PTSD is difficult to live with, to put it mildly. Triggers are highly present in your out-of-home environment, and sometimes you may be too scared to leave your home. With terrorist attacks becoming more and more frequent, the number of people likely to develop PTSD in the years to come may well be on the rise.
What are posttraumatic stress disorder triggers?
When you have posttraumatic stress disorder, your symptoms can be rare or frequent. You might feel OK until you hear a helicopter fly directly overhead, bringing back horrible memories of war. This sound is called a triggers. Triggers bring back powerful, unpleasant memories. In a way, it’s like reliving the trauma. Triggers can include feelings, sights, smells, sounds, or thoughts that remind you of the experience in some way. Some PTSD triggers are obvious, like listening to a news report of a terrorist attack. Others are not so obvious. For instance, the sight of the blue, cloudless sky might trigger you if were attacked on a sunny day.
Why are triggers important?
Knowing what “sets you off” can help you better cope with the disorder. When your brain perceives a risk, it sends signals to the body to freeze, fight, or flee. Your heart rate goes up and your short-term memory stops functioning normally. This is why people often say they “forgot” where they were and what they were doing before their flashback. When you are afflicted by this disorder, your brain doesn’t process the trauma as it should. It doesn’t “record” the event as having passed and you feel like it hasn’t. You’re just as scared and stressed as you were when the event first happened to you. The brain attaches details to the traumatic memory, like sounds or sights, which turn into triggers. They perform like switches that turn on your body’s alarm system. Your brain goes into “danger” mode when one of them is activated. This may cause you to become scared. Your heart starts to race. The sounds, sights and emotions connected to the trauma flood your mind. This is what is known as a flashback.
What are the different types of triggers?
Triggers are usually tied to your senses. You may feel, see, smell, taste, hear or touch something that brings on your symptoms. A trigger can be anything that reminds you of the traumatic event while it was happening or right before it. It’s important to realize that triggers themselves are not harmful – the way your body reacts to them is where the problem lies. A number of things can trigger your PTSD. Some of the most frequent include people, objects, emotions and thoughts, scents, movies, places, news reports, TV shows, sounds, tastes, words, specific situations and circumstances, and anniversaries.
Examples of triggers
- Seeing a person who reminds you of the trauma in some way can set off a flashback. This will happen with physical resemblances. If you were raped by a man with a beard, men with beards may bring back traumatic memories.
- The way you felt during the event or what you were thinking could bring on a flashback. Feelings of fear, stress and helplessness are a very common trigger, as are thoughts like, “I’ll never get through this” that bring panic on.
- Seeing an object that reminds you of the trauma can cause a flashback.
- Places can often be a trigger. Returning to the place where the trauma occurred is an obvious one, but the trigger can extent to all kinds of places that resemble the original one. Victims of terrorist attacks, for instance, will avoid public areas and open spaces in general, or crowds.
- Smells and scents are strongly tied to memories. If you survived a fire, the smell of smoke might be a trigger.
- Seeing a similar trauma on TV or at the cinema often sets off symptoms. This includes scenes from a news report or television show.
- Certain noises, voices or songs may bring back traumatic memories.
- Sensations like itchiness or pain can be triggers, especially if you have been assaulted. The skin is the biggest organ of the body – being touched could lead to a flashback.
- The taste of something may remind you of a traumatic event. It can be something as benign as orange juice – if you were drinking orange juice at a restaurant when it was bombed by terrorists, for instance.
- Anniversaries – for instance, if exactly one month or one year has passed since the traumatic event.
- Situations – people associate certain scenarios with the trauma.
- Hearing or reading certain words can bring on a flashback.
Most of the above are external triggers, meaning that they come from outside you. There are internal triggers as well. Certain feelings and subjective sensations can serve as triggers, such as feelings of anger, anxiety, sadness, loneliness, feelings of abandonment, frustration, feeling like you’ve lost control, heart rate increase, feeling vulnerable, pain and / or muscle tension.
How to deal with PTSD triggers
Avoiding triggers completely seems like the best way of coping with them, but it actually isn’t. Why not? We started with the fact that they are highly present in the environment. They cannot be eliminated. Becoming a recluse that never leaves his / her home isn’t the answer! Moreover, you cannot really avoid your feelings, sensations and thoughts. You cannot control what you might inadvertently see on TV, a news report that’s going to set a flashback of the trauma off.
Sit down or lie on your back. If you are sitting down, release the tension in your shoulders and keep your back straight. Close your eyes and slowly breathe in and out. Feel your tummy rise and expand every time you breathe in and fall as you breathe out. Keep concentrating on your breathing. Avoid all side thoughts. If your mind wanders, try to remember what distracted you. Then, start focusing on the breathing again. The point of this exercise is to help you learn how to keep focused on the present moment. You have to learn how to breathe properly because improper breathing can make you feel more anxious and stressed. Do this exercise at least once daily.
Learning to soothe yourself
When you are upset, it is crucial to have ways of coping with stress. There is a large number of ways to relieve stress, one of which is learning to soothe yourself. This is a simple approach you can utilize regardless of where you are that can bring calm to your mind and body. There are as many coping strategies as PTSD sufferers. It’s a good idea to be prepared when the flashback hits you, so you can find relief. Without doubt, social support is more effective than self-soothing (and easier to come by), but it may not be readily available when the memory of the traumatic event hits. Therefore, it is crucial to learn coping strategies that you can do on your own. They are focused on your feelings and emotions and often described as self-care coping strategies.
Physical self-care or self-soothing coping strategies
The power of the skin
Effective and adequate coping strategies may be those that involve your senses — sound, sight, touch, taste, and smell. As I mentioned, the skin is the biggest organ in the body and it is very sensitive to outside stimuli. This makes it an effective instrument in your ability to unwind, relax and find relief from the stress that you’re experiencing and the flashbacks that it’s bringing on.
You might try taking a few minutes to stretch your muscles — simple tai chi movements or a few simple yoga poses will do the trick, among other things. Or you could try getting a massage. It won’t cure you but you’ll feel more relaxed and will be less vulnerable to triggers as a result. Even taking a few moments to play with your dog (also recommended) can enhance your mood unbelievably.
Instant relief is to be found in water, so go for a swim or soak in your tub. Relax on the beach if you live near one, and never wear uncomfortable clothes.
The Amazing Power of Scents
Aromatherapy wouldn’t be so big if smells weren’t so powerful as a relaxation tool. They are because the part of the brain that is associated with recognizing and remembering smells is in the immediate vicinity of that responsible for emotions (the amygdala). Unfortunately, this works both ways – a certain smell can bring on a flashback. But it is possible to learn to overcome the trauma with certain scents, little by little. Aromatherapy is often one of the top recommended natural treatments to deal with anxiety, stress, sleep problems and depression among other mental health issues. One study found that patients suffering from anxiety were able to sleep better after inhaling lavender oil. There are many ways you can obtain a soothing scent. It has to be natural, keep that in mind. Look around some flower shops or spend time smelling flowers in a garden. Why don’t you even start growing your own flowers? A beautiful rose garden all of your own can and will improve your mood. Scents like lavender, vanilla, and bergamot have been known to reduce anxiety. You can get these through aromatherapy diffusers with essential oils, scented candles or various other products.
The soothing power of taste
There is quite a lot to be said about the positive effects of certain foods on mood, not that I’m advocating turning to food for comfort, of course. At any rate, don’t go on strict diets, as hunger / low-carb diets and metabolism diets will make you irritable and more vulnerable to stressful events. Junk food does make one calmer and happier, but that’s just temporary. The effect passes and you feel just as sad, tense or irritable as you did before diving into that bag of chips (and possibly even more). The same goes for alcohol. Try sipping a cup of herbal tea, and indulge in healthy foods so you maintain a healthy mind and body.
Unwind with Sound
Your sense of sound is just as powerful as the rest in ensuing a positive emotional state. This is why music therapy is so wonderful for people suffering from anxiety, depression, and stress. Regardless of your location, you can benefit from the power of sound by listening to relaxing music. Why not even singing? (maybe you’re amazing!) Repeat positive statements to yourself out loud as a way of affirmation and self-encouragement. If you could play a musical instrument as a child, take it up again, or learn to play one – this will make it easier to reduce anxiety and stress.
The Might of Sight
Distractions can be an advantage, especially when your mind is stuck on a trigger. In some cases, finding something interesting or amusing to look at will take you a long way. If nothing else, you can just watch the clouds pass by or watch a funny show. Daydream about places you love, look at old photos (that are in no way associated with your trauma, of course), or just find something nice to look at. It sounds simple and it is. It really does work. Have one of these objects handy and try to focus on it when you have a flashback.
Putting These Strategies to Work
As a rule, you shouldn’t let your mind wonder when engaging in these strategies. Be mindful of what information your senses are giving you and what you are experiencing.
Seeking professional help
I am a clinical psychologist and certified therapist with profound understanding of people who are suffering from PTSD and traumatic flashbacks. The PTSD experience can be an isolating and scary road to take without adequate and professional support. If you need help, just give me a call and we’ll talk about how I can help you manage and reduce your flashbacks and other PTSD symptoms. You can contact my practice on 07 5574 3888, or send an email to [email protected]