Many people seem to have a basic understanding of Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) and typically associate it with the military. Usually, people hear about the struggles veterans face upon returning from combat on television or in movies. Some may know someone with PTS. However, people, in general, do not know the complexities of PTS. What causes a person with PTS to suddenly become drenched in sweat without being physically active, begin to have an accelerated heart rate, or become enraged over the most minor thing or other extreme PTS symptoms? The answer is triggers.
What is a Trigger?
A trigger, as it relates to PTS, is anything that brings back a memory of a traumatic incident. For example, if someone was attacked in a dark alley, a trigger that may remind the victim of the incident and cause PTS symptoms might be the sound of footsteps coming from behind, being in a dark alley, a particular smell, someone touching them in a specific part of the body, clothing similar to what the attacker was wearing, or weather conditions similar to those at the time of the attack. For an Iraq veteran, it could be something as simple as sand or the sound of a car backfire or fireworks. Triggers can cause powerful flashbacks of a traumatic event.
Triggers can present themselves at different times in a person’s life and sometimes it may take years. In addition, the memory being triggered can sometimes be one that is not consciously remembered. For example, people traumatized by one specific event, such as a violent mugging, may suppress the memory for years, and can later in life find themselves battling a number of specific symptoms from PTS when faced with triggers that remind them of the experience. Differently, a veteran deployed for various combat tours suffering from cumulative PTS, a trauma that was experienced over and over again, may exhibit symptoms of PTS immediately and can also be far more complicated to overcome as the trauma happened repeatedly.
Tips on Coping with Holiday Stress
1. If you know of any specific triggers that could be eliminated, try to do so. For example, one woman knew that bags were one of her triggers and requested that all presents be wrapped. No gift bags were allowed in her home.
2. Enlist your family’s help. Explain triggers and how they affect you. They can help figure out ways to cope with upcoming holiday events.
3. Dealing with PTS can make it very hard to be around large groups of people. This is true even if they are people you love such as family and friends. There is pressure to participate and act happy when you, in fact, are feeling quite the opposite. Simply being around so many people can feel overwhelming and exhausting.
4. Do not feel obligated to participate in an activity if it makes you uncomfortable. If you do not feel like doing something, do not do it. Instead, make arrangements with your spouse or a friend to do something else. However, if you feel like you want to participate in the festivities but are not sure if you will be able to handle it, have a plan. For example, only stay for a set time or prearrange a signal to your friend that you need to leave when it becomes uncomfortable.
5. While drinking alcohol may be something you enjoy, do not drink too much. Leaving early is better.
6. Take quiet walks and naps to get relief from the pressure.
7. Have realistic expectations. It may not be the best holiday you have ever had, but on January 2nd, the holidays are officially over.
8. If you need professional help or just need to speak with someone during the holidays, please reach out.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
Veterans Crisis Line: Call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1
Memory and Trauma
A National Institutes of Health study defines four characteristics of the underlying memory processes involved with reexperiencing the trauma.
1. Nowness: Trauma survivors with PTS say that the intrusive memories that trigger their PTS symptoms are not like remembering something that happened in the past. That particular smell or other trigger makes them feel as though the traumatic incident is happening in the present moment. PTS means enduring the unbearable emotions and physical reactions, just as if it was happening NOW, over and over and over again. For a brief time, all connection with their current reality is lost.
2. Lack of Context: Triggers or intrusive memories can happen even when someone knows the facts do not support the trigger. Someone who experienced a home invasion might have been terrified their children would be killed. Even though that did not happen, they can suddenly find themselves experiencing all the intense emotions they felt in that moment.
3. Triggering Happens Easily and Unexpectedly: Someone with PTS will become familiar with many triggers. Unfortunately, a new trigger can suddenly appear that seems to have no connection to the traumatic event(s). The analysis did reveal that these new, unexpected, triggers were similar in some way to a stimuli (color, smell, shape, physical sensation, etc.) present just before or during the trauma.
4. Degree of Distress: Intrusive memories are far more powerful and distressing in trauma survivors with PTS than in those who survived a trauma but do not have PTS.
PTS Triggers and the Holidays
It is common to become more stressed than normal during the holidays. It may be self-imposed stress to some extent, but it is still stress. Many become very depressed during this time of year, perhaps because they remember happier times with family. Anyone with post-traumatic stress is subject to all of the stresses a person can experience and is likely to find this time of the year especially difficult.
Accelerated Resolution Therapy for Treating PTS
Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART) was developed to help those struggling with post-traumatic stress, especially veterans. This evidence-based therapy is considered an effective psychotherapy for PTS, stress, and depression by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
It does not take months or years to benefit from Accelerated Resolution Therapy. People typically experience relief in only one to five sessions. To learn more, contact ART International. Help is waiting.