Muriel Cooper
Psychologist in Mornington

Happiness and success

 
Drag racer spinning its wheels

My use of cars as a metaphor for our mental health began when some years ago a client had a series of dreams about a red car. In the first dream, her red car had broken down in the middle of nowhere and she couldn't get anyone to fix it. In the second dream, it was the same scenario but her battery had gone flat and again, she couldn't get anyone to fix it. We talked about these dreams and I made a few observations.

The car is often symbolic of us in dreams. Red is symbolic of the colour of blood and therefore of life. Her battery was flat. This indicated to me that her life was broken down and drained of energy. She was also very emotional and weepy, feeling overwhelmed and without direction. I made the point that her masculine side was absent and her feminine side was dominant and that perhaps she needed to plan to take some action in her life.

In the third dream, she was again driving the red car and it had once again broken down by the side of the road with a flat battery, but this time, her father arrived with a replacement battery, fixed the car and she was on her way.

This seemed to me a very elegant way for the unconscious to try to communicate to her that her masculine was back. She became more energetic and decisive, and took action to resolve her difficulties.

As time passed, I saw more and more similarities between us and the vehicles we drive. Here are some of them.

You expend too much energy, putting your foot flat to the floor and spinning your wheels.

We use up too much energy for very little result. It's like putting the gears in neutral and putting the 'pedal to the metal'. We use up all our fuel without getting anywhere. Or to paint another picture, we're like a huge drag racing car with giant wheels revving furiously blowing rubber smoke everywhere waiting for the light to turn green. Again we're using up our resources, fuel and rubber, for no result. In the case of the drag racing car, sometimes the car is so uncontrollable that when the light does turn green, the engine stalls or the vehicle swerves off the track.

Don't do this. Take care how your engine revs. Take the breath and slow down. Don't wear yourself/your engine out. Manage your stress.

You need your engine to idle fast enough to give you the power to take off.

  • If our engine idles too fast it wears out
  • If our engine idles too slow it cuts out

Sometimes our spark plugs aren't sparking or our fuel injectors aren't getting the fuel to our engine. Perhaps it's because we are depressed (see Are you stuck up the back of the cave?). Sometimes it's because we're bored or lonely. Our engine is idling so slowly we have no energy or motivation. Waiting around for something or someone to make us feel better probably will be a waste of time and energy. It's far better for us to get sparking again by taking action.

You might say "But I can't, I don't have the energy" – but we're not talking about running a drag car race here – we're just talking about getting enough spark to get you moving again, even just a little bit. What enlivens you? What gives you joy? What makes you feel even just a little bit better? Calling a friend is sparky, as it taking a short walk in the garden or around the block. Identify what is sparky for you.

You need your GPS to work, or 'Where's my Melways?'

We see the futility of doing 'donuts' burning rubber just going around in circles. We know that gets us nowhere. We need direction. When you feel aimless and lacking direction, it can feel like your compass is spinning or the GPS has lost the plot and we're about to drive off a cliff.

Getting your direction back often takes time and patience and it can really help to create a space to sit down and plan.

Make three columns and write down: Where/how am I now? Where do I want to be? How do I get there? Take small steps.

'The journey of a thousand miles starts with one step' - Lao Tzu

We're going too fast, the brakes have failed and we're out of control.

There are few things more destabilising to a human being than feeling out of control. A healthy sense of control is essential to our well-being. Often though, events seem to overtake us and here we are, careening down the side of the hill.

It is important to remember that whatever is happening outside of ourselves, we can control the way we react (or respond) to it. Panicking and running around in circles will only exacerbate your stress. Stop! Take a deep slow breath and centre yourself in the present; like pressing the reset button on your computer. Take more breaths if necessary.

Then identify what you can control and do your best to plan for it. Stop 'should'ing and 'must'ing, you can only do the best you can; practice worry control and don't ruminate. See Can worrying ever be good for you?

My transmission is broken, I can't change gears; I'm stuck.

Sometimes we're in the car that is our life and we try to put it in drive, or first gear and – nothing. We feel stuck. It seems we can't go forwards or backwards, and no amount of trying will help. This can result in a sense of extreme frustration. There is no way to get moving again.

Sometimes we just need to get out of the car and walk for a while; take a break from striving or fretting about the past or the future and just 'be'. We're not going anywhere right now so let's enjoy where we are. Relax, take a step back, be mindful, make a plan (see You need your GPS to work above), catch up with a friend and when you've done as much as you can – wait (see "First Aid": relief from Stress, Worrying and Intrusive Thoughts). Hopefully your direction will come. Talking it through with a friend or a counsellor can help, as can using a planning or problem-solving tool, like mind-mapping or the technique I outlined above.

Your windscreen washer's broken down and you can't see the road ahead.

If you can't see the road ahead, the first thing to do is pull over and take stock.

Fear of the future is the root of anxiety; worrying about what might happen. We see every possible disaster rather than focusing on the opportunities that life might present.

I think looking at the worst case scenario and working out a plan for it can be reassuring. Usually it's not going to mean the end of the world and not nearly as bad as you think.

Once you've done that, focusing on the best case scenario and visualising it regularly is usually the way to go.

Once you've done both of these things always bring yourself back to the present. In the present moment, usually not much is happening. Take a breath and reassure yourself.

You were speeding and you got a ticket, or you were parking and you got a ticket.

Going too fast can get you into trouble. Are you balanced? Are you going too fast in the fast lane? When we're preoccupied with getting places and getting things done, speeding can not only get you a fine, it can cause harm to yourself and others.

Self-evaluate and if you're speeding ask yourself how is it affecting you and your relationships? Take that breath and slow down. Remember the lane hoppers who weave in and out of the traffic are often the ones you catch up to at the traffic lights. Take it easy; more haste less speed.

On the other hand going too slow can cost you as well – so slow that you're not taking any action at all and you get a ticket for being in the same place for too long.

Not taking action can also cost you in life and in relationships. You knew you needed to spend more time with your partner or at your job, but you couldn't be bothered.

Perhaps the problem is procrastination which is often fear-based. You've made that thing, task, or 'difficult conversation' with a colleague or loved one so anxiety provoking and fearful that your survival brain just won't let you go there (see How to be an active procrastinator).
For whatever reason you're parked in that spot for too long, address it and take action.

You had a break down.

Now this is serious. You ran out of oil and your engine overcooked. The radiator blew up. You've put a con rod through the motor. You're not going anywhere.

Anyone who's been through a breakdown (we call it a 'stress' breakdown now, not a 'nervous' breakdown) will tell you that it's hell on wheels. There are few things in life that feel worse and usually professional help is required.

What is useful (as in all things) is to see it as temporary. Collapsing into the slough of despond and telling yourself your life is over is not the way to go. What is useful is to tell yourself:

  • "I am having a breakdown and it is because ..."
  • "I am worn out because ..."
  • "I am so hurt because ..."
  • "I am so guilty and shamed because ..."
  • "I am frustrated beyond belief because ..."
  • "I am so angry because ..."

Make an inventory of these feelings (preferably before you have the breakdown) and allow yourself to have these feelings. Name the feeling "This feeling I am feeling is ..." and when you have identified all the feelings and named them (write them down!) Then - let them go.

You could say after that "I am now letting go of these feelings to make room for healing and for better things to flow into my life"

Healing may take a long time.

It is far better to never let yourself have the breakdown in the first place. But having had it, know that radiators and engines can be fixed and you can even trade your car in for a better model. You will have to work on it but it will be worth it.

Being 'driven' – you can't switch off.

Ambition can cause this and so can conscientiousness. 'But it's my passion' you say. 'I have to pursue it and put all these hours in or not take a holiday'. Holidays are built in to our industrial award system because we know how important it is for us to take a break.

Or perhaps you've achieved the things you wanted to, having driven yourself to the max to get there, and then you find out that you can't stop. Your drive won't switch off. You feel constantly edgy, restless and nervous.

These symptoms can be caused by anxiety too, but sometimes the cause of the anxiety is that you can't switch off.

You might need professional help to do this and it might take time but it's extremely important. Drive equals stress and sometimes you need it and that's a good thing, but if it goes on too long, stress is very corrosive to the body and brain and can cause serious physical and mental health problems.

Learn how to switch off, or at least slow down.

Your tyres or battery are flat.

As my client with the red car dreams found out, there is nothing arcane about the symbology of this. You are worn out and you need time to charge your batteries again or get your tyres pumped up.

Vacations are important, as are time to self and stress management. It also helps to identify what is draining in your life and take action on it; a person, a job, a relationship. Taking action for change can be challenging and may drain you even more in the short term. It might even mean letting go of that person or that job, which can be very stressful. But in the long term you will be much better for it.

The change required may not be another person, job or environment, but may be a change required on an inner level. Again take time to make an inventory of mental habits or behaviours that are self-destructive and make a plan to change them. Get professional help if necessary. You will be glad you did. And as with my client with the red car dreams, learn to trust your intuition; your gut feelings, they seldom steer you wrong.

Road rage got you (yours or the other guys).

Driving the road of life as it is in the 21st century can be infuriating. Your vehicle lets you down or the other drivers on your road do things that drive you to distraction.

Do not react.

This is our biggest challenge as human beings. Responding not reacting is the key to a calm and peaceful life.

'Who cares?' could be our motto on the road of life. 'Who cares if they switch lanes?' 'Who cares if they cut me off?'

However, as previously discussed – not reacting and not taking action are two entirely different things. Take the breath, step back and plan your response, which could be to do something or to do nothing. But it's your choice and not a knee-jerk reaction.

No heater (too cold) no air conditioner (too hot) – your emotional temperature.

When our emotional temperature goes too high the result can be anger. We are irritable and lash out.

When our emotional temperature is too low, it can result in depression or apathy.

Self-awareness is the key. Notice if you are in the red zone (emotional temperature too high) or in the blue zone (depressed or apathetic) and take action to address it.

In the red zone? Take a deep breath, hold it for three, and then let it out slowly while taking a mental step back from the person or situation.

In the blue zone? Wait for a little while. We all have 'blue days' and they pass. Do what you can to make yourself comfortable in the meantime. But if one day turns into two or three, or a week, then get help.

Your vehicle is too noisy or too quiet.

Is your muffler worn out and making a lot of noise? Or is your sound system broken with no music and no news?

Too much noise is stressful and confusing. But then silence can stressful and confusing too. Getting just the right amount of noise in our life can be quite a balancing act.

Aim for a balance in life that sees your road as neither too busy nor too deserted.

Finally, remember what Helen Keller said,

"A bend in the road is not the end of the road, unless you fail to make the turn."

If your journey is too difficult and the road is too long, you might need to seek professional help.

Lifeline Australia - 13 11 14
Mensline Australia - 1300 78 99 78
Beyondblue - 1300 224 636
Suicideline Victoria - 1300 651 251
Suicide Call Back Service - 1300 659 467
Kids Helpline - 1800 551 800
Griefline Community and Family Services - 1300 845 745

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