Living With PTSD: What To Do When You Are Triggered

Imagine reliving a stressful situation over and over again with no resolution. It would feel pretty overwhelming every time a similar experience happened. Below you'll find out what to do when you are triggered... 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. This same child, many years later as an adult, may be triggered every time someone in her life gets angry and raises their voice in her presence. She may not even know that the two scenes are related in 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 activates her brain to respond in a similar way 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 wide 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. This triggered response is referred to as fight or flight, which is an adaptive survival skill from prehistoric times. In our past, humans who had a strong fight or flight response were the ones who were not eaten for dinner by the saber-tooth tigers. Those with the strongest fight or flight response survived. Obviously, prey animals do not generally hunt humans now. But our fight or flight response has remained. We have options for dealing with this survival response now. As an adult, most of us aspire to live life abundantly and thrive. If you are ruled by the highly emotionally charged experiences from past, you may feel hopeless or anxious that you can ever attain a thriving 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.

Living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can be managed when you know what to do when you are triggered.

  1. Find Safety
Remove yourself from the triggering situation; find a safe quiet spot to calm yourself.
  1. Calm your body
Here are a few simple practices that can help you 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, recite affirmations like “I am ok”
  1. Write down what happened
As Brene Brown writes in her book “Rising Strong”, write the shitty first draft. Just let your mind download the first response beliefs and thoughts on to the paper. The content of the writing is not as important as the emotional release it brings. When you download all the emotions and you feel calmer, your prefrontal lobe will re-engage and you will be able to think again rationally. Stan Tatkin founder of Psychobiological Couples Therapy uses these simple terms when triggered. The “Primitives” in your brain take over; they are running around causing havoc while the “Ambassadors” of reason are locked out. Its not until your body calms down that the Ambassadors can enter your brain again and bring reason and thought to your actions. As an adult, the Ambassadors can help you make the next right choice for you and your relationships. This goes along with the saying “Think before you Act” which helps us grow and mature into adults instead of reactive bitty kids. The primitives usually react the way you did when you were surviving in childhood. As an adult, these younger ways of responding probably don’t work well for you now. Allowing the primitives to take control of you doesn’t work well in relationships and can make things a whole lot worse for you.
  1. Identify your feelings
Once your shitty first draft is written, go back and identify the feelings that you expressed. Were you angry, fearful, sad, lonely, ashamed, disgusted, or surprised? These are the primitives’ feelings. The primitives need to be taken seriously and their needs can be addressed and met by you the adult by listening to the Ambassadors.
  1. 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 choose to blow up at the other person and vent your anger on them. Or you could set a boundary with the person and state it is not ok to treat me disrespectfully. The primitives need to be listened to, they represent a unmet need 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.
  1. Act on one option
Once you choose a plan of action, see how it works.
  1. Evaluate which option you chose.
The choice may be a good one and things work out better, or it may fail and you will need to go back to your options and chose another one to get your need met.
  1. Remember you can ask for help
If you are overwhelmed and at the end of what you know to do, you can get help from a qualified trauma-informed professional. They can help you know What To Do When You Are 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 are triggered can make all the difference for helping you feel empowered to get on with your life. If you’re in the Seattle area, I am a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist, Certified EMDR and Trauma-Informed Therapist. You can follow my website for future articles or give me a call at (253) 271-4896 to schedule a consultation.