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PTSD Spirituality: Understanding & Identifying PTSD Triggers

Posted May 11 2012 10:38am

Guest post by Dr. John Zemler

Techniques to Control and Live Beyond Our PTSD Triggers:  Understanding and Identifying PTSD Triggers we discuss some of the ways to cope with them.

Permission to be Human: First and foremost, give yourself permission to be someone who suffers from PTSD.  The soul wound of PTSD is much more common than we might think.  PTSD is part of the human condition. Women and men and children go through horrific events in their lives and then they feel stupid, guilty, or selfish, that the horror continues to harm them – even decades later.   We need to realize, PTSD is a normal response to trauma.  We just want to control its influence over us.

A few years ago I was talking to someone I trusted and told them one of my experiences while serving in the Army.  They were a good listener: they let me tell the tale, they did not interrupt me, they did not try and tell me they knew someone else just like that, they just listened.  When I finished, that person said, “It’s no wonder you have PTSD.”  At that point I started giving myself permission to have PTSD.

Laughter: Purposely try to remember something that made you laugh.  It might make you laugh or at least smile now.  If you laugh honestly out of some joy, it has a healing effect.

PTSD hates laughter.  It wants you to wallow in misery and isolation and destroy your relationships.  It cannot stand laughter.  Laughter can heal you and it is usually done in a way that recognizes the humanity in each of us.

Hope: Find something to hope for.  PTSD hates hope.  It wants to destroy hope and drive you into alcohol, drugs, violence, porn, and ruin your relationships.  No matter how old I may be, there is always something we can hope for in the future.  If you find hope, you will find the will to live.  This defeats PTSD.  One of my hopes is that I will be less susceptible to my PTSD triggers.  It is a reasonable hope.  The more hope I have, the less susceptible I am to my PTSD triggers.

Identify Your Triggers: Realizing that you are having a PTSD episode allows you to backtrack and figure out what brought it on.  All trauma survivors should begin to track what causes them to have PTSD symptoms.  This might take a few years, but that is why we are blessed with long lives!  So we can make useful lists!  Start a notebook.  List how you felt and what was happening when you started having PTSD symptoms.  This is very important.

Ebb and Flow: Sometimes we are more susceptible to our PTSD triggers than at other times.  If I am having a harder time than usual, I can tell myself, that this is not permanent.  Sometimes my triggers may cause me to begin weeping and shake.  Other times, those same triggers may make me shudder, but nothing more.

Over the course of a few years now I have been able to go from always being harmed by one of my PTSD triggers to only being sometimes harmed by that same trigger.  This gives me experiential reason to hope that I can decrease my sensitivity to that trigger even more and also have improvements in regards to other of my PTSD triggers.

Don’t Make Others the Victims of Your PTSD:  PTSD producing traumas and the soul wound of PTSD itself can propel us to become embittered.  The PTSD can encourage us to be bigots, racists, sexists, you name it.  One of the goals of the PTSD-Identity is to make you isolate yourself and sever relationships.

If my initial trauma was caused by a black & white penguin with a lisp and it was also a fundamentalist Catholic, then my PTSD will want me to hate all black & white penguins with a lisp that are fundamentalist Catholics.  Having achieved that, it will have me branch out to hating other types of life and relationships just as much.

Desensitization: If a particular circumstance activates your PTSD triggers it is possible to become less sensitive to it.  One can allow themselves to be near the trigger for a brief period of time and then withdraw.  Having withdrawn, you then work through the rapid heartbeat, the desire to drink, the desire to scream – whatever your symptoms may be – and know that you survived.  You can go back and try it again, over time desensitizing yourself to the trigger.

If you are sensitive to standing in a lit room at night in front of the window because it triggers your PTSD memories of snipers, then spending a small amount of time doing just that can help to desensitize you to that particular PTSD item.

Cautions on Desensitization:

-   Start Slow: Note that I don’t recommend one repeatedly put their hand back into the PTSD trigger blender over and over again on the same day.  If the sound of Sonny Bono singing gives you the PTSD shivers, then don’t lay on twelve hours of Sonny Bono on your first try.  Maybe a single minute of Bono every day for a week and then the next week, up it to a few minutes.  Over time, you will learn not to have a PTSD response to hearing the voice of Sonny Bono.  Your mileage may vary.

-   Someone You Can Trust: This is best done if you have talked with someone ahead of time.  Tell them about your triggers and that you are going to work on desensitization.  They can be in the room with you as you cue up Sonny Bono.  Just having someone else who knows about your PTSD, who respects you and wants you to heal, will make this go more easily.

-   Write Before and After: This is recommended if you have someone trustworthy or not to help you desensitize.  Before you start, specifically write about this particular trigger and what it does to you.  After you have had a desensitization period, write again about how you felt.  You may want to write about it in the first person and then in the third person.  Each perspective helps you to understand more about your PTSD.  Writing is healing.  Writing about the trauma, the trigger, and the PTSD symptoms, takes the power away from the PTSD and gives it back to you – where it belongs.

- Talking: Talking with someone you trust about your triggers will help make those triggers less toxic to you.  I’ve written about this all through our series on PTSD Triggers.  If at all possible, find someone you can talk with about your PTSD.

-   Family/Friends: There is often someone in your family you can talk with (and, unfortunately, there is usually someone you can’t trust as well).  Perhaps your spouse.  If possible, your spouse can be a source of real and significant healing for you just by listening.

-   Groups: Support groups at hospitals and churches can be very helpful.

-   Confessors: If you are fortunate to have a dedicated confessor or spiritual director, then these people can listen and possibly even make useful suggestions.

Helping Others with Their PTSD: I spend a lot of time dealing with PTSD, my own and others.  I have to be careful that while I am able to listen, and offer advice when asked for, I do not become re-traumatized myself to the point where I become useless to myself, my family, my students, or the people whom I try to help.

Writing: Regardless if you are talking with someone, a professional or a loved one or friend, it also helps to write about your PTSD triggers.  The more ways we bring our triggers out of the shadows, the more we can shine light on them, the less they can attack us and damage our souls and our relationships.

Final PTSD Trigger Tips:

-   There is no shame in having PTSD.  It means I am human and I have a soul.

-   Some triggers may be too strong for me now and I may need to avoid those stimuli until I am better able to withstand them.

-   As we learn what are triggers are we can better control them.

-   If I learn what those triggers are I can begin to desensitize and be less susceptible to them.

-   I need to realize that I will have good times and bad times.  Like the tide, my sensitivity to my PTSD triggers will come and go.

-   PTSD harms me less, the more I communicate with others.

-   Remember to Write and to Talk with Trusted Others

-   Prayer & Ritual: I plan to address this in the future, but know that taking part in prayer and ritual (alone or in a group) can help to heal the damage of PTSD

PTSD is a hard life to live, we did not choose it, but we got it.  Yet, we can be restored to enjoying life and one another.  Identifying and then dealing with your PTSD Triggers will help you to take back control of your life.  Semper Pax, Dr. Z 

Dr. John Zemler acquired his PTSD some 25 years ago while serving in the US Army.  He subsequently earned a doctorate in Theology after he left the Army.   He combines his experience in theology, surviving 25 years of his own PTSD, and his work as a university professor and spiritual director to encourage trauma survivors to not give up hope.  Additionally, he helps trauma survivors and their loved ones to understand how PTSD affects the soul and can induce alienating behaviors.  He writes on the intersection of PTSD and spirituality at the  www.PTSDSpirituality.com  website.  Dr. Zemler helps trauma survivors appreciate prayer, writing, music, and artwork as avenues of healing.  His primary research interests are in the spiritual dimensions of PTSD and how one can heal from soul wounds.

The opinions in this post are solely those of the author.

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