Health and PTSD: Connecting the Dots

Many of my clients would not say that they have suffered from trauma. But many of them have faced serious health challenges. So, one of my early tasks in therapy is to help them explore how much trauma they may have experienced without knowing it. Here’s how Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines trauma:

noun \ˈtrau̇-mə, ˈtrȯ-\: a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems usually for a long time

medical : a serious injury to a person’s body

So, would you characterize an insulin crash as “very difficult or unpleasant”?  What about cancer treatment? Or a stroke? Or chronic pain from rheumatoid arthritis?

These questions and the definition are the long way around to my point that health challenges are frequently traumatic.  They include pain, disruption in life, and other major stresses.  And surviving a traumatic event puts you at risk for developing post-traumatic triggers.

What’s a Post-Traumatic Trigger?

Good question.  A post-traumatic trigger is something that creates a reminder or re-visiting of your initial traumatic experience.  That means that nearly anything can be a trigger, because your brain created a unique set of associations with your initial trauma.  Some frequently identified triggers are tests or scans, doctor’s appointments, the smell or sound of hospitals or hearing about someone else’s health challenges.

What Happens if I’m Triggered?

The experience of trauma and post-traumatic stresses is different from person to person.  A few of the most common responses are freezing, flooding, flashbacks and dissociating. These are only a few types of response, there are many other possibiliteis as well.  Let’s look at the most common responses a bit more:

  • Freezing: When faced with a post-traumatic trigger, you may find yourself feeling unable to move, act or respond.  This can include either physical or mental responses.
  • Flooding: Flooding includes an intense rush of physical and emotional sensations.  If you don’t know that you have been triggered, you may feel completely taken off guard.
  • Flashbacks: A flashback is a re-living of a traumatic event.  It might be the memory of a treatment room, or the sensations of your first insulin pump.  Flashbacks occur suddenly, like flooding, and they can be disorienting, overwhelming, or frightening.
  • Dissociating: Dissociating is a fancy word for “completely disconnecting”.  Most of us have some experiences of dissociation pretty regularly–have you ever gotten home and not remembered your drive?  You were dissociated while you were driving.  If you experience a post-traumatic trigger, you may dissociate (it happens automatically) and then find yourself “checking back in” without knowing what happened.

So Then What?

I don’t know about you, but many of my clients are initially relieved to have some labels that help their responses make sense.  However, once the relief of being able to name and understand post-traumatic responses wears off, they also want tools to help with those responses.

There are lots of resources for coping with PTSD and post-traumatic triggers.  Here are a few easy-to-learn strategies that you can begin right away:

  1. Know what is happening.  There is huge relief in being able to name the fact that you have had a traumatic experience and that you may experience future triggers.  You’re not losing control.  You are having a natural response to a painful event.
  2. Use breathing to help ground you in your body and mind.  Even 3-5 slow, deep breaths will help you move away from a triggered state and into a more comfortable relationship with your body.
  3. Remind yourself that you are safe and out of immediate danger.  Trauma responses are part of your body’s emergency protection system, and reminding your brain of your safety can help lower the response level.
  4. Be aware that you probably won’t know all of your triggers–post-traumatic stress can sneak up on you.  Be patient with yourself as you move through the cycle of identifying and responding to triggers.
  5. Ask for help.  Support groups and therapy can be good places to get additional coping support.

Have you been through this yourself?  I’d love to hear your favorite strategy in the comments.  And if you need help, you are always free to reach out to me.

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