PTSD Triggers: Coping When Trauma Catches you Off-Guard
PTSD triggers can be activated at a moment’s notice and re-ignite feelings of terror from the past. Are you prepared for that? You’ll want to be. In this article, we’ll review the kinds of trauma responses you might encounter and possible triggers for these reactions. Then, I’ll equip you with some of my favorite strategies and techniques for calming high-intensity emotion (grounding) in the present moment and practicing self-compassion. Ready to take back control? Good!
Trauma Responses and Their Triggers
While the range of responses to trauma varies from person to person, when it comes to PTSD, there are some hallmark responses. These include: panic attacks, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts/memories, hypervigilance, startle response activation, anger and rage, physical pains, and dissociation. These are not uncommon in cases of childhood physical abuse, sexual abuse or rape, and domestic violence. In some cases, individuals may even have out-of-body like experiences.
Just as the range of responses vary, so too do their triggers. The list below is just to get you started thinking about what your triggers might be. It’s definitely not an exhaustive or personalized list.
- Physical features of someone you see: Beard or hair; glasses; clothing, scars; tattoos; overall build; etc
- Words someone says or writes (also, tone of voice/language): “No”; “You’ll be sorry you ___”; “you better ___”; “Slut”; “Useless”; etc… (may be encountered in writing as well as spoken); etc
- Sensory triggers like sounds, odors, touch: Slapping sound; loud noises; musky odor; smell of alcohol; specific colors; being touched (at all, or in specific places); etc
- Communicating with authority figures: therapists and psychiatrists; supervisor at work; judges and attorneys; the mechanic at the shop; etc
- Anniversaries: Day of assault; court dates; parole hearing dates; birthdays; day you were removed from the home; etc
- Places and Circumstances: Crowded or enclosed places; a bar where others are drinking; alone in an isolated place; others walking behind you; being around family; being around all strangers and you don’t know anyone; etc
Grounding Exercises for PTSD Triggers
Grounding skills are not the same as relaxation. These skills are used with the specific intent to actively avoid the traumatic material. Neither can we equate these skills with mindfulness practice. While you might see similarities, a fundamental aspect of mindfulness is the more curious and open stance to what emerges in your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. With grounding, we purposefully shut out certain stressful experiences (by focusing on a single calming one) in order to bring a greater sense of control and de-escalate from panic.
Purposefully directing your attention to your senses and simply noticing what’s there. Examples include:
- Watch the trees gently swaying in the breeze. Rarely are they perfectly still.
- Take in all the colors in the room around you, noticing the hue of each and any contrast.
- Focus on the sensations of touch such as when you touch your pet’s fur (or listen to their purrs of contentment).
- Eat a piece of fruit and pay attention to every change in flavor and texture as you chew. Even take notice of squishy or crunchy sounds the food makes.
- Focus on what others are doing around you, scanning slowly in each direction. (Caution: May be triggering or calming depending on what is triggering to you – for example a particular person’s facial features or gestures)
Be creative and find something that works for you. What reduces distress for someone else may raise it for you. This is a highly individual experience. Caution/Tip: Avoid any bodily sensations that seems to focus you back on the panic that is building. Keep the focus external.
With mental tasks, you’re engaging in some mental process to actively distract yourself from the PTSD triggers. This contrasts with the sensory/physical focus where you only focus on the sensation itself (not any thoughts surrounding them) Examples of mental tasks include:
- Counting or saying the alphabet s.l.o.w.l.y
- Visualizing a safe place (can also draw this and use this later as a reminder)
- Describing something in a very detailed manner. Sounds silly but try it! For example, How do you cook pasta? Be so specific as if you were explaining it step-by-step in plain language to a small child.
- Think of something funny to tell yourself or recall something humorous you learned. Did you know it’s impossible to sneeze with your eyes open? Well, now you do!
There are WAY more ways that you can discover and utilize. Feel free to comment below or message me with your favorite methods.
This is just what it sounds like. However, I would recommend that you tailor the messages to focus on resilience in the face of the PTSD triggers. You might consider these to be like affirmations or mantras that you can repeat as necessary. Examples:
- “I can handle this.” (possible addition if it fits: “I’ve done so before.”)
- “I’m living in the present now. This memory is from the past.”
- “I’m a fucking bad-ass warrior!” (pardon the language but intensity can be helpful to people with trauma, kind of like how tensing muscles and letting go helps the body relax)
Mindful Self-Compassion for PTSD Triggers
Compassion practices begin where grounding exercises end. That’s how I like to look at it. Hanging on by your fingernails and relying on grounding practices each time something comes up is no way to live. If the tension is building but not at panic levels, a mindful self-compassion is more the way to go. This offers deeper soothing and manages the triggering experience rather than avoiding it. And you’ll be one step closer to breaking trauma’s hold over you.
Three-part “self-compassion break”
- Notice that you encountered one of your PTSD triggers. This could be a physical sensation, thought, or feeling.
- Process: Mindful awareness that you are triggered and suffering
- Self-Talk: “This is scary” or “This hurts”
- Acknowledge you’re not alone. Others are struggling too.
- Process: Re-joining humanity when you feel on the outside or abnormal
- Self-Talk: “Others go through this too”
- Give yourself kindness. Find an expression that works for you (may vary on the situation). Many people find it helpful to also ground themselves with physical touch such as their hand over their heart.
- Process: Self-compassion and soothing touch
- Self-Talk: “May I be kind to myself this moment” or “May I be at peace”
For additional information about mindful self-compassion, Dr. Kristin Neff is one of the pioneer’s in the field and has shared exercises (free instruction as well as audio), research, and more. For local experiential trainings I encourage you to connect with Sean Cook, PsyD, at Three Rivers Mindfulness and Psychotherapy.
Triggers cannot be avoided all the time. They will come up. Your response can transform that moment of activation into a moment of healing. For lower-level activation, I recommend an exercise in mindful self-compassion. When the heat is already dialed high and you’re on the verge of panic, then grounding is more what’s needed. And of course, it’s extremely important to work with a skilled trauma therapist who understands what you’re experiencing and can guide you through it.
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Have questions or need support? Comment below or send me a message and I’ll be glad to assist.