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Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health disorder that afflicts about 24 million Americans at any given time (National Institute of Health). Post-traumatic stress occurs, in short, when traumatic events are re-experienced due to external triggers, nightmares and/or reoccurring thoughts. Due to the frightening nature of “re-living” a traumatic experience, PTSD sufferers may avoid situations or places that arouse these fears or feelings.
Understanding someone’s triggers is important. Being sensitive to someone’s post-traumatic stress is the same as being sensitive to a child’s allergies. Click To Tweet
So what happens when we’re triggered?
We may dissociate or detach from our current reality and feel like we’re back in the traumatic situation (car accident, combat, abusive home, etc).
Our heart races, body temperature rises, we may start shaking or crying and we may fall into a fetal position.
We become hypervigilant to sounds, strangers, sights and smells. This hypervigilance can last for weeks or months after the event.
Our bodies tense up or we run away from the trigger, known as the fight or flight response.
Some people completely freeze in their location, which is an alternative to fight or flight. This is a natural response.
We may prepare to leave or stock up on resources in case of emergency. We charge our phones, pack a bag, make a packing list or look for backpacks/luggage. This gives us a sense of control.
These are only a few natural responses to traumatic stress.
I have counseled survivors of mass tragedies and I think of them every time another shooting occurs. I wonder if the breaking news alerts are triggers for them. In my current work with domestic violence survivors, I have noticed that their triggers are all different. I also have to educate them about triggers their children may face, as witness to abuse in their home.
My suggestion is to inform those closest to you what your triggers are and how to help you cope. I have faced scary situations in my life (armed robbery, burglary, large earthquakes, sudden deaths) and I cope with each of them in different ways. I recently had to have a conversation with my husband about my experience being robbed even though that was over 20 years ago. A few years ago we experienced a large earthquake together and we were understanding about each of our reactions to it.
Knowledge is powerful and will keep you from feeling all alone.
Speaking with a trauma trained therapist can help you or your loved one to process feelings or emotions that arise from triggers.
Besides, having comforting friends or loved ones can help you ride the wave of PTSD triggers and ground you back into the present day.
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