Today I want to make a first cautious step towards blogging about my PTSD. I figure I start with triggers. For me, they are an ongoing struggle. Certain words trigger me, certain sounds and smells, too. Certain things about people, things in their body language or the way they look. Visual triggers. And sometimes mere thoughts. I know several triggers and avoid them. I also avoid places where I don’t have much control over what I’m exposed to.
How I feel when I get triggered
It feels like a sudden flash that runs through me. My whole body reacts to a trigger like I were suddenly faced with life threatening danger. My heart beats like crazy, I sweat, I feel hot, but my feet and hands go cold, I can’t think, feel like my throat tightens and my mouth is dry. I usually freeze. I get tunnel vision. I can’t speak. And I’m real afraid. Like, REAL afraid. My brain shuts down. Sometimes I dissociate immediately. And it’s the most exhausting and terrible thing, even when the immediate stress response is over. It’s impossible to just go back to normal.
The biological mechanism behind getting triggered
Thanks to my mom I’m quite well educated in this regard. I find it helps to know what goes on inside of my brain. So what goes on? When I get triggered I have a perception that – otherwise normal – is associated with some traumatic content. Within a split second my brain evaluates the perception and rates it as gravely dangerous. What follows is an immediate stress response, aimed at survival, nothing else. Adrenaline is released. Stress hormones are released. Preparing for a flight or fight response, my heart accelerates and the muscles get the blood. Since there is nothing to fight against, I either flee or (my most likely response) freeze. Logical thinking is shut down in favor of survival instincts that require no thinking. It’s like a biochemical and biological chain reaction.
What helps when I got triggered
It helps me when mom is there. I don’t always recognize her right away, so it helps that she makes sure that I do recognize her before she does anything. And once I know she is there, safety, safety, safety is all I can think of. She speaks with me and orients me. Tells me where I am, that I am safe, that it feels threatening and scary, but that it’s alright. When I’m oriented enough and the worst fear is over, she hugs me, keeps talking to me, keeps me close by her side and makes sure we either are in a safe, calm place or go to a safe calm place.
The trigger hangover
When the stress response goes down, I feel hangover-y. Biologically it’s all the stress chemicals floating around in my brain and body – after all there was no reaction to work them off, like a flight or fight. Technically exercise helps, but practically I rarely feel in the mood to do exercise, because I’m usually still unsettled and scared and feel like moving around is unsafe. During the trigger hangover I’m apprehensive, don’t like to turn my back on things or people, feel needy and want my mom there. I don’t want to talk, and I’m tired and I need her to watch out and protect me so I can relax a little. It can easily wreck a whole day, even when the worst part of the trigger hangover itself usually goes away after about an hour or two.
Knowing my triggers
I know a lot of my triggers, but there are just as many things that take me by surprise and many times I have even gotten triggered by something and have not been able to even find out what it was afterwards. That makes triggers feel like those out-of-control threats that can lurk anywhere. Which is why I don’t do well with unpredictable situations, watching TV shows or films that I don’t already know, the news (yikes), why I don’t like being out and about in new places or where there are many people, why I don’t like meeting new people and have a general anxiety about all those things.
What to do about getting triggered?
Well, I hope that in time working through the traumatic events themselves will help against getting triggered so often. After all what my brain now wards off so violently are traumatic memories. So working through those, processing them and taking their power to haunt and threaten me so away will hopefully help, because when the traumatic content doesn’t cause a terrified defensive response anymore, triggers shouldn’t have such a big impact anymore either. So I guess what I have to do is go down in my basement, step by step and from a safe place, to face my demons. If only that weren’t so much easier said than done.