Post traumatic stress , or PTS, is a psychological condition caused by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. This may be an event that happened in a moment, such as a serious accident or act of violence, or it may be a series of events that occurred over a long period of time, such as repeated exposure to violence and suffering, or abuse.
People with PTS often display symptoms that come and go, sometimes triggered by an external person, place, or circumstance. Some triggers are obvious, while others are more difficult to pinpoint and avoid. Learning your triggers, or the triggers of a loved one with PTS can help reduce symptoms as well as prepare for symptom management when triggers are unavoidable.
The Development of Triggers
When attempting to understand many mental health issues, it is important to consider how disruptive symptoms are often a manifestation of important survival skills. The emotions of anxiety and panic have evolved as a part of the body’s fight or flight system, which kicks into gear whenever we experience a threat.
During a traumatic incident, your body and mind begin to function differently. Your brain may stop some normal functions entirely during intense moments in order to focus on dealing with the threat. Your body will respond by speeding up your heart rate and amplifying your senses. This redirection of brain activity can change the way your brain processes and stores memory. This means that the memory of a traumatic event may remain extremely vivid long after it has passed.
Additionally, instead of being filed in your memory with other events of the past, trauma remains at the forefront of your mind in a way that keeps you in a constant state of fear. Even when your flight or fight response begins to quell, the memory of trauma may be called back to the present moment by triggers.
Triggers can include anything that stimulates your senses in a way that reminds you of your trauma. For example, if it was raining on the day you experienced violence or a serious accident, you may begin to have symptoms every time it rains.
A smell, taste, loud sound, or unexpected touch can all send you into a PTS episode. Symptoms that result from a PTS trigger may include fear, panic, rapid heart rate, and the feeling that the incident is happening to you again. The most severe PTS episodes may include sights and sounds associated with the memory of your trauma, making it feel as if it is actually happening right in front of you.
While some triggers, like loud noises, are common among many of those who struggle with PTS, potential triggers are widespread and vary between each individual. Anything abrupt or unexpected can trigger similar responses to your trauma, bringing back emotions related to the traumatic event.
Additionally, seeing things happen to other people on movies or television, even when it is fictional, can remind you of your trauma and trigger a PTS episode. The sense of smell is often overlooked when attempting to identify triggers, but in fact, smells are strongly tied to memories. For example, someone who experienced trauma that involved fire may be triggered by the smell of smoke.
It is always important to remember that triggers can be so subtle that even the individual being triggered is unaware of what caused the onset of their symptoms.
Coping with Triggers
The best way to learn to cope with the symptoms of PTS, including identifying and managing triggers, is to seek professional help. A therapist can help you to think about ways you can reduce or eliminate certain triggers in your life, as well as how best to respond to triggers that are unavoidable.
Certain practices, such as mindfulness and meditation, can help you to harness more control over your own mind so that you don’t feel helpless in the face of triggering situations. It is also important to remember that PTS, anxiety, and panic are all exacerbated when trauma is ignored and unpleasant emotions left undealt with. Talk therapy can greatly reduce PTS episodes and help you to process much of the pain that has caused your mental health issues.
Additionally, successfully coping with PTS means avoiding unhealthy coping strategies, such as substance abuse. Many people with PTS turn to drugs or alcohol to deal with their symptoms or help them get through triggering situations, however, substance abuse always worsens mental health disorders and may also lead to addiction.
Seeking treatment from professionals equipped to help those with addictions and co-occurring mental health disorders is the best way to overcome addiction while also achieving lasting mental wellness.
If you, a loved one, or work partner is struggling, we want you know that you are not alone.
We are here to help with our culturally competent clinical team that uses trauma-informed strategies to address the unique needs public safety professionals. We recognize that first responders encounter job-specific barriers and obstacles that come with the culture of their careers, and that existing stigma may make seeking help for addiction and mental health issues especially difficult. Asking for help is the first and most important step you can take to begin the process of healing and recovery.
Choosing a life of recovery comes with personal growth, self-reflection, and reparation to relieve the weight of guilt and shame. Yes, the path forward can be painful yet fulfilling. Working towards a sober lifestyle requires sacrifice but can yield moments of clarity that reaffirm the decision to live free of all substances.
First responders who have stayed sober for extended periods are privy to the mental health benefits of experiencing peace of mind. However, any long-tenured recovery alumni can attest that these moments of clarity, feeling content in sobriety and life in general, often lack their portability.
Unfortunately, you can’t necessarily take them with you. Given the impermanence of contentment, many people will be chasing the feeling. It’s essential to remember that it’s not the pursuit of clarity that leads to clarity itself but rather a commitment to living harmoniously within ourselves.
Recognizing the validity of feelings, thoughts, and emotions allows a person in recovery to honor and empower themselves. In many ways, the journey back to this place of wholeness lies in one’s ability to listen inward.
A moment of clarity can be a double-edged sword
While the feeling of epiphany can provide a cathartic sense of healing, the experience of feeling contentment can lead to experiencing the pink cloud effect. Commonly experienced early on in one’s sobriety, the pink cloud effect describes a carefree euphoria associated with the joy of sobriety; however, this sensation can occur after years of leading a sober lifestyle.
Experiencing a sense of purpose and self-assurance is a great place to reach in recovery. But after this confidence fades, those in recovery can begin to wonder why they lost their sobriety mojo; this can result in the pursuit of feeling accomplished rather than recognizing the strategies which led to reaching that high point of validation in the first place.
Chasing an emotional state can be particularly risky for people in recovery, as alcohol or substance use is viewed as a shortcut to suppressing any doubt and uncertainty one is feeling.
First responders are particularly prone to extended bouts of anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, these episodes can go unnoticed as first response work often causes individuals coping with depression to suppress the symptoms to conduct themselves at work.
Manic-depressive tendencies entail feelings of intense, positive moods, followed by immersive pools of negativity. The extreme shifts from high to low can be destabilizing, making it challenging to overcome disbelief in oneself while also complicating the ability to trust self-assurance.
First responders and anyone in recovery should remember that depressive feelings will pass with time and treatment, just as happy moments are not guaranteed.
Staying level-headed during low points
A healthy mindset can recognize that reactions within one’s brain chemistry determine a recovering alcoholic or substance user’s perspective.
That is not to say that individuals are powerless to their feelings, but acknowledging that the scope of control is limited makes an effort necessary to manage mental health less overwhelming. First responders often experience elevated mood swings, particularly after extended on-call shifts.
The reliance on adrenaline jump-starts a series of emotional responses that can be manic in the heat of first response action but depressive once a shift has ended.
Lacking control over these fluctuations, first responders often look to alcohol and substances as a means to exercise control over their emotions for a brief period.
Some are using manifests in subdued, emotional expression, while others tap into emotions that may seem less accessible in sobriety. Still, relinquishing the desire to ascertain greater control will help those in recovery accept and focus on the little things within their agency.
Instead of trying to do too much and ultimately disappointing one’s lofty expectations, those who can realistically identify strategies for managing emotional highs and lows are likely to be more successful in recovery.
Managing mental clarity
When you manage expectations of mental health, observing your behavior without ascribing judgment is the first step toward making a significant change.
It’ll allow individuals in recovery to mark patterns in their behavior: how does work affect my mood, what events trigger a bout of depressive tendencies, do my thoughts of using follow a particular feeling? Taking the time to self-reflect sets up healthy realizations that will allow you clarity, growth, and sustained strength in recovery.
Assisting a loved one, who also happens to be a first responder, to recover from substance abuse can result in many unexpected responses.
While we genuinely want what is best for family, friends, and our closest colleagues, the strain of addiction impacts more people than the individual experiencing it. The repercussions of addictive behavior usually extend to the person’s family, immediate social circle, colleagues at work, and beyond.
The role that friends and family take on when a loved one struggles with addiction almost resembles the job responsibility of a first responder.
The feeling of being “on-call” for a person who has the potential to go into crisis at any moment and constantly remaining open to the prospect of intervening for your loved one requires both empathy and vigilance, the same characteristics that first responders use to do their jobs.
Helping a first responder through substance abuse leaves both parties with many questions and without a clear-cut path forward, especially when that person is used to being the one helping others.
Growth and healing will require understanding and openness for both parties, as everyone learns how to approach recovery together.
Here are four effective methods that you can utilize to assist a first responder in recovery.
Admitting the person has an addiction
Just as a person dealing with addiction is prone to denying an unhealthy relationship with substances, admitting that your loved one is dealing with addiction is difficult too.
The stigma surrounding addiction causes many addicts to harbor extreme guilt or denial, often encouraging them to hide the signs of their addiction.
Codependency within family and personal relationships can make it difficult to understand whether a loved one is communicating openly and honestly. Even if a person is a hero at work, they can still be an addict; remember, advocating for truth within a relationship shows how much you care.
People struggling with substance abuse can be prone to unexpected mood swings, frequently lashing out at those closest to them.
First responders encounter events and situations that many of us couldn’t imagine. But, if you notice your loved one drinking or using alone in excess, talking about their desire to drink or use when unprompted, or being unable to enjoy themselves when sober, you may want to consider having a conversation with them about it.
Talking to them about addiction
Speaking with your loved one when you suspect they may have a problem with substances can be met with resistance, especially if they’re still performing heroic acts at work. Still, this first step is crucial. And much like a first responder who arrives to assist, this intervention can be life-saving.
The most productive conversations come from a place of truth, allowing friends and family to share how their loved one’s addiction affects them. There are many different strategies for having healthy conversations about addiction, but the truth, vulnerability, and simplicity are common themes for all of them.
By expressing compassion and love for the person struggling with addiction, you can appeal to their empathy and hopefully lead them to understand the need for help.
Encourage progress and show you care
Although addiction is a self-consuming condition in many ways, the key to changing the perspective of an addicted person lies in revealing to them how it feels on the other side of their behavior. Sharing your perspective can encourage the struggling person to choose a path of recovery by reinforcing the need for change.
Researching the effects of addiction goes a long way in understanding how to offer the best possible assistance. Taking action to encourage recovery can strengthen the relationship between you and your loved one.
In many cases, a first responder battling addiction will try their best to hide it from their partners at work. They may not want anyone else to know, making your support even more valuable. Embarking on a commitment to sober living with someone in your corner almost always leads to growth in understanding and comradery.
Stay emotionally available
When a person finally understands the need for change in their relationship with substances, they travel through a risky path, but they don’t have to travel alone.
If you know someone making this type of change in their life, help them conduct research to locate an appropriate treatment facility, like First Responder Wellness. Let them know that you’re there to help in any way that you can.
The responsibility for overcoming addiction ultimately falls on the person in recovery, and while it’s natural to want to help our loved ones, it’s also important to set independent boundaries.
You need to understand that one person can only do so much. Our loved ones deserve the best care and assistance out there; it just so happens that the best way to provide it is usually by encouraging them to seek help from professional clinical therapists.
It’s time for your first responder to stop focusing on helping others and do the work to help themselves.
Understanding how toxic positivity can be problematic is critical to your recovery and imperative to creating meaningful change in the lives of others.
First off, what is toxic positivity? Toxic positivity is an attribute many people have and are unaware of; it involves false reassurances and the dismissal of negative emotions.
When we receive advice to “stay positive” and “look on the bright side,” unfortunately, these cliché phrases can be less than helpful and even detrimental to a person suffering from substance abuse and mental health.
Constantly pushing ourselves to stay positive can be an unhealthy way to cope. While having a generally positive perspective on life is an excellent tool for pushing through adversity, it’s vital to understand when being positive crosses the line and becomes harmful to everyone involved.
Below are recommendations on avoiding toxic positivity and how to support others through it.
How to avoid toxic positivity
One of the most destructive traits of toxic positivity is that it completely dismisses problems.
Dealing with illness, financial trouble, work stress, family conflict, or addiction is overwhelming, and many people in these situations fall into a cycle of constant negativity. On the other hand, some people choose to meet life’s challenges with unyielding positivity. While this sounds great in theory, it might mean that these people ignore their problems entirely.
Some people use positivity as an excuse to avoid painful conversations or put off working through heavy emotions. Unfortunately, negative emotions can be exhausting, but the only way to release them is to acknowledge and process them.
Here are three practices to help you refrain from toxic positivity:
- Refrain from excessive positive phrases, feel your emotions
- Practice mindfulness to identify how you’re feeling
- Before conversing with confidants, clarify that you’re looking for empathy, not advice
Remember, positivity isn’t bad. It’s only bad when using it disingenuously and suppressing other negative emotions.
How to support others
Offering advice to a person struggling emotionally or with addiction is tough.
You want to make that person feel supported and loved, but you also want to be realistic and helpful. Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to find the right words when trying to comfort someone.
Many people automatically respond with an over-generalized line about positivity. While these words may be well-intentioned, they lack real wisdom. They can even make someone feel worse about themselves and their situation.
Instead of pushing someone who is hurting to “see the silver lining,” focus on validating their feelings.
Let them know that it is okay to feel sad, angry, or frustrated; you might also want to acknowledge that their circumstances are complex and that anyone in their situation would also be struggling. For example, people facing extreme addiction and mental health issues often deal with a constant inner dialogue that tears them down.
Addicted people have an inner voice telling them they are weak. Depressed people can feel like they somehow deserve what they’re going through.
So telling individuals in this mental space that they should be more positive only confirms their worst fear, that they’re somehow ill-equipped to handle their emotions and circumstances.
Instead, let your loved one know that a bit of negativity is healthy. The person can allow themselves to feel negative emotions while also remaining hopeful for positive change. Phrases like, “This is a tough situation, but I know you can get through it,” offers validation and support.
Avoiding substitute addictions in recovery is essential to ensuring mental wellness and preventing subsequent behavioral issues.
While many of these behaviors are less severe than drug and alcohol abuse, they can affect your quality of life and contribute to the overall detriment of your mental health.
Substitute addictions are a way for your brain to find a new source of those feel-good neurotransmitters stimulated with substances. Many people with drug or alcohol addictions discover that they begin participating in other types of compulsive behavior in sobriety.
While sobriety can make you feel optimistic and like nothing can go wrong, inevitably, life will present you with challenges, whether they be unexpected substance cravings or outside stressors that contribute to poor mental health. At this point, people in recovery tend to falter. Most commonly, they relapse or pick up a substitute addiction.
Below are the five most common substitute addictions and information on avoiding them.
Five most common substitute addictions
There are endless possibilities when it comes to behavioral addictions. A replacement addiction can occur any time a behavior is activating the reward system in a way that results in a compulsion.
However, a few behaviors are considered the most common among individuals with substance use disorders.
Here are the most common substitute addictions experienced in recovery:
- Binge eating
- Excessive shopping
- Uncontrolled gambling
- Extreme amounts of exercise
- Lack of control over sexual thoughts & impulses
Binge eating is typical behavior in this group, as the brain can learn to use food the same way it once used substances. Eating in excess, especially when consuming foods high in fat and sugar, can stimulate the same circuits in the brain as drugs and alcohol.
Also, many people find a replacement addiction in shopping. We have all had the experience of buying something for ourselves or someone else to improve our mood. This behavior can become problematic if it becomes a compulsion. Spending money stimulates the reward system in the brain as well, and some people become addicted to the feeling of purchasing items.
While excessive shopping may not seem as big a problem compared to substance abuse, it can become severe, threatening a person’s financial stability and family life.
As stated above, some of the other common substitute addictions include exercise, sex, and gambling, which are acceptable behaviors, and healthy when done in moderation. But, when these behaviors become compulsive and extreme, they can take a significant toll on your mental health and the lives of those around you.
Tips to avoid substitute addictions
The first step in avoiding substitute addictions is to educate yourself and those closest to you about this recovery issue. It’s imperative to keep an eye out for signs of problematic behavior.
If you pay attention, your intuition can tell you when a response becomes unhealthy or threatens your mental health. For example, maybe you’ve always shopped online but are suddenly shopping at odd hours, hiding your purchases from loved ones, and applying for credit cards that you don’t need.
At this point, your behavior is most likely becoming a problem; the way you feel when participating in these behaviors can also clue you in. For example, people who develop behavioral addictions often report feeling out of control or euphoric during the activity. Afterward, they often feel a deep sense of guilt and shame, just like the highs and lows of alcohol and drug use.
Staying on top of your recovery work even when you’re feeling secure in sobriety can prevent substitute addictions. Quitting drugs or alcohol often makes users feel as if there’s a void that needs to be filled by a new vice.
Remember, even the healthiest people find outlets to work through emotional and mental hardships. Moreover, healthy people can do so in a way that doesn’t harm themselves or others.
Be sure that as you move forward, explore new ways to combat stress by exercising regularly, meditating, or doing something creative. The key to mental wellness is balance, and our addiction and mental health experts at First Responder Wellness are always here to support you in achieving that balance for your long-term recovery.
First responders are always on the go, and the chances are that you’re reading this blog while accomplishing another task at this very moment.
When thinking about recommended tips to alleviate the stress you endure in the field and at home, it has to be convenient to accommodate your fast-paced life.
Making the time count that you do have to elevate your mental wellness is key, and that’s why we’re sharing with you a tool that meets you exactly where you are at and one you can access at any time of the day, no matter where you are.
5-5-5 deep breathing
Scientific studies show that controlled deep breathing can help alleviate stress and anxiety, as it sends a message to your brain, allowing it to calm down.
When we get ourselves worked up or anxious over matters, which is a frequent feeling for first responders, it can be tough to calm our minds and bring us back into the present.
“Research has shown that breathing exercises can have immediate effects by altering the pH of the blood or changing blood pressure. But more importantly, they can be used to train the body’s reaction to stressful situations and dampen the production of harmful stress hormones.”
What’s excellent about 5-5-5 deep breathing is that you can do it anywhere in the world and at any time. You don’t need any tools; all that’s required is breath.
Here’s how to accomplish 5-5-5 deep breathing:
1. Inhale very slowly through your nose for 5 seconds
2. Hold your breath for five seconds
3. Exhale very slowly through your nose or mouth for 5 seconds
4. Hold your breath for five seconds
5. Repeat the process
Repeating this cycle for as little as one minute can work wonders and calm your nerves, even while at work. However, it’s recommended to practice the 5-5-5 deep breathing cycle for at least five minutes or more for more significant results.
When practicing deep breathing, try your best to control your thoughts. Aim to focus solely on your breath, but if your mind wonders, identify that it’s simply a thought and redirect your mind’s focus back to your breath.
It’s great to practice deep breathing in a quiet place. Still, we understand first responders have very few moments of silence at work while serving the community or at home while tending to your family — so practice 5-5-5 deep breathing wherever you can.