More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
What To Do When You Are Triggered
By Scott Davis
Wed, Sep 19 2007

For me, one of the toughest things about recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety has been learning how to manage triggers.

If you?ve got PTSD or you have panic attacks, you know what I mean by triggers; those little things that, once your ?anxiety brain? gets hold of them, send you into a downward spiral of fear, panic, and sometimes, even depression.

My worst trigger is child abuse. If I see a news story about an abused child, or even if I overhear someone talking about an abused child, my pulse rate just shoots up. If the abuse is sexual, then all bets are off and I have to take action to manage the trigger before I get anxious.

I do a couple of little things to manage triggers and minimize the effects that they have on me. They may work for you.

Know the Signs
One of the most important things to learn about triggers is how to recognize when something is triggering you. This doesn?t mean that you have to walk around being hyper-vigilant, but it does mean that you need to maintain a certain level of awareness of your surroundings.

I know that I am being triggered when an event causes me to have butterflies in my stomach. Not the ?omigod she just looked at me? butterflies, but the ?wow that dog looks dangerous? butterflies. If something happens, and you feel an immediate twinge of anxiety, watch out. You might be being triggered.

Go Somewhere Safe
If you get triggered, no matter where you are, excuse yourself and go somewhere safe. Public restrooms are perfect for this. You need to get somewhere where there is nothing that will make you even more anxious. Don?t worry about how it will look if you have to leave; it is much worse to have a major panic attack in public than it is to have one in a bathroom stall. Not that having one in a stall is a picnic either, but at least you are in a controlled situation.

Breathe and Visualize
Once you are safe, start focussing on controlling your breathing, and on a ?safe? image. For me, a ?safe? image is a battleship. Don?t ask me why, for some reason battleships make me feel very safe. For some tips on controlling your breathing, check out one of these articles: How To Relax Using Deep Breathing Techniques or How To Survive A Panic Attack.

The breathing and the safe image help distract your body from the fear reaction to the trigger. Keep both of them up until you feel your anxiety level dropping and you begin to calm down.

Recovery and Prevention
When you are calm and back to normal, carefully (very carefully) review how you were triggered. Back when I had flashbacks, I used to write everything down whenever I noticed something was triggering me, so keeping a ?trigger journal? can be a big help. This has two benefits:

  1. writing it down helps you process the trigger and your response, and
  2. writing it down helps you understand how you were triggered and helps you avoid future triggering situations.
If you are in therapy, it is also a really good idea to let your therapist know if you have been triggered.

Hair Trigger
Being triggered is not a sign of weakness, so try not to beat yourself up if something does trigger you. Triggers definitely suck, but they also serve a useful purpose by helping you learn about your sensitivities and anxiety. With proper management and guidance from a therapist, you can use triggers as an opportunity to help your recovery.
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