This month, we are pleased to introduce guest author Marie Scott who is a trained Cognitive Behavioral Therapist. She gives us her view on how CBT can help after a road traffic accident.

marie scott

CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) is becoming increasingly recognised as a psychotherapeutic intervention for a number of mental health issues. Recommended by the NHS as an effective therapy, public consciousness of CBT as a way of treating conditions such as anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorders and stress, amongst others, is rising. However, it can also be of great benefit in several lesser-known ways and one of these is helping people to recover from traumatic incidents, such as recovering from the physical and emotional effects of a road traffic accident. Not only is it helpful when managing the feelings of trauma and anxiety that can follow involvement in an accident on the road, but also for issues as wide-ranging as pain management and PTSD.

While CBT is becoming much more familiar as a term in recent years, many people are unaware of what it actually involves. CBT deals with changing an individual’s unhelpful or dysfunctional thoughts (or cognitions – hence the ‘cognitive’) which in turn changes the feelings and behaviours that stem from those thoughts. To illustrate, a person who suffers from anxious thoughts will find that they also experience a number of physical symptoms (for example, digestive disorders, heart palpitations or increased heart rate) and emotional symptoms (feelings of panic and dread or irritability) and will likely find that their behaviour changes as a result. They may become withdrawn or less able to take part in a fulfilling life. The process of CBT helps that person to examine those dysfunctional thoughts and replace them with realistic thoughts, ones that more accurately reflect the situation so that the feelings and behaviours also change in tandem. CBT isn’t about positive thinking, it’s about realistic thinking.

CBT and Anxiety

When dealing with the aftermath of a road traffic accident, very often the focus is on the physical after-effects so the very real emotional impact of an accident is frequently overlooked. But as most people who have been involved in a traffic accident can attest to, the emotional effects can be just as distressing. It isn’t uncommon to be troubled by feelings of stress and anxiety after an accident, and those feelings are not just confined to when travelling in a vehicle. Some people find that they can get over these feelings of stress and anxiety pretty easily, but for others these feelings can become an ingrained problem that impacts on their ability to lead a normal life. That is when CBT can be a useful tool. It’s perfectly normal to experience fearful thoughts after you have been in an accident, but those thoughts can become entrenched and stop you from living the life you used to lead before the accident. CBT can help to change those unhelpful and dysfunctional thoughts that arise after an accident so that they no longer have a negative emotional impact on you.

CBT and Trauma/ PTSD

Of course, feelings of anxiety can be common after being involved in a road traffic accident – after all, it is the very unpredictable and unsettling nature of an accident that gives rise to feelings of anxiety; that sense that awful, life-changing events can happen at any time without any warning. Anxiety is very often characterised by a sense of not being in control, and experiencing the sudden and unexpected intrusion of a road traffic accident can cause those feelings to arise, or intensify them if you are already susceptible to anxiety. But sometimes, feelings of anxiety after an accident are a symptom of something more deep-rooted like PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). It’s a misconception that PTSD can only result from being in an extraordinary situation like a warzone – in fact, anything that causes trauma can result in PTSD, a condition in which those feelings of trauma continue to resurface and cause havoc with one’s daily life. Road traffic accidents, medical catastrophes, being the victim of a crime – these are all the kinds of experiences that can lead to PTSD. CBT can help you to recover from PTSD by helping you to deal with the distressing emotions and memories that can blindside you. It can’t take those memories away from you but it can help prevent them from having the power to cause that emotional pain over and over again. A 1998 study (Bryant, Harvey, Dang Sackville and Basten) compared a five-session course of CBT to a course of counselling for people who had been involved in a road traffic accident in the USA and found that only 8% of those in the CBT group went on to develop PTSD compared with 83% of those who received the supportive counselling. This suggests that not only can CBT help road traffic accident survivors to recover from PTSD but can actually play a role in preventing it in the first instance.

CBT and Pain Management

So far, we’ve only touched on the ways that CBT can help you to recover emotionally after the trauma of a road traffic accident. A less familiar way that CBT can be utilised is in pain management. Although it can’t take the pain away, CBT can teach you the tools to allow you to manage your pain so that you are still able to cope with your day-to-day life while giving you the breathing space to heal and recover. To live with constant pain is exhausting, stressful and mood-lowering – finding a way of managing that pain can make a real positive difference to your life. CBT works on both the thoughts that underpin those feelings of stress and low mood, while also working on ways to manage your physical behaviour (making sure that you don’t rest too much, for example, or conversely doing too much when you feel well but ultimately leading to burnout).

Courses of CBT treatment usually last between 6 and 16 sessions, depending on the severity of your symptoms. It is intended to be a short-term therapy, which aims to teach you the tools you need to continue to improve once therapy has ended. It isn’t a long-term process that will leave you dealing with that aftermath indefinitely. You work with your therapist in a collaborative manner in practical, useful ways. CBT isn’t about wallowing in your misfortune – it is intended to help you move forward so that the rest of your life isn’t defined by the accident. It is active in nature, very often focusing on strengthening coping skills and problem-solving skills and should enable you to use those skills yourself in future to lessen the likelihood of relapse.

CBT can play a real solid role in helping people to recover their lives and their emotional and physical capabilities after involvement in a road traffic accident. Being involved in any kind of accident is an upsetting event to have to experience but the right kind of therapeutic help can make a huge difference in recovery so the long-term impact is lessened as much as is possible.

About Marie Scott

Marie is an experienced CBT and psychotherapist based in Nottinghamshire. She helps clients with issues ranging from depression, stress and anxiety to OCDs, PTSD and eating disorders, working with her clients to tailor an individual therapy programme suited to their particular circumstances.

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