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Having a Car Gives me a Sense of Freedom and Safety with PTSD

From the time I got my first car, it gave me a sense of freedom, safety and self reliance. Being able to go where you want, when you want, is something that is really important when you have PTSD. Having a car lets you know that any time you are feeling unsafe in a situation, you can leave easily.

PTSD and Safety

When you have gone through a trauma and have PTSD, your nervous system goes into high alert. You may be hypervigilant to danger, and overanalyze every situation that you are in. You are more aware to cues of danger than most of the people around you, and you feel a deep need for safety.

According to Psych Central,

The nervous system is attempting to work as nature intended to protect life and keep a person safe by avoiding risk and danger. However, the impact of trauma often results in a lower level of tolerable emotional activity. When it takes very little stress to trigger unsafe thoughts, a trauma survivor may find it hard to tolerate new situations or experiences in life. They can miss out on relationships they want, or even simple pleasures that life has to offer. They are struggling just to get through the day without succumbing completely to their over-active nervous system.

When your nervous system has become dysregulated due to PTSD, you can easily feel unsafe in situations that others don't perceive as threatening. You may have a lot of difficulty adapting to even small changes (I do) and life can frequently feel unmanageable.

Learning to regulate your nervous system using therapy and coping skills can go a long way towards helping you feel safer in your skin. Therapy methods such as EMDR can help you reprocess your trauma. Practices like mindfulness, meditation, yoga, journaling and reciting affirmations can help too.

Fight/ Flight/ Freeze/ Fawn

When you are faced with a dangerous situation, you will typically react without putting in too much thought. This goes back to the nature of how our brains work. When you feel triggered, you use a part of your brain called the amygdala that causes you to react automatically. This part of the brain is activated prior to the prefrontal cortex, which controls your higher level thinking, such as coping skills.

According to WebMD,

Fight or flight is a well-known stress response that occurs when hormones are released in your body, prompting you to stay and fight or run and flee danger. If your body perceives itself to be in trouble, your system will work to keep you alive. 
Fight, flight, freeze, and fawn are a broader collection of natural bodily reactions to stressful, frightening, or dangerous events. This sympathetic nervous system response dates back to our ancestors coming face-to-face with dangerous animals. 

Basically, when we feel threatened, our brains are wired to react automatically before thinking. This causes us to react quickly and escape from danger. When you have chronically been exposed to stress because of trauma, these automatic responses are strengthened. You are always on high-alert for danger. When it comes, you automatically react without thinking.

If you have ever said or done something that you normally wouldn't when feeling "backed into a corner" then you are probably exhibiting this response.

In my experience with PTSD, my body, brain and nervous system have learned that yelling is usually a precursor to violence. Because of this, yelling puts me into high alert. My logical thinking goes out the window. All I can think about is how I can avoid being hurt. In a moment like this, I forget to have kindness, compassion or empathy for the other person.

According to Health, the four responses are described like this:

  • When your fight response becomes activated, your instinct is to cope with the perceived threat aggressively. This response physically affects your body by causing

  • A flight response triggers the urge to run away from the threat to try and save yourself. Similar to "fight" mode, a flight response can lead to a rush of adrenaline and increased heart rate as your body prepares to "run" away.

  • While flight and fight are both active stress responses that increase the biological activity in your body, freezing is your body’s way of shutting down. Like an animal might “play dead” while being hunted, people turn to “freeze” when it feels like fighting or fleeing isn’t an option

  • When it feels safer to be submissive and obedient than fight or flee, people may turn to the fawn stress response. Most similar to the freeze response, "fawning" causes someone to please and appease the needs of someone else, instead of prioritizing their own well-being. This response is common in abusive situations. For example, a child with an emotionally abusive parent might find that being agreeable is safer than fighting back.

These four responses are our mind and body's natural ways to prevent us from danger. They are defense mechanisms that allow us to get out of dangerous situations quickly. This is similar to what you may learn in how to handle an active shooter situation. The thing is, for a trauma survivor, there are a lot of situations that feel this way which may not actually be dangerous. Therapy can help us learn to cope.

Why a car makes me feel safe

Since I have spent quite a bit of my life in actual or perceived danger and have developed Complex PTSD, I often feel unsafe in my body and my surroundings. I am hypervigilant to even the smallest threat in my environment. Sometimes, even strangers yelling at each other on the opposite side of the street can be triggering for me.

If you have been through trauma yourself, you probably get it.

For me, a car gives me a sense of safety because if I am in a bad situation, I can get away without having to rely on others for help. I can jump in my car, lock the doors, and drive away without being easily followed. Then, I can seek out help and safety.

Typically, when I am in danger, my first response is flight. Knowing that my car is parked right outside lets me know that I can leave somewhere any time it becomes unsafe. This could be at work, on a blind date, at a concert, or anywhere else that I don't have control over the environment.

Knowing that I can safely exit any situation helps me to feel calm and self-reliant. If I encounter someone who is belligerent or threatening, I can leave. I don't have to wait for an Uber. I don't have to call for a ride. I don't have to overstay my welcome somewhere I am clearly unwanted.

Having a car helps me to set boundaries. When I was still talking to my narcissistic family, I knew that I could reliably leave an event at any time if things went sideways. I could honor my own needs, and not have to stay somewhere I was being treated in a hostile manner or degraded.

When you have to stay in a bad situation

If you are stuck somewhere where people are treating you in a hostile manner and you can't leave, then you are likely to go into a freeze or fawn response. This may happen to children in abusive homes, for example. As a child, you are stuck with your parents even if they mistreat you. So, you learn to keep the peace. You either emotionally shut down, or resort to people pleasing.

Although as adults we have more autonomy, if these behaviors are deeply ingrained during childhood, we may use these defense mechanisms automatically. This can keep us trapped in a cycle of abusive relationships that we don't know how to escape from.

When you don't learn in childhood that you can set boundaries that will be honored, it is difficult to learn this in adulthood. However, if you go to therapy and learn coping skills, one of the first will be setting boundaries in your relationships. You deserve to feel safe.

If you are in an abusive relationship, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.

If you are outside the US, you can find a list of international hotline numbers here.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline can assist you with safety planning and other additional resources. In addition to talk and chat services with a counselor, they also provide: Local resources, legal help, deaf services and Native American services. Talking to a professional can help you to determine next steps in your unique situation.

You always deserve to be safe

Safety is one of the most basic needs that all of us have as human beings. No matter what your life circumstances are, you deserve to feel safe. You deserve to be treated with respect and kindness by others. You deserve to have your needs met.

Finding ways to make yourself feel safe is an important step towards healing from PTSD. You can develop your own coping strategies, and safety plan for dangerous situations. As you do this, you will learn to feel safe in your body and mind. Then, you will feel more free in all that you do each day.

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