How Can You Identify and Avoid PTS Triggers?

How first responders can find balance

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.

Identifying Triggers

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.

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