that are similar cost a lot in physical and emotional pain. If you are injured in the same area repetitively, the pain can be intense and pain management becomes difficult.

In addition, the psychological pain can have far-reaching and progressively worsening consequences. After the first accident, driving might become an ordeal for you and your passengers because you are so worried that you will have another accident. Following another accident, you may decide not to drive at all and become dependent on others for transportation. This leaves you feeling guilty because you don’t like to impose on your friends and frustrated that you can no longer come and go on your own time schedule. Over time these feelings may intensify to the point that you decide to not ask for a ride; isolation and depression permeate your life every day.

Finally, depending on the circumstances, you may face the humiliation and legal hassles that come with losing your driver’s license. Now driving is not even a choice.

How Does It Happen?

Why the same accident keeps occurring can be due to many reasons. Some of them may be due to reasons beyond your control. Other drivers do lose control and could hit you even when you are driving defensively as possible. Other times, the responsibility may lie with you. Without you knowing it, your body could be stuck in a threat response..

Stuck in a Threat Response

As we know from the study of animals in the wild, animals and humans are designed to go through a predictable series of biological steps when they encounter threat. If a step is skipped, trauma can result and you can get stuck in a threat response. As a result, the chances that you would have a similar accident in the future increase. During a car accident, you can get stuck in one or more of the following steps:

Step 1. Stop and startle
Step 2. Scan the environment to locate the threat. You do this by looking at the oncoming car or barrier.
Step 3. Evaluate the situation to determine if it is dangerous.
Step 4. Fight or flee if the situation is dangerous or become immobile if it life threatening. While driving a car, you ideally get to flee by navigating the car away from danger.
Step 5. Release any residual energy and rest. Shaking, changes in body temperature and spontaneous movements of the body are several ways you release residual energy.
In Tom’s first accident the car seemed to appear out of nowhere and he had no time to react before he was hit. There simply was not enough time or space for him to complete any of the first four steps.

As often happens after an accident, Tom did not know to take time to let the shock of what happen move through his body. Instead, he got out of his car and talked to the other driver, witnesses and police to answer questions. In the emergency room he provided medical history and insurance information. Feeling self conscious about not appearing in control, whenever his body attempted to release the shock by shaking, Tom forced himself to remain still. Over riding his impulse to rest, Tom returned to work the day after he was released from the emergency room.


As Tom’s story illustrates, there were many biological steps that did not get to complete. Let’s examine the consequences of each of them.

Step 1. Stop and startle Tom did not get to stop and startle; consequently, he felt as though harm could come without any warning. This anxiety and feeling that he was a sitting duck impaired his ability to relax enough to see the car going through the red light at the second accident.

Step 2. Scan the environment to locate the threat. When Tom was hit the first time, his vision quickly narrowed automatically in an attempt to locate the other car and after the third accident his peripheral vision had become severely limited. In addition, he unconsciously avoided looking to the left because that was where danger had come. Consequently, he did not see the other car when he pulled out of the parking spot during his third accident.

Step 3. Evaluate the situation to determine if it is dangerous. Tom did not have time to evaluate if the other car’s proximity was dangerous. Consequently, it seemed as though every car on the road posed a threat. He became hyper-vigilant; he held his shoulders tensely while he gripped the steering wheel. Without a relaxed body, he navigated the car jerkily and became a hazard to other drivers, who could not anticipate his shift changes. This tension contributed to the last accident when he changed lanes.

Step 4. Fight or flee. His neck, arms and back were always tight because they still held the impulse to move the steering wheel so the car could get out of the way of additional danger. During the first impact these movements never got to complete; when the force of the impact jerked his hands off the wheel. He lived in constant pain.

Step 5. Release any residual energy and rest. Finally, Tom complained of always “feeling wired.” His sleep was not restful; he often felt agitated and dreaded having to drive. After three car accidents, his nervous system adapted to the high level of activation by containing the energy. Even though he worked out in an attempt to relax, his body did not let the tension flow out. Typical of trauma, he noted that even his digestion and blood pressure were off.


If you have experienced multiple accidents of a similar nature here are some steps you can take to support your healing.

1. Put your safety and that of your passengers first. If you feel nervous about driving, it may be a signal from your body that you are stuck in a threat response. Honestly assess whether you are able to drive the car safely. If not, find a competent driver to help you out until you can get support in moving through the trauma of the car accidents.

2. Remind yourself that there is nothing shameful about being traumatized after an accident. What happens in a car accident is done by your unconscious mind that does what ever it can to keep you alive. Fortunately for you, that worked!

3. Find resources to help you move through the trauma. The book, Crash Course: A Self-Healing Guide To Auto Accident Trauma & Recovery by Dr Diane Poole Heller, PhD, is an excellent step by step book to help you move through those places where you are stuck in a threat response.

4. Work with a therapist who understands how the body responds to car accidents and knows how to work in such a way that does not overwhelm your nervous system.

5. Trust that your nervous system does indeed know how to recover from a car accident. You will discover all the ways that you are indeed resilient; you will learn that you can come through something terrible and recover and once again envision a future.


Some guidelines influenced our work as we looked at each of the four accidents. Understanding that the moment of impact can be the most frightening, we looked first at when he first felt safe and then at what was happening prior to impact. Gradually we moved time backward from the moment he felt safe and forward from the moments he entered the danger zone. At each step we checked to see what his body would have wanted to do if there had been enough time and space. Imagining that the car was immobilized at a good distance away allowed Tom’s body to complete the first four biological steps.

While we focused on completing each of the biological steps in each accident, there are several interventions that were particularly helpful in each accident. In the first accident, we made sure to insert a warning such as the sound of the oncoming car’s horn into his story. This allowed him to experience a startle. Throughout treatment, I invited Tom to track any spontaneous movement that wanted to happen. Without either of us directing the movement, his head turned toward the other car; this allowed him to orient toward the source of danger.

By working very slowly, one piece of the sequence at a time, he was also able to integrate the process of determining that he was in dangerous situations and had time to take corrective action. In several sessions, his arms appeared to levitate on their own as they went through the movements of turning the steering wheel away from the other car. Through a combination of relaxation techniques for his eyes and inviting Tom to look around after the impacts helped to restore his peripheral vision. By moving through all the steps in each of the accidents, Tom was able to discharge a lot of muscular tension and feel in his body that the accidents were finally behind him. Today, Tom has no more nightmares; he feels rested, digestion is back to normal, his pain is significantly less and his driving has become smoother. He is feeling like his old confident self again behind the wheel.


After the third accident, I thought it was just fate. I’m doomed to have another car accident.
A lot of people in your situation feel that way. No matter how cautious you try to be the accident still happens. As in Tom’s case, you may not know that your peripheral vision is impaired. In addition, you may unconsciously be always looking away from the threat instead of toward it. This is your body’s way of wanting to keep you from remembering something scary.

It’s my fault; I wasn’t paying attention.

Yes, this can be the case. Sometimes passengers or cell phone calls can distract you. Sometimes, however, you can be stuck in a threat response and not know it. Your body may be so braced against a future accident that you do not even realize that you aren’t checking for other cars.

Every time I had a car accident, the cop said it was the other person’s fault.

Regardless of who was at fault, you may still experience physical and emotional pain. It’s not uncommon to feel pretty rattled after an accident so that your confidence greatly diminishes. In addition, repetitive injuries to one part of the body make it vulnerable to other injuries including those that have nothing to do with car accidents. Your may begin to think you have less choices in life where you feel safe.

In Summary

· Multiple similar car accidents can mean that you are stuck in a threat response.
· The five steps in a threat that you must complete in order to not be traumatized are
o Step 1. Stop and startle
o Step 2. Scan the environment to locate the threat.
o Step 3. Evaluate the situation to determine if it is dangerous.
o Step 4. Fight or flee if the situation is dangerous or become immobile if it life threatening.
o Step 5. Release any residual energy and rest.
· What you do during a car accident is beyond your conscious control
· Know that you can recover from a car accident

Next Steps?

If you recently had a car accident, let the involuntary movements happen.

No matter how recent the accident, consider working with a therapist to help you process the trauma that’s still in your body. Just doing talk therapy to help resolve the trauma symptoms rarely works.

Read books about how car accidents affect the body. This can help to normalize the trauma symptoms.

Author's Bio: 

I bring a total of over 15 years experience to this kind of work. This has included over 10 years of experience with clients with serious dissociative disorders as a result of prolonged childhood traumas.

Drawing upon my training as a licensed massage therapist and as a licensed professional counselor, I am skilled in working in ways that help the client integrate and reverse the psychological, emotional and physical effects of trauma.

Since 2004 in addition to maintaining a private practice, I have worked in the public health sector as an emergency mental health clinician for those in crisis, shock and pain. As a life long learner, I am committed to ongoing professional development. This has included five years postgraduate specialized training in treating trauma.

Holding a Masters of Arts degree in Contemplative Psychotherapy from Naropa University, I am a licensed professional counselor and adjunct faculty member at Naropa University. I am a graduate of the Hakomi Institute and of Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing© trauma training and a member of the International
Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation.