Post-traumatic stress disorder is estimated to affect between 7 and 8% of the U.S. population. It’s not limited to those who have experienced military combat and could very possibly be affecting your friends, family, and coworkers. Whether you or a loved one has been diagnosed with this potentially debilitating type of anxiety disorder, it’s important to know how to deal with PTSD triggers.
What Happens When PTSD Triggers Are Encountered?
It’s helpful to understand exactly what the response to PTSD triggers may be when learning how to appropriately deal with them. There are both internal and external triggers, some of which are easier to identify than others:
- Avoidance of certain objects or locations that remind them of the source of the trauma and may trigger other symptoms
- Derealization or detachment. An (often temporary) loss of touch with reality or an out-of-body experience
- Hypervigilance. Having an activated stress response without cause or being extremely startable by people, places, or objects that remind the person of the traumatic event
- Negative emotions such as guilt, depression, negative self-worth, or feeling socially isolated
- Recurring distressing memories that occur involuntarily in the form of flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, or bad dreams
Keep in mind that individuals diagnosed with PTSD may not present all of the above-listed symptoms. Children, for instance, have notably different PTSD symptoms than adults. Their cues will likely be behavioral, rather than verbal, or may appear as developmental delays. It’s important to recognize that in addition to having different triggers, they may react to those triggers differently as well.
Examples of Triggers
Triggers can be anything that reminds you of a traumatic event. These can be sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and even feelings that occurred before or after it happened.
- A person who resembles your abuser
- Witnessing abuse (e.g. from a news story or tv show)
- Seeing an object associated with the place of the traumatic event (e.g. a piece of furniture, certain holiday decor)
- Sounds associated with fear, pain, or anger (e.g. screaming, something breaking, a child crying)
- Sounds that were present at the time of the traumatic event (e.g. tornado warning sirens, screeching tires)
- Names of the people or places associated with the traumatic event
- Accents or tone of voice
Smell & Taste
- Those related directly to the traumatic event (e.g. gunpowder, blood)
- Those associated with an abuser (e.g. cologne)
- Action or object that resembles what occurred during the traumatic experience (e.g. A toy gun, a person running towards you)
- Physical touch similar to that of an abuser
- Panic at the thought of something unrelated, say public speaking, may recall panic experienced during the traumatic event
How to Deal with Triggers from Trauma
- Deep breathing
Sounds too simple to be true, but deep breathing has been proven to reduce stress and lower the levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) that floods the body during a PTSD trigger response. You can do it anytime, anywhere, and very importantly, it is subtle.
Meditation is a great way to practice mindfulness which can help you gain control over the intrusive thoughts that may occur due to a triggered PTSD response. Through meditation, which often involves elements of deep and intentional breathing, you can train yourself to focus your attention away from the trigger.
- Think positive
Easier said than done, but with practice, you may be able to overcome your instinctive fear response by reframing the triggering circumstance and thinking positive thoughts. It could be happy memories of a loved one, or anything else that provides a good distraction. Regular journaling can help you hone your gratitude.
- Focus on your senses
When nothing seems able to wrangle your thoughts away from panic or fear that may be rising, use grounding techniques to focus on the immediate present. Take the time to address each of your senses: things you see, feel, touch, smell, and taste.
One of the best ways to cope with PTSD triggers is to gain long-term control when exposed to them. Such skills can be achieved through different types of psychotherapy. Exposure therapy can help psychologically prepare you to encounter your triggers and reduce the severity of your response. Cognitive therapy works by dealing with the past, addressing negative memories, and helping you work through them in a healthy manner that can help you restructure how you recall the events that happened.
PTSD is a mental illness and medical condition that medication can help manage. While it may not cure you, prescription drugs may help manage the symptoms, making PTSD much less disruptive to your life. Talk to a mental health professional today.