Ever Since My Accident, I Can Barely Go Near a Car. Help!

A few years ago, I was in a bad car accident. I was comatose for two days and hospitalized for three weeks, and when I got out I found that I was afraid to be anywhere near a car. I refuse to get behind the wheel, and I can barely stand to be a passenger, and even then I feel like I need meds to get myself through it. Just going down the road to the store is a major undertaking. My breathing goes haywire and I sweat profusely. People keep telling me this will all fade for me, that I’ll one day be able to drive again and feel OK about it, but there’s no way. There’s just … no way! I don’t see it. Not without major help, anyway. What kind of help do I need? Am I a lost cause? I know it’s all in my head, but my head feels like an awful scary place anymore. —Absolute Wreck
Dear Absolute Wreck,

I am so sorry that you had this frightening experience, which clearly had a profound effect on you. As you well know, neither your fears nor your symptoms will just “fade away” without help; they need to be taken seriously. Although you may be feeling alone and lost, you are definitely not a “lost cause.” You have real problems that will get better with the right kind of treatment. I’ll try to give you a few step-by-step ideas which I hope will make things less confusing for you.

I would start with your body by ruling out any physical causes for your distress. I don’t know what your medical status is now, but I would arrange for a thorough general checkup and then a consultation with a neurologist or specialist in brain injury to make sure there is no physical trauma affecting your state of being. You were in a coma for two days, and that makes me wonder about the possible aftereffects of traumatic brain injury.

Bad car accidents can result in posttraumatic stress, and you show some of the symptoms—the “haywire” breathing and “profuse” sweats you mention in your letter. You also avoid driving and feel terrified as a passenger in a car, and I wonder if you experience any other symptoms, such as flashbacks or nightmares, difficulty falling asleep, feelings of detachment from others, and numbness.

I gather from your letter that you are, in fact, taking medication but it is not helping, or not helping enough. This should be taken up with the prescribing physician. I hope that the prescribing physician is a psychiatrist trained to work with these issues—it is most important that you work with someone who is experienced in treating trauma or PTSD. Perhaps you have been prescribed antidepressants, which may make you feel less sad and worried but do not treat the causes of PTSD.

Here are some suggestions as to how you might find help:

  1. Talk therapy with a skilled therapist (social worker, mental health counselor, psychologist, psychotherapist, psychoanalyst) who specializes in treatment of PTSD.
  2. Family therapy to help people close to you understand what you’re going through.
  3. Therapy interventions that have been found helpful specifically for the treatment of PTSD, such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy; EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy with rhythmic left-right stimulation, either with eye movements, hand taps, or sounds to “unfreeze” the brain, which cannot stop reacting to stress); and yoga therapy, which can help people become less stressed and anxious.

You might consider combining therapies, if possible—for example, working with a talk therapist who can be your advocate and help guide you through the other choices.

Thank you very much for writing; I hope we were able to give you some help.

Take care,
Lynn

Lynn Somerstein
Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT is a Manhattan-based, licensed psychotherapist with more than 30 years in private practice. She is also a yoga teacher and student of Ayuveda—the Indian science of wellness. Her main interest is in helping people find healthy ways of living, loving, and working in the particular combination that works best for them, connecting to their deepest energic source so their full range of abilities can be expressed. Lynn's specialty is understanding and alleviating anxiety and depression.
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  • Collin

    Collin

    January 17th, 2014 at 2:22 PM

    Hello MOm? Is that you writing? because this sounds exactly like my mom, she was in a wreck I guess about 10 years ago, not her fault, but I am not sure that she has driven five times since then. I think that she has developed this weird phobia about driving now, that if she drives she is going to get into an accident even though she really wasn’t hurt at all, just the car. I want to know how to help her but I guess we all just kind of laugh it off and make a little bit of fum of her fear which I know logically can’t make her feel good and isn’t doing anything to help her overcome what is driving this fear in her.

  • ellie

    ellie

    January 18th, 2014 at 8:26 AM

    are u open to seeing someone for counseling because I think that u might need that little extra push to get u back on the road again to and to feel comfy with it

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    January 18th, 2014 at 9:40 AM

    Hi Collin,
    YEs, it’s me MOm. (Not really, just making believe.) I am so scared and ashamed and angry that no one believes me or really wants to help, but when I ran across your message I saw that you truly concerned.
    I’m scared to go to therapy too, but maybe I could try it with your help.

  • marley

    marley

    January 18th, 2014 at 3:28 PM

    It will take time and small steps for you to find that healing. It is no wonder that you feel so hesitant right now, you went through something that was very traumatic and affected you very deeply.

  • Zoe

    Zoe

    January 24th, 2014 at 11:46 AM

    Its too bad that you don’t live in a large metro area because if that were the case you could generally find public transportation available no matter where you needed to go. But if that isn’t possible where you live then maybe there are some other people who could give you a ride places when you need one until you feel a little more comfortable driving again.

  • Kathleen Brown McNally, LCSW

    Kathleen Brown McNally, LCSW

    February 15th, 2014 at 12:29 PM

    What a terrifying experience. First it’s important to know that what you are experiencing is definitely not “all in your head.” The fear you are carrying is in your nervous system, which was activated with a threat response at the time of your accident and hasn’t been able to complete the response cycle and return to regulation. There is most definitely help for you. EMDR was mentioned, and I strongly encourage you to explore Somatic Experiencing as a way to help your body release the trauma energy that still fuels your fear. There is no need to continue to suffer and your intuitive sense that this will not all just fade for you is right. Certainly some of what you’re experiencing will fade with time, but we know that we need to work with the body to free you from long term effects. I wish you healing.

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