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Managing PTSD Triggers: How to Cope and Heal

by | May 3, 2023 | Mental Health, PTSD | 0 comments

Have you ever experienced something that shook you to your very core? Maybe it was the sheer, unstoppable force of a natural disaster or the sudden, unexpected impact of an accident. Perhaps it was something more personal, like a violation of your boundaries or a physically hurtful experience. These are the kinds of experiences that can leave a lasting imprint on one’s psyche, and shape their identity and how they feel about their own safety. We generally refer to these experiences as ‘trauma’, characterized by feelings of intense fear, helplessness, or terror.

Our minds are generally resilient enough to process the distress and anxiety after a traumatic event. Some people, however, find these feelings persisting for months or even years. In such a scenario, the person possibly has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Understanding Triggers

A trigger is like a spark that can ignite a memory of a traumatic event or part of it. It then sets off a chain reaction in the mind and body. When one encounters a trigger, it can feel like the memories and thoughts associated with the trauma are suddenly rushing back to them.

At that moment, the lines demarcating the past and the present start to blur. The memory and sensation of the trauma start feeling real and present as if one were reliving the trauma.

Naturally, the mind perceives the trigger as a threat, and it can cause one’s defense mechanism to kick into overdrive. In such a vulnerable state, it is natural to feel overwhelmed, helpless, or even panicked.

People respond to triggers in different ways, which implies that the time they take to recover varies too. There is a window of tolerance — essentially the limit to which one can be in the emotional state where they feel stable, in control, and calm. One of the most deleterious effects of trauma is that it tends to shrink this window, leaving the person defenseless against the army of stressors, and helpless against the overwhelming negative emotions the stressors bring about. 

Since triggers are at the very core of PTSD and one of the chief ways that symptoms become noticeable, it becomes crucial to learn how to identify one’s triggers. Triggers that are identified can then be managed, and this becomes a critical part of the healing process.

Identifying Triggers

Identifying what are the triggers of one’s PTSD is a difficult task. It demands the mental fortitude to introspect and retain one’s composure when distressing thoughts arise. There exists a myriad of ways in techniques through which one can identify triggers, such as:

Paying Attention to Physical Reactions: One of the ways to unravel the elusive triggers is tuning into one’s body. Our bodies respond to fear just as well as our minds and leave physical cues for us to uncover. It’s important to be mindful of cues such as sweating, trembling, pounding heart, dizziness, and lightheadedness. To weed out the triggers, it’s vital to note when these reactions occur, and later try to deduce if they were abnormal reactions, given the circumstances, and if so, what might have caused them.

Keeping A Check on Emotions: Trauma is surprisingly adept at hijacking our thoughts and emotions. It can intrude into our lives and bring emotional turmoil and distress. There are signs one can identify when this happens; incessant negative ruminations, unbearable anxiety, intrusive thoughts or memories, and fear can help you trace the triggers. Staying vigilant of the mind and heart is essential to this strategy.

Being Attuned to All Stimuli: Some triggers can be very apparent from the outset. For example, if someone’s PTSD was induced by a car crash, witnessing another car crash or even hearing the screech of the tires can act as triggers, and engulf the person in sheer terror and emotional agony. Other triggers can hide beneath the cloak of subtlety, such as scents and sounds, and prove harder to pin down. A waft of smoke could evoke memories of being trapped in a fire; the sound of firecrackers or of a balloon popping might evoke haunting memories of gunfire. It’s important to note the place and surroundings when encountering such a trigger, as that might help one to uncover the real source.

Finding And Noting Patterns: Trauma can warp your perception of the world, making even the most mundane settings feel fraught with danger. Identifying triggers is an arduous and unpleasant process, but it can be made a bit easier by keeping a journal. Writing down triggers, such as feeling distressed upon seeing a person or visiting a place, can help identify patterns. Reading the journal and connecting the observed patterns can lead to the identification of triggers that might have been missed when considered in isolation.

Experiencing triggers is one of the defining features of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Most often, it is the triggers that cause symptoms — symptoms that appear to have no cause or relationship. Noticing and understanding these triggers is of great consequence in becoming adept at learning to manage the symptoms.

 

Coping with Triggers

PTSD is a well-researched condition and, consequently, there exists a plethora of treatment options for people suffering from PTSD. The various treatments aim to tackle the condition using different approaches, and this allows the individual to choose the treatment option that best suits their needs and expectations. Some of the prominent treatment options are:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: CBT is an approach to therapy that aims to illuminate and restructure the patterns of negative thinking and behavior that contribute to PTSD. This form of therapy is characterized by its focus on identifying and dismantling the cognitive distortions that prevent individuals from being able to cope with their traumatic experiences. This can involve exposure therapy, where individuals are gradually exposed to their triggers in a safe and controlled environment, allowing them to desensitize to them over time.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing: EMDR is an innovative therapeutic approach that involves the use of eye movements, hand taps, and other forms of bilateral stimulation while recalling traumatic memories. This therapy operates on the premise that traumatic memories can become “stuck” in the brain. By stimulating the left and right hemispheres of the brain, the mind can reprocess these memories, thus reducing the negative emotional and physiological responses. This therapy is particularly helpful for individuals who have difficulty in talking about their traumatic experiences.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy: DBT is an approach that emphasizes the cultivation of some important skills such as mindfulness, emotional regulation, interpersonal effectiveness, and distress tolerance. This therapy is predicated on the belief that many of the difficulties associated with PTSD can be traced back to not having been able to develop enough of these core skills and that by practicing them in a supportive environment, individuals can learn to manage their symptoms in a more constructive way.

Psychodynamic Therapy: Psychodynamic therapy is a form of talk therapy that seeks to delve beneath the surface-level symptoms of PTSD to uncover the deeper psychological forces at play. It emphasizes exploring the unconscious and past experiences, in a safe and supportive environment and with the guidance of the therapist, to reveal new insights and understanding about the individual’s current triggers and symptoms. It can involve dissecting the patterns of behavior and relationships that may have contributed to the development of PTSD.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: ACT is a form of therapy that focuses on helping individuals cultivate psychological flexibility and develop a sense of acceptance for the present moment. The goal is to use acceptance as a way of dealing with the negative feelings, thoughts, or circumstances that the individual with PTSD tries to vehemently avoid. By embracing negative emotions as simply a part of life, identifying one’s core values and goals, and committing to upholding these values and actively pursuing these goals, one can lead their life with grace and resilience.

Concluding Thoughts

Identifying triggers can be an arduous, and even gut-wrenching process, but it is a salient and necessary step in overcoming and healing from PTSD. And it is not a journey one has to take alone. The support of loved ones and the guidance of a therapist can be immensely beneficial when dealing with the emotional turmoil inflicted by PTSD. With the help of a mental health professional, you can develop strategies to cope with this condition. A therapist can also ascertain if medication can be of help, as PTSD can also be accompanied by other mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and insomnia. In such cases, antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications can significantly aid the healing process.

New Dimensions Can Help!

If you are struggling with PTSD, anxiety, depression, or other mental health or substance abuse issues, New Dimensions can help.  New Dimensions provides Partial Hospitalization (PHP) and Intensive Outpatient Treatment (IOP) for adolescents and adults.  We have locations in Katy, The Woodlands, and Houston, Texas.  We also offer online virtual intensive outpatient treatment for individuals who reside within the State of Texas.  To learn more, visit our website at www.nddtreatment.com or call us at 800-685-9796.  You can also learn about individual and family therapy services by visiting www.mhthrive.com