How the ‘Gas and Brake’ Analogy for PTSD Applies to My Life


A therapist of mine once quoted another individual who described post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as: “Trying to drive with one foot on the brake and one on the gas at the same time.” For me, this is truly a sentiment I can relate to when examining the feelings that arise on a daily, weekly and even long-term basis when attempting to properly manage the planning of my life. However, the analogy has helped me cope with the instability of my moods, cognitive function and socialization abilities when, seemingly out of nowhere, a trigger arises. I’ll give you some examples:

You want to go out with friends and so you make plans, pressing the accelerator. A massive wave of panic, anxiety and confusion wash over you like someone pulled the parking brake while you were driving down the highway, but somehow the excitement is still lingering in the background.

You’re excited to schedule with a new therapist, hoping to accelerate your progress, then the brakes slam as your PTSD is triggered causing mood instability, and you have to cancel. The excitement has now turned to anxiety about rescheduling and how you’ll be perceived.

You get excited about a new job, accelerating you towards a better quality of life. The day before your interview, your sleep is riddled with night terrors, and you can’t seem to construct a logical sentence as you fumble through meeting a stranger for the first time, totally exhausted. You hope you’ll get the job, but you worry the interviewer saw you at your worst.

These are examples of real cause and effect situations that many who struggle with their mental health face, and are relatable to many I’m sure. The “gas and brake” analogy I feel is particularly prevalent with PTSD. I’ll give you a few examples of my own, and then share with you some of the coping strategies that have been personally helpful.

I feel excitement and anxiety simultaneously, as I fall for the trap of long-term PTSD worst-case thinking. I’ve planned for a night out, and been excited for weeks, then the anxiety creeps in. Do I have a safe way to get home should a trigger arise? What if I get there and become uncomfortable; will my friends and loved ones blame themselves for my discomfort? Maybe I should use this time more productively, since I only feel this good from time-to-time… what about all the things I can get done around the house? I’m so excited to go out, but with all this anxiety, is it really a good idea?

I feel pain, depression and anxiety simultaneously on the day of a severe migraine brought on by prolonged stress. What did I do to deserve all this pain? How will I continue living if this gets any worse? What if my doctor isn’t willing to help me? Should I go to the ER, or will the added stress just make it worse? What if I see someone or something on the way to get treatment that triggers my mood and I’m unable to drive or communicate safely? Maybe it’s time to give up and just accept the depression, or maybe there’s hope for a solution nearby.

I’m driving down the road on a beautiful afternoon, enjoying my music and the scenery. I pass a location where my mind drifts to a trigger. I become instantly panicked, know I’m going to be late wherever I was going and have to pull over to collect myself. I feel restless and want to run and the adrenaline is coursing through my veins. I have to call someone to drive me home, because I’m not sure where I am or exactly how I got there… just minutes before, I was experiencing real happiness, and the brakes overcame the acceleration. Now I’m anxious and stressed that I inconvenienced someone else, but happy someone cares enough about me to intervene.

Some days, within the course of a few hours, I may experience excitement, anger, depression, anxiety, hopelessness, pain, confusion, frustration and possibly even return to excitement about life again. Sometimes it gets to the point that I’m afraid to meet new people or commit to any obligations because I just don’t know how I’ll feel that day. The guilt of canceled plans, missed appointments, thoughts of disappointing friends and loved ones, and underperforming at my job is always creeping in the back of my mind, telling me to give up.

After all, what will people judge me by? The days I was able to make it into the office, or the days I had to miss because of a disorder I have little to no control over?

Will people believe I was triggered, or had a panic attack, or assume I’m just flaky and can’t be considered reliable? What if this state continues, and I’m never able to explain? Even worse, what if they aren’t able to understand?

If I’m having to sacrifice so much of my energy to keep myself alive and safe, how can I ever achieve any of my goals in life? If not, what’s the point of continuing with all this pain?

The answer for me is simply to keep going. I have to trust that people will remember me by my best days, and care enough about me to forgive my worst.

PTSD lies to me on a regular basis. My destruction of plans and ideas for the future is motivated by feelings and events that may or may not come to pass, but more importantly, they certainly won’t be as horrible as the outcome my brain creates. I positively reinforce that people do care about me, or they wouldn’t be in my life. It also stands to reason that if I love and respect those people and they stay, they must see something in me I can’t always see in myself. The wonder of it all is that I don’t have to — I just have to try to keep my foot off the brake as much as I can. I have to accept my responsibility to both control the outcome and to let go when it’s out of my hands; I must let others do what they will and make my health and happiness my first priority.

PTSD is often debilitating, but what life will I have lived if I give up hope? I have to keep trying. I often don’t know where I’m going, I often blow work opportunities, regret missing social events, torture myself over things in life I’ll probably never get to experience, feel horrible guilt about missing doctor’s appointments and torture myself about whether to try to increase my coping skills or “give in” and go to the ER.

We, as a community, must continue to attempt to explain these experiences as best we can to the general public, while balancing an acceptance some people just aren’t able to understand. We owe it to each other and to all of society to continue to show the world that life is not an equivalent experience for all, but the emotions we feel are the same for all of humanity.

The misperceptions are not my fault or yours. The internal battle of frustration when a well-practiced coping skill suddenly isn’t working is a feeling we don’t have to fight alone. The anger when someone asks, “What caused your PTSD?” in a social setting is something we must talk about amongst ourselves, and with those we care about. We must continue sharing with each other, continue our deep breathing, positive reinforcement, guided meditation, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), medications or whatever coping skills have proven to work, over and over, to prove we won’t let our quality of life be defined by four letters. The negative thinking will pass, the panic will fade, the depression lies, and anxiety is just overthinking what we can’t control. Don’t give in. Give advice to others to make some good out of the struggle.

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” — Winston Churchill

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Photo by Mubariz Mehdizadeh on Unsplash


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