Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder characterized by serious and sometimes debilitating symptoms. This anxiety disorder likely follows a traumatic situation or event, such as a severe accident, military combat, or abuse of any kind.
Many people struggling with PTSD don’t experience symptoms all the time. Usually, the symptoms are triggered, which can set off a variety of unpleasant feelings, reactions, or isolated events. These “triggers” vary greatly, from the sound of a car backfiring to a baby screaming to a particular smell, for example. Various triggers can cause someone with PTSD to react, and those sometimes begin with a certain memory.
When you come to learn what your triggers are, you are more apt to overcome them when they arise or even keep them from coming.
The Science Behind PTSD
When someone goes through something traumatic, their body goes into “fight, flight, or freeze” mode. The nervous system is hard-wired to do this, as it tries to keep us from danger. The brain will create a “hormonal cocktail” that will cause us to either fight off an attack, run for our safety, or we just freeze.
For example, if you see a bear pop out from behind a tree while you’re walking in the woods, your brain goes into action. Your heart rate increases. You become highly sensitive to your surroundings. Your brain puts you into the state of “flight, fight, or freeze” mode. You’re standing there, and within seconds you’ve got to decide what to do. Run? Fight? Stand still?
Regardless of what you do, that can be a traumatic experience, and your brain remembers incidents like that. If you choose to run away, within 30 minutes, your heart rate is back to normal, and you feel safe again. Your nervous system calms down.
That’s the way the brain functions.
However, with PTSD, your brain doesn’t forget that event very easily. Yes, the experience was traumatic at that moment. Now change the scenario: You’re in a sporting goods store a few months later, and they’ve got a taxidermied bear standing on two legs. You see that bear, and suddenly, you go into “panic mode.” Your heart rate increases and you’re in “fight, flight, or freeze” mode again – even though rationally you know that the dead, stuffed bear can’t hurt you.
This is a reaction attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder. It is a disorder that affects many people who have experienced various types of trauma.
PTSD triggers can produce a “flashback,” which is a memory of the original traumatic event. This flashback can generate the “panic mode” in the brain where the memory of the initial incident occurred, and instill in you the feeling of being back in that event when it happened.
A trigger will be anything that reminds you of that trauma. Often, triggers are associated with your five senses: smell, sound, sight, touch, or taste. It’s not necessarily the trigger that is dangerous, but the trigger can send your mind and body into a tailspin.
Here are some of the common PTSD triggers that people report:
A particular sound can cause your brain to remember your original trauma and go into “fight, flight, or freeze” mode. Common sounds may be a car backfiring, someone shouting in anger, screaming, a baby crying, a siren, a loud noise, a song, and so on.
A particular place can trigger you too, such as a dark room, a basement, a bar, a dark alley, the actual area the trauma occurred, as examples.
You may have a flashback if you taste something that reminds you of a traumatic event, such as alcohol or a particular food.
You might see someone that reminds you of the traumatic event, such as a police or fireman, or someone with an identifying characteristic like a beard or tattoo.
Some people are triggered by an anniversary date, such as the day the trauma occurred. For example, the day a family member died tragically could be a trigger.
Certain things can be triggers too, such as a wrecked car, rifle, fallen tree, and so on.
A particular emotional state, such as anxiety, depression, anger, loneliness, feeling abandoned, or vulnerability can be triggers too, as they can take you back to that time the original trauma occurred.
How to Recognize Triggers Before They Affect You
Some triggers you may be conscious of, but others might not be so obvious. You might steer clear of the obvious triggers, but the subtle ones are a bit tougher to avoid. Or, if you just don’t know what your triggers are, you experience having flashbacks and symptoms at a moment’s notice.
Begin by making a list of what types of things you know trigger you. Where are you or what kind of situation triggers you? How are you feeling? Think about internal and external triggers and write them down. Identify as many as you can, as this can help prevent you from experiencing some painful PTSD symptoms.
You can also see a qualified therapist who can help you identify triggers.
They can also help you learn how to manage them if and when they do pop up.
How to Cope With PTSD Triggers
Avoiding triggers is the best way to cope with them, but you may not always be able to avoid them. The first step to overcoming PTSD triggers is to learn what they are. The more you are aware of them, the more likely you can avoid them or apply techniques to overcome them if they do arise.
For example, if you know attending a party will trigger your anxiety and anxiety triggers your PTSD, it’s best to avoid parties. However, if you must go, you can learn anxiety-reduction techniques that might keep PTSD symptoms at bay. Working with a therapist can be very helpful.
There are healthy coping techniques for minimizing how PTSD triggers affect you, such as:
- Having a solid support foundation
- Mindfulness and/or meditation techniques
- Being able to self-soothe
- Relaxation techniques and yoga
- Deep breathing techniques
Learning these tools takes time and commitment, so the more familiar you are with them, the less of an impact PTSD will have on you. In addition, the less likely you will be to turn to unhealthy coping choices, such as using alcohol or drugs.
Create a Trigger Prevention Plan
If you experience PTSD triggers, create a prevention plan that includes them. Also, create a plan for how you can contend with them if they do arise. You might want to have a person in place to call for support or carry a list of coping techniques to pull out at any moment. Or, utilize smartphone apps that have certain songs, meditations, or podcasts, which are useful to you. A safety plan can certainly help manage PTSD symptoms.
PTSD and Drug Use
Sometimes those that struggle with PTSD turn to alcohol or drugs to try to contend with things like anxiety, depression, or other PTSD symptoms. This type of behavior can result in addiction, so it’s best to not look toward these for refuge.
If you’ve been drinking or using drugs to contend with PTSD, and feel as if you may be addicted, know that help is available to get free. Please give us a call today and allow us to help you know your options regarding recovery assistance. There’s no time like now to tackle addiction and/or PTSD issues. We’re here to help you create the best life you can for yourself, free from addiction and PTSD symptoms.