The term ‘traumatic’ is sometimes used to mean ‘upsetting’ or ‘unpleasant,’ but for a psychologist it has a more specific meaning. A trauma refers to an experience so frightening or painful that a person does not want to remember or re-experience it. As a result, the sufferer may experience frightening symptoms, such as flashback or nightmares, and he or she will often avoid reminders of the trauma.
A good example is a car accident. In a serious accident, or sometimes in an accident that doesn’t seem to an outsider to be that serious, a driver or passenger can experience a variety of distressing emotions. It would not be at all surprising for someone to avoid driving on motorways or driving after dark. In addition, people may find that other areas of their lives are affected. Other painful events can cause similar effects. Some of the most traumatic experiences happen in childhood, leaving the victim feeling, as an adult, that he or she has been let down or betrayed by someone who should have cared for them. And grief, such as the loss of a loved one, can be especially traumatic. Victims of all types of trauma can also feel guilt, and perhaps feel responsible for something that was not, in fact, their fault.
Psychological treatment can’t undo the effects of an accident and painful experience, and it certainly can’t bring a loved one back. What it can do is help the sufferer to live with what happened, and hopefully to find new sources of satisfaction in life. People are often afraid to talk about traumatic events, but an experienced therapist can help the sufferer to open up, to deal with the feelings that result, and eventually to change the unhelpful behaviour patterns that the trauma has produced.