What To Do When Your PTSD Is Triggered: A Step-by-Step Guide

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PTSD Trigger, world vibrating

Imagine reliving a stressful situation over and over again with no resolution. It is overwhelming every time a similar experience happens.

For example, a 5-year-old child who witnessed yelling in her home may dissociate her fear in the moment to survive the scary scene. If this scene happens multiple times in a child’s life, they can develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This type of coping is adaptive as a child but interferes with an adult’s intimacy and relationship needs.

The same child many years later can get triggered when someone is angry or raises their voice. She may not even know that the two scenes are related to her adult life. All she knows is that the anger makes her feel uncomfortable and overwhelmed.

She is experiencing a trigger. The trigger activates the neural network in her brain that was formed by linking like situations. This causes her brain to respond similarly to how she responded in the past.

This pattern is an automatic response. She may respond and not even know what’s happening yet. It is an unconscious system that is working without cognitive conscious thought. One way to think of it is like a superhighway in her brain.

When a fear response is triggered, an old habit (patterned response) kicks in, making the person do one of three things — leave the area, fight back, or freeze and hope the anger stops.

A triggered response is referred to as fight-or-flight, which is an adaptive survival skill. In the past, humans who had a good fight or flight response were the ones who were not eaten for dinner by the saber-tooth tigers. Those with the best fight-or-flight response survived.

As an adult, most of us aspire to live life abundantly and thrive. If you are ruled by the highly emotionally charged experiences from the past, you may feel hopeless or anxious that you can ever attain an abundant life.

For those of you who have wanted or strived for a thriving life, there are ways to manage, heal, and regulate your emotional experience with PTSD triggers.

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Here's what to do when your PTSD is triggered: A step-by-step guide.

1. Find safety.

Remove yourself from the triggering situation and find a safe, quiet spot to calm yourself.

2. Calm your body.

Here are a few simple practices to help calm and soothe your nervous system.

Begin to breathe deeply and count to ten, stop and slow down, pray, draw a picture, focus your attention on your pulse, put together a puzzle, bring all your attention to a loved memory, and recite affirmations like "I am OK."

3. Write down what happened.

As Brene Brown writes in her book Rising Strong, write the first draft. Let your mind download your first response beliefs and thoughts onto the paper. The content of the writing is not as important as the emotional release it brings.

When you download all the emotions and feel calm, your prefrontal lobe will re-engage, and you can think again rationally.

Stan Tatkin, founder of Psychobiological Couples Therapy, uses these simple terms when triggered. The survival response in your brain takes over and runs around to cause havoc while reason is locked out.

Once your body calms down, reason can enter your brain again and bring logical thought to your actions.

As an adult, reason can help you make the right choice for you and your relationships. This goes with the saying, "Think before you act," which helps us grow and mature into adults. The survival response usually reacts the way you did when you were surviving in childhood.

As an adult, these younger responses probably don’t work well for you now. Allowing the survival response to take control of you doesn't work well in relationships and can make things worse for you.

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4. Identify your feelings.

Once your first draft is written, go back and identify the feelings you expressed. Were you angry, fearful, sad, lonely, ashamed, disgusted, or surprised?

These are the survival response feelings. The survival response must be taken seriously so their needs can be addressed and met by listening to reason.

5. Identify options.

Begin to envision the most generous version of what happened. Then, ask yourself to identify different actions you can take to address the situation. You can blow up at the other person and vent your anger on them. Or you could set a boundary with the person and state that it is not OK to treat you disrespectfully.

The survival response needs to be listened to because it represents any unmet needs you have. You can learn to meet your own unmet needs. You may need help from trusted, safe people, or you can hire a therapist who is trained to help.

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6. Act on one option.

Once you choose a plan, test it to see how it works.

7. Evaluate which option you chose.

The choice may be good, and things work out better. Or, it may fail, and you go back to your options and choose another.

8. Remember to ask for help.

If you are overwhelmed, you can get help from a qualified trauma-informed professional. They can help you know what to do when triggered and provide supportive encouragement.

If you’re living with PTSD, getting triggered is, unfortunately, part of the healing process. Learning what to do when you're PTSD is triggered makes all the difference in helping you feel empowered to get on with your life.

If you or somebody that you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, there is a way to get help. Call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or text "HELLO" to 741741 to be connected with the Crisis Text Line.

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Teresa Maples-Zuvela, CMAT, CSAT, LMHC, MS, is a licensed mental health counselor who specializes in working with women who have experienced betrayal in intimate relationships.

This article was originally published at Reprinted with permission from the author.