PTSD and Driving Don’t Mix Well
My Mom recently bought me a car (on June 16th to be exact). So I’ve had it now for a month and a half. I’ve been driving more frequently in the last week (since boyfriend aka chauffeur is away) and I noticed I was developing a fear of driving. This is because the PTSD makes me focus on and exaggerate anything that is potentially dangerous about anything.
So about every other time I drive I make some kind of mistake. I pulled out too fast on a left turn somehow oblivious of the entire time space continuum and how it operates. I almost ran into someone changing lanes on the highway because of focusing so intently on all other aspects of changing lanes besides whether someone else was there. I didn’t see someone turning left into the street from the other side when turning right and almost hit them.
This is because of the “Body Oblivion Issues” of PTSD. The mind and body are completely disconnected. This is also called dissociation. This makes operating within the physical laws of the universe a challenge.
But there are other aspects of PTSD that make driving a challenge as well. The tendency to be highly stressed leads to tunnel vision, in which objects in the periphery, and objects in general actually, are not seen because they are outside the area of intense focus. Also something about the motion of the road can become trance-inducing and at moments I feel my mind is slipping into a trance and have to try really hard to stay present and connected to the car.
There is probably an entire long list of ways a brain that has been under extreme stress for 8 years will have developed different ways of perceiving spatial and temporal reality that are maladaptive to driving two tons of metal around amongst a bunch of other large masses of metal also moving at high speeds. Perhaps I will research that someday.
Whenever these near accidents happen it’s always a huge surprise to me. For example, I literally did not see the person pulling into the road the other day until they were right in front of me. And I was even deliberately looking for them because usually someone is making a left turn right there. I never have the slightest idea how these things happen and I always get home incredibly relieved to not have gotten in an accident. I try so hard to be super, super, super careful when driving so how can these things keep happening? This not having a clue what is happening leads to a sense of complete helplessness, as if the Hand of God is tossing these cars in front of me at the very instant I need to turn and they were literally not there a second ago.
There must be some pretty strange perceptual distortions happening. I mean, one time it could have been a blind spot in the car that I have not completely adapted to yet. But every time? I’m not so sure about that.
Turns Out, My PTSD is Expanding its Territory (!)
This whole thing is leading to a huge phobia or paranoia about driving. This is both because of the sense of it being done to me / feeling helpless as well as just the way the brain operates on PTSD. You see, my mind focuses on these mishaps. It exaggerates them to be larger than they actually are. It fixates on the life-threatening nature of them and now I’m developing a fear of driving. Of course my mind never remembers any of the times driving was uneventful, safe and done well. The result is that driving is now becoming a trigger for PTSD symptoms.
But wait – driving was never part of my PTSD. I was never in a car accident that caused me trauma. So I guess this means my PTSD is expanding its territory to new areas of my life now. It’s out of control! It’s unstoppable! It’s like a fungus! Or a plague of the mind or something.
I was discussing this phenomenon of PTSD expanding its territory with a friend and I realized that PTSD expands from one experience to more experiences because that’s it’s inherent nature. It wires the brain to respond to similar situations with terror, as well as to the terror with more terror, which would naturally result in the expansion of it’s territory. My friend gave an example of a one year old girl who injured herself accidentally. She reacted by becoming terrified and shaking for a long time. Now, anything that is sudden, unexpected and/or painful triggers the same terror. Then the fear of the fear multiplies the fear. This is how her brain became wired; it’s not that she’s a “crybaby” or something as she was perfectly confident, adventurous and resilient prior to the incident. So now falling down, certain sudden loud noises, anything involving pain and several other types of events trigger an exaggerated fear response even though they are not the same exact injury.
I would guess that this multiplication of fears is actually what turns a Post Traumatic Stress Injury into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – transforming a psychological or psychic (pertaining to the mind/psyche) injury into a mental illness. If you can catch it before it multiplies, it may be considered a mental injury that has healed up. If it multiplies, it’s a mental illness that was caused by a psychic injury. PTSD that has become chronic and has begun to take over more and more areas of life (getting worse rather than better) does fit the definition of mental illness: “Mental illnesses refer to disorders generally characterized by dysregulation of mood, thought, and/or behavior” (CDC)
Emailing A Friend Gave Me an Idea
So I recently contacted an old friend by email, a friend I had prior to getting PTSD. We had a short exchange. Not long after this email exchange, something dawned on me. I remembered how often I would drive long distances with her, or to meet her. I remembered driving from Berkeley out to Point Reyes and eating at a restaurant. I remembered driving someplace way down in the South Bay and picking up raw cat food (only a truly insane cat lover would travel hours just for a special cat food but that’s another story for another day). I remembered driving to Alameda, going through the tunnel and coming out the other side. Driving on 880 and 580 and navigating across lanes to exit. Believe me, driving around the San Francisco Bay Area is way more difficult than driving around Asheville, North Carolina. And I even drove in San Francisco which I would never recommend doing if you want to retain your sanity. But I never had any fear.
Well, in all fairness, I never had inexplicable near misses every time I drove either because my brain was pretty much operating normally, so there is also a real reason to be somewhat more cautious when driving now. But taking into account that my brain operates in a less-than-optimal way for driving now and simply driving a bit more slowly is one thing; developing a full blown phobia of driving because my brain is wired to react violently to even the slightest danger and create more and more neural pathways about that danger is a whole different ballgame.
That’s where this technique comes in. I noticed that when I directed my brain to focus on memories of driving with my friend way back before the traumatic events, it was like injecting a, like a cold icicle or cool ocean breeze directly into my brain. I suddenly relaxed and realized, “Hey, wait a minute, driving is not a huge life-threatening terrifying horror. There was a time when driving was like walking, a way to go somewhere else that is not right here.” It was disorienting and strange to feel ice injected into my hot and bothered brain like that but… maybe, just maybe, this injection thing could help me out.
So I got to thinking. What if I were to put myself back in time and try to adopt the brain of my past self? What if I tried to systematically and thoroughly remember how I perceived driving when driving was no big deal? What if I recruited my past self to intercept this development of a phobia of driving? Could it be possible to stop it in its tracks? Like Back to the Future – if I travel back in time will the present change?
I really don’t want to develop a phobia of driving. Phobias are no fun. Triggers are no fun. Being terrified is no fun. All the physiological panic and anxiety symptoms like shortness of breath, feeling faint, shaking and sweating are no fun. These are disabling symptoms and can really have a negative effect on life, restricting or preventing many activities and causing health-eroding stress, so I don’t want them expanding their territory.
Actually, I already thought of this technique a few years ago but it got lost in the huge pile of writing I have on my desk. The exercise is called “Using Your Past Self as a Healing Resource for PTSD.”
You see, I developed a type of amnesia after the traumatic events. My mind truly believes I actually died in 2007 and the current me is a brand new person. Even just yesterday I was thinking about someone I knew in the late 90s and thought, “She’s a Scorpio. I was a Scorpio too.” Then I thought, “Wait a minute, I still am a Scorpio… why did I think of myself in past tense, as if I died?” It’s because part of me really believes I literally died. I also had a dream once in which I was referencing this other, previous life that was not my life. I was certain it was another person’s life during that dream as well.
This amnesia is not exactly a complete blackout of all memories prior to 2007. It’s not a literal amnesia. I can remember things, but not in the sense that I – the current me – was present. I remember that something happened but I remember as if it happened to someone else. And I, the current me , was born on September 9, 2007. Of that, I feel certain.
The fact that I actually spontaneously brought up some memories after communicating with my friend is a sign that something I’m doing is working because before now that wouldn’t have happened. I generally have perceived California as a completely different planet, and the time before the traumas as pretty blank. I truly see North Carolina as it’s own universe, utterly different with nothing in it in any way similar to California, not the air, plants, sky – nothing. Total compartmentalization. If my mind is voluntarily offering up some memories of a compartmentalized time period – the time prior to the trauma – in a compartmentalized location – California – it means I’ve managed to calm it down for long enough for it to open up to some parts of my past. Very promising indeed.
Anyway, I got to thinking that my recovery could potentially be helped along if I were to deliberately dig around and pull up memories of my life before the traumas, to try to fill in all the empty places in my personality and sense of identity.
Memory, Identity and Trauma
This is actually a huge topic about the relationship between memory, identity and trauma.
How much of our identity is due to having access to memories of our past?
If suddenly one wipes out a large percent of their memories, does one retain their identity? What parts of identity are lost and what are retained?
What kinds of things constitute “identity;” what elements is it comprised of, and which of these elements are more affected by PTSD?
How much of the terror of PTSD would diminish if one were to re-connect themselves to memories of who they were before? Would those memories rekindle ways of thinking and perceiving (“normal” neural pathways) that would override the way the reptilian brain dominates the brain, reducing the fear states somewhat?
Does a small percent of the fear actually come directly from the sense of having lost one’s identity and not knowing who one is anymore?
And if PTSD has a tendency to migrate, to expand like a fungus or plague covering more and more life experiences with terror, would the brain similarly begin to apply a solution to many areas of itself, after that solution has been learnt in one area? For example, if the technique reset my response to driving, would it also have a natural tendency to migrate to reset my response to sex, to winter, to the month of April, to all the 25 plus triggers from boyfriend as well?
I don’t know the answers to all these questions. I’m just observing myself and throwing ideas out there.
Observations of My Brain Then and Now
When I sit in silence and observe my own brain, I notice that when I think about driving at the stage my brain is in right now, which is at the very beginning of developing a fear of driving, I feel:
- hot in the face
- tense stomach, shoulders and tense overall
- lost and confused
- there is heightened activity of fear and disorganization around my head; it is unsettled
- Besides the fear, I feel completely flat affect, a little bit of a sense of shock/deer in the headlights
- I feel on high alert for even the slightest hint of danger, like my skin is sensitive and I’m hypervigilant and super aware, makes everything around seem bright and intense
- the thought of driving makes me feel a little ill and faint, and I want to avoid it at all costs.
- I feel a sense of being above myself, of being outside myself.
When I try to remember what it was like before the traumas when I would think about driving, I feel:
- much more in my body, solid and contained – like the difference between air (me now, totally dissociated and scattered) and solid marble.
- a feeling of natural confidence I never noticed at the time since it was normal/baseline but now is gone
- a sense of trust that I also never noticed as it was baseline and now is completely gone as well
- my center is more in my stomach rather than where it is now which is actually nowhere. I don’t really have a center anymore; it feels like it became scattered outside me all over the place
- I feel much more of “me” is here, I feel my “self.”
- I feel so different! Like a totally different person! It’s really amazing to start to tap into this previous person – how they felt about things and saw the world.
I could go on but let’s take a look at the exercise.
So this exercise I wrote back in 2012 was about finding a way to systematically bring back to life this “different person.”
It is a general exercise that covers basically anything that comes up from your system as you do it. To target my current problem with driving, I would need to make a slightly modified version of this exercise that addresses one specific trigger only (the trigger being the activity of driving).
Also, in terms of C-PTSD/DTD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder/Developmental Trauma Disorder) the exercise would also need modifying. If the trauma occurred in childhood, you may not have any actual memories so rather than directly remember the self prior to the trauma, you will have to imagine what it probably was like to be that infant or toddler before the traumatic events began.
Let’s see what I came up with in 2012.
Exercise to Promote Integrity of Self and Identity: Using Your Past Self as a Healing Resource for PTSD
Synonyms (Alternate Titles):
Recuperation of Memories Key to Identity, Resurrection of Past Identity, Reactivation of Lost Memories Operant in Knowing One’s Identity, Re-opening Qualities of Being and Unique Characteristics of Self and Identity Buried after Trauma, Identity Reconditioning By Exposing Targeted Hidden Memories, Soul Retrieval (“soul retrieval” is a less scientific term but means the same thing)
Re-connecting with Memories; Re-connecting with Information held within Memories that include, among other things, Qualities of Being and Unique Characteristics related to Identity.
One bewildering aspect of PTSD is that everything that happened prior to the trauma can seem as if it has been wiped from memory, as if one now has a kind of partial amnesia. In addition, the powerful impact of nearing death may be interpreted by part of the mind as a true death of the previous identity. These things create a sense of being only part here, a feeling that a substantial portion of the self has gone missing. This exercise involves actively remembering things that happened during the time before the trauma in order to slowly and systematically bring portions of the self back home.
The goals of this exercise are to:
- connect with and bring back online into our personality and daily manifestations our own positive Qualities of Being such as confidence, power, certainty, self-assurance, trust, wholeness, intactness and strength. These are qualities that we used to have and are truly ours but are currently out of reach because of mental impairments due to trauma.
- connect with and bring back aspects of our personality, our Unique Characteristics, things that make us an individual and that we lost contact with due to the traumatic events.
- strengthen the memory muscle. It’s important to exercise the memory after trauma as memory skills can deteriorate significantly due to so frequently using the reptilian brain when we have PTSD.
- bring a feeling of more continuity to life, rather than the feeling of gashes/ruptures at the times of the traumas
- to actually remember good things from before the traumas that are completely buried. Remembering the past can be settling and reduce the sense of losing one’s sanity (we may feel we are losing our sanity because of having so many missing memories and having a missing identity)
Only do this when you feel ready. If you don’t feel ready, don’t do it. Do other exercises; there are plenty.
The way you know if you feel ready is: If you begin to spontaneously think about times in your life when you felt strong inside, and you begin to wonder about who that person was and what they were like. Also if you see others who are younger than you and you think – Oh my God, I used to be just like that! This means part of you is reaching out for your younger you and asking him or her for help. If this is the case, the younger you is probably delighted to offer the older you help, and may have many things to say to you!
Do this exercise with a therapist if you have a complex past and may unearth things you can’t handle on your own. This exercise may bring up loss/grief, for example, grief related to what you lost that you used to have. If there are traumas that occurred during the time periods you need to access you may bring those up unintentionally as well. If you sense there are important memories that may contain positive aspects of yourself you have lost access to, but you need complete assurance of being in a safe space to handle anything negative that might come up along with them, please bring the exercise to your therapist and do it with him or her.
While doing the steps, try to focus on positive experiences, but don’t repress any emotions. If the emotion of grief arises you can place it symbolically into a grief container and later do some healing exercises for grieving. If any difficult emotion comes up during this exercise, remember to do Pendulation.
If you ever feel really overwhelmed with emotion, stop the exercise and lie down and do some self-holding (Self-Hug, 5-Step Self-Holding), let the memories go for the moment and bring the exercise up with your therapist.
Helpful Enhancements for this Exercise:
- It’s helpful to view some photographs during this exercise if you need help remembering. But only one or two – don’t overwhelm yourself.
- Also, you may contact someone you knew from back then, just have a brief phone conversation or email exchange to bring you back into the time a little, and then do the exercise.
You may need to sleep for a long time afterwards, so prepare for this. And no driving for 4 hours afterwards.
Find a comfortable place to sit. Relax. Enter a meditative space, just sitting quietly, and think of a time period in your past before the traumatic events. It is good if it is a positive time, but it actually doesn’t have to be positive. The main criteria is that, even if you think that time period sucked in some ways, you still felt different in a number of fundamental, baseline ways you probably didn’t even notice at the time. For example you felt – somewhat more present, stronger, more trusting of the world, somewhat more intact, more grounded – than you do now.
- Put yourself back in that time. Describe what you were doing:
- Describe the setting with as much detail as possible:
- Describe the following:
- Feelings. In comparison to now, I felt…
- Sense of yourself. In comparison to now, I sensed that I was…
- Sense of the world. In comparison to now, I perceived that the world was…
- If focusing on a specific activity or trigger: With regards to the activity/trigger, in comparison to now I felt…
Remember: If you need to put emotions in containers to heal later during therapy, remember your:
- Grief Container
- Anger Container
- Other Emotions Container
- Dialogue with your Past Self:
- Tell your past self how you are doing now.
- Ask them if they have anything they would like to share with you to help you.
If you have the energy, you may deepen the exercise by doing steps 5 and 6:
5. Take a moment and notice two kinds of things you may remember that both relate to your identity:
- Qualities of Being such as confidence, strength, trust, power, certainty, self-assurance, wholeness, intactness and strength. Which Qualities of Being did you notice?
- Unique Characteristics such as “I am fond of mint ice cream,” ” I am a cat person,” “I am honest to a fault,” ” I like cross country skiing.” “I am a good big sister.” “I like x kind of humor.” and more profound and subtle things that make you who you are based on your accumulated decisions, skills, talents, preferences and life experiences. Which Unique Characteristics did you notice?
Each of these Qualities of Being and Unique Characteristics is like a packet of information, or a packet of memories, that we are accessing after being cut off from for it a period of time. It’s like a file in a computer that we lost and now have found and opened and discovered some software programs in there we had forgotten about but used to help us go about our lives in a different and more functional way.
6. Visualization: To finish this exercise, pick 1 Quality of Being and 1 Unique Characteristic. Visualize the Quality of Being and the Unique Characteristic as versions of you – so you will have 2 different “yous” standing in front of you. Observe what they wear and if they have anything they carry with them. Visualize the Quality of Being step into your present body. Visualize the Unique Characteristic step into your present body. Say, “I welcome you back into my life.”
After this exercise do not drive for a while. Rest and drink plenty of water.
Using Your Past Self as a Resource – Modified to Address One Problem Area
Do the exercise above but focus on one particular activity or trigger that is causing you a lot of problems. Find a time in the past when you did not experience any issues around this activity or trigger and do the exercise using a moment during this time.
Using Your Past Self as a Resource – Modified to Address Childhood Trauma
Do the exercise above but instead of remembering actual Qualities of Being and Unique Characteristics, use your imagination – active imagination, visualization – to open your mind to what you most likely were like before the traumas.
I highly recommend doing this with a therapist if you are accessing memories during childhood because it can become complicated rather quickly and having an experienced guide can be really crucial to how healing the experience is.
So, I think I’ll try this Exercise! I’m going to modify it for driving and see if it works! Wish me luck!
OK I did the exercise on August 5th, 2015, modified to focus on driving. It was extremely taxing and I fell asleep for about an hour in the middle, and then probably 3 hours afterwards.
Driving Changed Noticeably.
When I drove the next day, I felt different about driving. I was not afraid. I felt more grounded and more confident. Today I went out driving again and I spontaneously remembered the things my Past Self told me to do while driving, and I did them and they helped and again I felt more solid, more relaxed, and more natural. I could feel my brain shifting in how it perceives the physical road itself and even the landscape a tiny bit, as if is taking “real” things from the Past Me’s perceptions, and inserting them into this “fake” world of cardboard that I perceive now. Whenever I repeat a reminder my past self told me to, another fragment of the “real” world gets inserted, like a tiny whisper of a life in which the world was alive and I was alive overlaying this dead world in which I am dead.
My whole system feels strange. My stomach feels uncomfortable, as if I am in some kind of chemistry experiment with my Past Me. We’ve mixed some things up in a new way and now we’re waiting, watching the beaker, wondering what will happen next.
It does not feel like I am suddenly 100% back to how I was then. I feel like I’m touching something that I may lose hold of again, or that I may retain and I’m not sure what will happen. It feel like I can sense 5% of my Past Self now, which is great. It’s probably not realistic to expect me to somehow become 100% the person I was at this point; 5% is very helpful and I’m grateful for it.
After doing the exercise I feel a lot more cautious about recommending that others do this. I feel like it should come with the warning, “Don’t try this at home!” It was a challenge. I had to really actively keep myself from treading into any memory that was traumatic and I used those emotions containers a lot to keep my mind focused on the task at hand. I had to be a very firm guide to myself.
Feeling positive about my results.
Although I feel more cautious about putting this exercise out there, I am also feeling hopeful about it. I feel happy and pretty relieved because it seems like it was effective for me. I won’t be able to tell for a few months if it really worked or not but it has worked pretty well for two days now. One thing is – if I get really badly triggered by a bunch of other, stronger PTSD triggers, that could definitely erase the results because of how powerful those synaptic pathways are compared to these very new, very weak ones – so unfortunately the results may be temporary.
I had to go all the way back to before 5 months of age.
One thing that was a challenge while doing this exercise was that just going into the years right before 2007, for example 2002-2005, didn’t work. I got some very positive and helpful things out of that time period that have been key to the exercise succeeding on me so far, but there was still something that did not feel quite right. So I fell asleep and let my brain go into the dream state. When I woke up I realized I have to go back to between 0-5 months of age in order for this to work – so I had to do the exercise a second time to go back prior to childhood trauma, and then use my imagination to imagine what I was like and how I perceived the world (rather than memory). Once I went back to the Past Self of 0-5 months, it was monumentally taxing and energy consuming but I succeeded with what I wanted. As soon as I got the Statement out of that infant Past Self I fell asleep for a long time. I don’t know but I would guess 3 hours. The brain went into the dream state and probably sorted everything out during that time.
I was way too exhausted to do the “OPTIONAL” part of the exercise.
I am finding that listening to music is helping my brain integrate the new information. I’ve been listening to bands from the 70s and 80s really loud on Youtube which believe me I have never done. I don’t usually like Led Zeppelin and Kansas but I’ll do whatever my brain asks for right now. Best songs so far Sweet Child of Mine – Guns N Roses, Don’t Fear the Reaper – Blue Oyster Cult, Beds are Burning – Midnight Oil, Carry on Wayward Son – Kansas and Livin’ on a Prayer by Bon Jovi. Also I never ever listen to heavy metal music but Relentless Chaos by “Miss May I” is very good for this. Strange things are afoot… I think it’s just the rhythm my brain wants actually. Also having loud sound vibrations going into both ears. That’s probably one reason EMDR uses the rhythm of tapping your hands back and forth on your thighs (I had both a good and bad experience with EMDR but I always had positive experiences with the tapping part of EMDR and have used it along with various self-therapy processes). Listening to bands from the 90s is actually reminding me of particular times which is helpful as well but it’s helpful in a different way, more in the way that looking at photos can be helpful rather than the characteristics of the music itself.
Results may be temporary unless reinforced.
I think it would be positive for me to do this exercise again to reinforce it but I don’t think that that doing the whole exercise is necessary just to be able to drive normally. I feel like the dreaming time was a kind of integration of the settings changes I made to the driving files in my brain and so I feel pretty OK with how it turned out. I did not make any mistakes driving today or yesterday and felt like I had my “head on my shoulders” instead of floating around in the sky. I may have to write down my Past Self’s advice and post it in my car to keep it reinforced over time – probably that would be the best way because those are the key statements I need to keep focused on.
If I make some kind of mistake again while driving it might set off the fear response cascade again and in that case I will probably have to go back in and tweak the settings again. And as I mentioned earlier, if I go through a phase of extreme triggers that are directly related to the traumatic events, like if I have to go to a doctor or anything remotely medical in nature, that would probably completely destroy the results. In that case I would have to do it over again.
But for now, I’m driving like a normal person! I have become tentatively reacquainted with the temporal and spatial laws of the universe! To any Ashevillians out there – I am happy to announce I am no longer a hazard when out on the road. You’re lucky I like to play with my brain. 🙂
I do intend to research this subject much more and find more books and articles. In this post I mostly just wanted to share what I’ve found out so far by making myself my own guinea pig.
About Soul Retrieval
There is interesting information out there about “soul retrieval,” which I would like to take a look at and try to interpret in a scientific way as it pertains to memory and the brain. I prefer to be as scientific as possible so I am not fond of the term “soul retrieval.” I did read a book about it once and it does work for people but I found the book too vague with language. People have different ways they think about the word “soul.” If you use words like memory, information, identity, personality, skills and traits, the messages are much more specific and less open to a variety of interpretations. Being more specific and scientific with language actually opens up more possibilities in terms of research and application because it allows for greater and more complex understanding.
Further Research is Needed:
- How The Brain on PTSD Affects Driving – Perceptual Changes, Body Reaction Time, Dissociation, Stress Hormones, Tunnel Vision, Spatial Relationships, Temporal Relationships, Susceptibility to Trance States, Triggers, Flashbacks etc.
- How Trauma Affects Memory
- How Memory Affects Identity
- Do Compartmentalized Memories Make it Difficult to Retain Skills? Do skills not get transferred from one place and time to another? Does loss of skills affect identity?
- How is Amnesia from PTSD Different from Other Kinds of Amnesia? What causes it?
- Using the Dream State within PTSD Therapies and Exercises. When working with memories, does going into the dream state help processing and integration and make the healing more effective?
Heidi Hanson is an artist and writer in Asheville, North Carolina currently working on an illustrated book chronicling her journey healing from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.