PTSD Triggers: 8 ways to manage them
If you have PTSD, you probably have noticed that certain things will trigger or cue your symptoms. These may be internal cues such as a memory, a feeling, or a thought, but can also be external cues such as a smell, a sound, a physical sensation or seeing something. Triggers are things that have become psychologically and cognitively linked with the traumatic event and so will elicit the feelings of anxiety, anger, panic, or sadness that the original trauma caused. Triggers may also cause nightmares, flashbacks, intense sadness, panic attacks, increased startle response, or even violent behavior in some people. It is therefore often a part of therapy to increase awareness of a person’s individual triggers, increasing the person’s ability to recognize them, and improve their ability to cope when they are confronted with a trigger.
If a person doesn’t learn healthy ways of coping with triggers and their effects, they will often turn to less healthy ways of doing so. These might include emotional numbing, anger outbursts, alcohol or drug use, or excessive avoidance which will negatively affect the person’s ability to enjoy their life. At times it is very difficult for a person to recognize what exactly is triggering them and so therapy or family & friends might be helpful.
Below is a list of several things you might find helpful when being faced with a trigger. You may find that some will work better for you than others and so it is important to try several different methods to figure this out. It’s a very individual thing- what works for you may not work for anyone else. It’s also a good idea to have several different ones available because the effectiveness may vary by day or trigger.
A good idea is to make a plan. Include a list of your coping strategies, and the names and numbers of people to call for assistance. You can also include the 24-hour hotline number which is 1-800-273-8255. In fact, program that number into your phone right now so if you ever need it, it will be readily available for you. Once you’ve written out your plan, put it into your wallet, purse, or phone case so it will also be nearby and available to reference. You can also save it electronically by taking a pic or using a note-taking app. If you’re having a crisis, you don’t want to have to go looking for it.
And now the list:
1. Deep Breathing. This one is a no-brainer and should be the first thing tried by everyone. It’s easy to do and has so much research showing its effectiveness. If you don’t have a favorite deep breathing technique already, check out Dr. Weil here for his 4-7-8 method: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4nHX96aTxY0
2. Journaling. This can help you to identify, express, and process the feelings you are having from the trigger.
3. Call a trusted family member or friend. This person needs to be someone who is supportive and a good listener. If you call them and they give you unhelpful advice, skip the call to them. Of course, people often will say these sorts of things because they are feeling awkward and just don’t know what to say or do. If you think this is the situation, you can have a conversation with them when you are in a calm state of mind and teach them what it is you need from them. Most people genuinely want to help, but don’t know how.
4. Mindfulness exercises. One to try is to only think positive thoughts for 15 sec. Or another is to write down a narrative of when you were able to successfully cope with a similar stressful situation.
5. Weighted blanket. These will provide all-over sensory input and can be very calming. However, for some people, this can be triggering so it is important to know yourself and your particular triggers for your PTSD symptoms.
6. Coping thoughts. I know I’ve talked about this elsewhere in the blog, but this is a biggie. Our thoughts will often control our emotional response to events. So if you tell yourself things like, “I can’t cope with this” or “This is too much”, then it likely will feel overwhelming. So instead try some positive, coping thoughts such as, “You’ve got this! You’re stronger than you think”, or “You know what to do, just take a deep breath and do it”.
7. Grounding exercises. This would include things such as counting backward from 100 by 7, picking up and holding objects in your environment while noting how they feel in minute detail, or maybe listing everything you can in various categories such as naming all the colors you can think of or different types of cereal.
8. Safe Place Visualization. This one is best if practiced repeatedly over time, so I’d suggest practicing daily for 15-20 min. The idea is to get yourself comfortable either laying down or sitting, then close your eyes and visualize a place where you feel safe. It can be a real place like your grandmother’s kitchen or a place you vacationed, or it can be fictional like a scene in your favorite movie or what you imagine a fairy garden to be. No matter where it is important that you take the time to experience all of your sensations- what do you hear? See? Smell? Taste? Feel? Are you with someone or alone? Are you doing something in particular or just observing? Wherever your safe place is, try to make it as real as possible.
Don’t forget- make a plan, write it down, then keep it someplace handy so you can easily access it when it’s needed. And if you need help coping with your PTSD symptoms, seek professional help.
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