Arguably one of the most mind-bending of PTSD experiences, triggers can hit when you least expect it, rendering you a completely muddled mess. To learn the basics of triggers, check out this PTSD triggers article. What I want to explore today is how we manage them, here’s why:
This past weekend I was required to put myself in a situation that has been extremely triggering for me since my trauma. Not only did it always invoke enormous anxiety and rage, it also forced me to dissociate as I learned that was the only way to manage the feelings that this trigger brought up.
Now, here I was, years into my PTSD freedom and finding myself dreading this triggering situation with no way out. What to do?
It was an emotionally charged week. Here’s how it went:
First, I was hit with enormous emotion over the idea of being forced into a situation that has been historically uncomfortable for me. My response: I did what I’ve learned to do throughout my PTSD recovery, which is this:
I took a step back and viewed the intense emotion as a messenger, a part of myself wanting me to know something. I asked that part two questions:
1.”What is this emotion trying to tell me?”
2. “Why is this information important?”
Getting some distance and clarity allowed me to see what was really bothering me. On the surface we experience emotions (and their feeling-out-of-control intensity) and we can feel undone by them. When we take a step back, however, and treat them the way we would a friend who blew into the room all in a tizzy, we learn to look below the surface of emotion and see what the message is. Doing this gives us ideas about what choices to make and actions to take.
Second, by looking at the emotion from a little distance I saw that beneath it all what I really felt was fear. I have made it a point to avoid this situation for over 20 years; this was a coping mechanism put in place when I was dealing with extreme PTSD symptoms. Last week, I was afraid of going back into that situation and feeling not only all of the memories it conjures, but also the PTSD pain that is tied to it as well. Afraid because I didn’t want to have to feel all of that again. I felt sorry for that younger self who felt so lost and overwhelmend. I felt saddened for her struggle and despair. Now, what used to be simply a trigger also contains memories of PTSD pain. Who wants to go back and get close to all of that?
Continuing what I learned from my PTSD recovery, I asked myself questions about what I need. Since avoiding the situation was not an option, I made the determination to move into it from a place of strength. I made a list of things – attitude, people, choices, actions – that would make me feel strong and supported throughout the experience. I made a plan of alternatives so that I felt freedom in moving forward instead of boxed in to one scenario.
Was I still apprehensive about moving ahead? You bet! But by taking control of the situation, recognizing what I found triggering and why, I took back control so that I felt powerful instead of powerless.
The outcome? I sailed through the weekend and the situation without a hitch. More than that, I stayed present, fully engaged and was able to participate in a meaningful family event without allowing memories or the past to intrude on my present.
Yes, a lot of this success can be attributed to the fact that I am PTSD-free. Meaning, the internal conflicts that my trauma put in place, and the way this trigger evoked them, have been resolved. I am at peace. And you know the funny part? As I considered going into this situation I temporarily forgot that. I forgot that as I have changed (as do you) my trigger responses have changed, too. That is, I’ve been in other previously triggering situations and not even thought twice about it because all of that baggage and assocations has been dealt with, the conflicts resolved and the past laid to rest. For a moment last week I forgot to trust myself that I could handle this. It was a good reminder that even though my PTSD recovery journey has ended and I live free of symptoms of post-traumatic stress, the work of staying in touch with myself, deepening my self-trust and believing in my ability to handle things continues, as it would for anyone who has experienced something that rocked the foundation of that self-connection.
Being on the PTSD recovery journey – no matter where you are, beginning, middle or end – doesn’t mean you’ll always be perfect. And it doesn’t mean you won’t have thoughts, feelings and emotions that feel intense or remind you of less comfortable times. Being on the journey means you learn from every situation, you grow in your resilience and creativity, you trust yourself to reclaim control, and you access more of your strong self in the present and future so that the things that used to bother you remain behind, as they should, in the past.