Counselling for Road Accident Trauma

After a road traffic accident people frequently experience problems such as anxiety, tearfulness, short-temper, difficulties sleeping. These and similar issues can stay with people for a long time after the accident. This can be an indication of psychological trauma, which, without help, can sometimes develop into full-blown post traumatic stress disorder: a very debilitating condition.
When Kay contacted a counsellor, three months after her accident, these were just some of the difficulties she was facing. She described her feelings:

“As weeks went by and other people were forgetting about my accident, I was starting to feel embarrassed that I hadn’t ‘got over’ it yet.”

However, unless friends and family have personal experience of psychological trauma, they are unlikely to realise how devastating it can be - even if, like Kay, the accident victim was not physically injured. Friends may assume that the victim will quickly feel back to normal again. But if they are still having panic attacks and feeling weepy, accident survivors may withdraw from friends and social groups, and it can start to feel as if they have lost themselves – that they are not the person they once were. One way to begin to understand what is happening is to realise that they have undergone a traumatic experience.

‘Trauma’ is one of those words that means different things in different contexts. For example, physical trauma generally means a serious injury. Also, we may conversationally describe events as ‘traumatic’ when they are merely unpleasant. But psychological trauma refers to a set of quite specific processes that the brain and body can start up in times of sudden danger, such as a road traffic accident. It is the nature of these processes to stay with people – potentially for a very long time after the danger has passed. It is also their nature to be triggered easily by anything that may even loosely resemble the danger situation: from the music that was playing at the time of the crash, to the mood you were in or even the clothes you were wearing. One accident survivor told her counsellor:

“I know it’s ridiculous, but I haven’t worn the coat that I was wearing when the accident happened. It’s a nice coat – a gift – and I want to be able to wear it and drive in it. But even thinking about that makes me feel really anxious.”

Although accident survivors may want to avoid thinking about their traumatic experience, research shows that trauma victims benefit from talking about what has happened. Unfortunately, they may feel reluctant to talk to friends about the accident for various reasons. They may feel that their friends have already heard enough about it and will be tired of the topic. Or they may feel that talking about it might make them feel tearful or angry - and they don’t want to upset friends by letting them see their distress.

Counselling can help enormously with road accident trauma, providing a space to talk about ongoing feelings of anxiety, anger, withdrawal or whatever else is happening for the survivor. Although everybody responds to trauma slightly differently, there are general patterns that people tend to follow, and a counsellor can provide information on what trauma is and how it works on the brain and nervous system. A counsellor can also help people to find coping strategies for some of these difficulties, and explore ways to help move forward through the trauma process. Without help, some people may remain traumatised for months or even years. However even a short course of counselling can make a big difference. As one client said after just five sessions:

‘I feel like I’ve got my life back, even though I still don’t like driving on the stretch of road where it happened, the panic attacks have stopped, and I don’t get emotional thinking about the accident any more. When I first came for counselling, I felt as if I was going mad. It really helped to know that what I was going through was normal.’

Author's Bio: 

Bay Whitaker is a partner in the private practice, Sheffield Central Counselling, which offers a generalist service to a wide range of individuals in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, UK.
Bay is interested in work with trauma of various kinds.