Humans are like cars

by Kelly Brealey 5 months ago in therapy

And how trauma impacts our vehicles.

Humans are like cars
Pic credit: Hassan Ouajbir

As humans, we arent dissimilar to a motor vehicle.

We have an engine. This also consists of our onboard computer (the brain), the fuel tank (our stomach), and all of the electricals (our neural network).

We also have sensors (our nerves) and data (our emotions, sights, smells, tastes, and sensations) which informs the onboard computer what is happening in the vehicle at any given moment.

In order for our vehicle to move, we have our transmission; our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). Autonomic is another way of saying our transmission is automatic, and it decides which "gear" we operate in and when.

The ANS also consists of two pedals. The first, is the accelerator. This is our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). This is the pedal that makes us move!

When our onboard computer detects danger via our sensors, it automatically engages the accelerator to get us moving in one way or another (fight, or flight). For our bodies, this is actioned by a fast heart rate, rapid breathing, and a host of other physical identifiers.

Just for a moment, imagine that whilst you are driving, you inadvertently run a red light and end up in the middle of a busy intersection. Cars are coming at you from all directions. Your sensors tell your onboard computer that you are in imminent danger; it sends a message to the accelerator which engages in order to get you out of that dangerous situation as quickly as possible!

Sure, speeding isn't the best option, but when it comes to safety, the repsonse needs to be swift and automatic! Our human-vehicles are built for safety, and in fact, have the highest safety rating of any other species.

But there is an other aspect to safety, and that's the ability to stop when we need to, or to slow down.

The pedal responsible for slowing us down is the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS); this is the brake. Again, for our human-vehicle, this is actioned by the slowing of our heart rate and breathing.

Usually, our "manufacturers" (parents) give us the technology of being able to utilise our onboard computer to discern when our sensors are telling us there is danger, or when situations are safe. Sadly, not in all cases.

And when we go for driving lessons (life lessons), we learn when we need to use the accelerator to get us out of danger, when we need to slow down to avoid danger, and when we need to stop. This knowledge is the way our vehicles are supposed to operate, and do so, when it detects safety.

For some people, however, when we experiene trauma our onboard computers can experience a glitch, leaving our accelerator stuck in the "go" position.

On a side note, can you imagine how much fuel you'd go through, not to mention the wear and tear, if you were to drive at full speed everywhere you went? Never stopping for a service, or to replace the severely worn tyres, exisitng on cheap fuels or running around with a perpetually empty tank?

No wonder trauma survivors are so tired and suffer from many physical ailments.

The impact of trauma may make us forget how to find and apply the brakes. In some cases, we may have never learned how to use the brakes in the first place. It can also be possible that we become aggressive drivers (raod ragers) who don't want to use the brakes - we feel safer on the roads when we drive aggressively because it sends a message to others.

And in serious cases, through no fault of our own, we may decide that for our own sake we aren't safe to operate our vehicle and decide we no longer want to get behind the wheel.

When a trauma survivor chooses to partner with me, the very first thing we do together is learn where their brakes are, and how to apply them. When we both feel that we have the basics of safety established, we then move to learning when to appropriately use the accelerator, and when to appropriately apply the brakes.

This is THE PRIMARY objective of our first session together, well before we start heading toward our destination (dealing with our past and then moving toward their future).

I need to know that you are safe behind the wheel, but most importantly, YOU need to know you are safe behind the wheel. Trauma threatens our entire sense of safety, including and especially, our sense of being able to keep ourselves safe. Constantly having our foot flat to the floor on the accelerator can leave us feeling as though we are out of control, which further exacerbates the feelings of being unsafe.

If my clients can't feel safe behind the wheel of their vehicle, they will forever remain a passive passenger in their own lives, and may never reach the destination they so desperately desire and deserve.

Are you ready to get your vehicle off of cruise control and take back the wheel? Kelly is a coach, clinical hypnotherapist and counsellor who specialises in trauma and mental wellness. With lived experience, she undertands the unique struggles of those who have survived, and endure with the physical and psychological impacts of trauma. She helps her clients understand how their "car" was built so that they can then get maximum performance from it, and educates and refines the operating manual, ensuring the best ride possible for each individual vehicle.

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Kelly Brealey
Kelly Brealey
Read next: Never In the Cover of Night
Kelly Brealey

Trauma survivor, domestic violence escapee, Bipolar & CPTSD thriver, and mental wellness warrior.

See all posts by Kelly Brealey