Road Traffic Accidents: How Counselling Can Help

After a road accident it is not unusual for people to experience feelings of anxiety, tearfulness, short-temper, and have difficulties sleeping.  These and similar issues can last for a long time after the accident.  If these problems persist, it may indicate psychological trauma, which, unless the person actively works through their difficulties, may develop into post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): this condition can be quite devastating to people’s lives..

When one client contacted a counsellor, three months after her accident, these were just some of the problems she was struggling with.  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.” 

Unfortunately, unless family and friends have experienced psychological trauma themselves, they are unlikely to appreciate just how debilitating it can be - even if, like this client, the accident victim was physically unharmed.  It is easy to assume that the victim will soon feel back to normal again. 

However, if they are still experiencing anxiety attacks and feeling tearful, accident survivors may tend to back away from friends and social groups.  Some survivors say that they begin to feel as if they have lost themselves: “This isn’t me!” the client described said.  The feelings of having lost oneself, and of life after the event feeling completely different are signals that the client may be suffering from traumatic stress,

The word ‘Trauma’ is used to mean different things in different contexts.  For example, physical trauma generally means a serious injury.  Also, in conversation we may describe events as ‘traumatic’ when they are just rather unpleasant.  However,  psychological trauma refers to a series of quite specific danger alert processes that the brain and body go through in times of sudden threat, such as a car accident.  These processes can get ‘stuck’ in a state of alert that stays with people – potentially for a very long time..  And the ‘red alert’ state can, in trauma sufferers, become triggered easily by anything that may be a reminder of the accident: from the music that was playing at the time of the crash, to the weather conditions at the time or even the clothes you had one that day.   One client 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 people who have survived car crashes may want to avoid thinking about what happened, there is overwhelming research evidence to show that trauma victims benefit from talking about their experience, how they felt, how they feel, and what it has meant for them..  Unfortunately, they may be reluctant to talk to friends about the accident for various reasons.  Clients who have been in a car crash sometimes say that think that their friends have already heard enough about it.  Trauma sufferers often fear that talking about what has happened might make them feel weepyor angry – so they avoid the topic with friends and family because they don’t want to burden them with these emotions.

Counselling can make a huge difference to those suffering the emotional aftermath of a road traffic accident. The counselling session provides a safe space to talk about the continuing feelings of panic, short-temperedness, withdrawal or whatever else is happening for the survivor.   Although each person’s response to a road accident will of course be slightly different, there are general patterns that people tend to follow.  A counsellor can provide information about trauma and how it works on the brain and nervous system.  A counsellor can also help survivors to identifycoping strategies that work for them, and explore differeng ideas help progress through the trauma recovery process.  Without help, some people can stay traumatised, in a state of anxiety, for months or even years.  Even a short course of counselling can make a massive impact.  As one road accident client said after only 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.’ 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Sheffield, South Yorksire, S1 2DD
Written by Bay Whitaker, MBACP Accredited Counsellor: couples and individuals
Sheffield, South Yorksire, S1 2DD

I co-founded a successful private group practice in 2008, Sheffield Central Counselling.  I love this job because I am genuinely interested in my clients' experiences, and I know that counselling can transform people's lives.  It has been my privilege to be a small part of that process for...

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