For Robyn MacNeill, getting in the car was terrifying. She worried about other cars hitting her, especially in busy areas and at night, and it took everything she had to drive over the bridge to get from home to work.
Her anxiety had started immediately following a serious car accident. On a February night while driving home from work, a Ford F-250 pickup T-boned her car at 80 km/h, sending her vehicle across six lanes of traffic.
Robyn sustained a concussion, shoulder injury and abdominal bruising more painful than the C-section she had for her daughter’s birth. But honestly, she was lucky to be alive.
The Lasting Imprint of the Accident
The next day, Robyn’s doctor urged her to talk to a professional about the accident – something Robyn didn’t fully understand in the moment.
“My doctor said, ‘You’re going to need to speak to someone right away because of the severity of the accident,’” she recalls. “When she said I had to drive again, I burst into tears as I realized it was true.”
When she got into the car to ride home from the hospital, the reason behind her doctor’s advice became very clear.
“I had to sit in the back seat with my eyes closed all the way home,” she says. “Before February 16, 2017, I was a pretty logical and rational thinker, and had been able to manage anxiety and stress – and help others do so.”
She quickly discovered that driving on her own proved even scarier.
And when she tried to sleep at night, pain kept her awake. And even as that subsided, she still woke frequently throughout the night when, before, she had always slept well.
Self Regulation Therapy for Anxiety
Robyn had tried talk therapy in the past for previous anxiety, but had not found that it worked particularly well for her.
When she searched locally for someone to help her process the accident, she found a psychotherapist with a unique approach called Self Regulation Therapy (SRT).
Two Canadian neuropsychologists developed SRT based on theories and research on the nervous system’s response to trauma, explains Tara Miller, the psychotherapist that Robyn turned to for help.
“They developed this model that helps people get to the root of the problem, which is hyper-arousal in the nervous system,” Miller says. “Different techniques help regulate that and bring people back into a healthy baseline and out of fight or flight cycles.”
“Anxiety is normal,” Miller adds. “But fight or flight serves no evolutionary purpose right now.”
Miller explains that SRT does involve talk therapy, but always connects it back to where the individual feels it in the body. Most often, it’s used as a means to manage anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and additionally, the physical issues that can be related to those.
No More White-Knuckle Driving
Robyn found SRT very different from the traditional talk therapy she had experienced in the past. She learned new visualization and breathing practices in response to specific feelings of anxiety, and linked her thoughts to their physical manifestations such as tightness in the chest or shoulders.
“We repositioned how I think about things and how I experience them in my body,” Robyn explains. “The first time, I felt relief and a sense of comfort. I walked out with sense of calm.”
For driving, she took away tools to use when she’s in the most anxiety-provoking scenarios: on busy streets and being around other cars that she has no control over.
Over time, she worked through those fears and found ways to calm herself in the moment. Then, she found she could drive at night, cross the bridge and pass through the intersection where the accident happened – without white knuckles.
“I still have some anxiety about driving but not about those things,” she says. “I pushed myself hard. I wasn’t going to let this thing control me or be that person who was afraid to go out.”
For example, driving long distances still brings up fears that her car will careen off a cliff. She counters those feelings by imagining that the wheels are Schtickys (a super-sticky lint roller/cleaner) firmly rooted to the road.
She also learned how to change the script for the accident so that, when she talks about it, it doesn’t provoke an anxious, physical response.
Surprisingly, SRT additionally helped Robyn with the severe shoulder pain that remained after the crash. Miller walked her through a visualization that actually eased the pain.
In the course of working together, Miller also uncovered that Robyn still had resolved trauma around her grandfather’s death many years before, which they addressed as well.
In addition to various techniques, Miller urged Robyn to get out in nature whenever she felt particularly stressed.
“I recognized that nature is an immediate way to calm myself,” she says.
Other calming activities she’s found include watercolor painting, journaling and paddle boarding.
A Lifelong Tool to Manage Anxiety, Stress
Robyn spent five months in Self Regulation Therapy, and it’s changed her life. These days, she drives more easily and sleeps better.
She’s also found the tactics work as life’s inevitable stressful events come up.
“I learned how to change the script so I’m not getting an anxious, negative reaction to it,” she says. “Every time I run into something, I have an experience to look back to and know I can deal with it myself. I know how to calm myself, change the narrative and deal with stressful situations.”
Robyn’s a strong believer in SRT, but stresses that anyone trying it must be an active member of the process.
“I really wish more people were able to do SRT,” she says. “There are multiple benefits to it. But you have to trust that it will work.”
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