Overcome Your PTS Triggers in Three Steps
Have you ever been enjoying a nice sunny day with family and friends, everything seems to be going alright, and then all of a sudden you’re zoned out, panicked, and running inside, having lost interest in doing anything? How about driving to work or a VA appointment enjoying a good tune, or maybe even quiet time in the car, and then your heart begins to race, you get angry, and devolve into a road rage frenzy? Or have you been enjoying an action movie, family huddled around for what should have been an enjoyable evening, when you suddenly catch yourself wanting to cry or struggling to breathe? What about being out with friends and then, out of nowhere, you begin staring off into space, reliving a nightmare from war?
These scenarios aren’t accidents; they are brought on by triggers. What’s a trigger (other than the lever you pull to discharge a firearm)? Triggers, in this sense, are sounds, sights, or smells that trigger memories of traumatic events, often sending your body into a physiological and often debilitating fight for survival that includes increased heartrate, shortness of breath, muscle tension, and panic. It can also lead to irrational fears, causing those afflicted to avoid public places, loud noises, or certain people. Left unchecked, these triggers can drive sufferers to isolate themselves from loved ones, exacerbating issues of depression, anxiety, and PTS.
This short article will give you the tools to identify your triggers and overcome them, helping you get control of your life an improve your personal relationships.
Step 1: Identify Your Triggers
Triggers can range anywhere from a loud noise, to a dead animal on the side of the road. They can be women or children screaming or crying, or certain vehicles. Triggers can also be simple sounds, smells, sights, tastes, sudden movement/touch, or a combination of things. Whatever form your triggers take, you need to learn to recognize them!
So how do you do that? Glad you asked. The first thing you need to do is to keep a journal, and when you identify a trigger, log and share it with your loved ones. Tell them to help you identify your triggers (and reassure them that you won’t bite when they do). After all, they might notice a difference in your mood before you do, saving you from an embarrassing and unpleasant situation. They may also help you identify what it was that set you off, enabling you to log another trigger.
Now, I realize the idea of opening up like this may make some uncomfortable. After all, it’s not easy making yourself vulnerable. However, I assure you that doing so will make a world of difference in building trust and enhancing communication in your relationships. Armed with knowledge of your triggers and help from your family, you’ll have the power to act before it’s too.
Step 2: Join a Veteran Support Group
If you are not using the VA, you are setting yourself up for failure. I highly recommend asking about the VA’s PTS groups. Now, if you’re like I was, you’re probably skeptical and thinking, “Who can trust the VA?” or that you “Don’t need those stupid groups.” But let me tell you, my life changed the day I walked into a PTS group at my local VA. I was surrounded by twenty plus men, most of who served in the Korean or Vietnam wars, and who have learned to overcome the same demons I was (am) dealing with.
These support groups allow you to openly communicate without fear of judgment or fear of the members not understanding what you’re talking about, what you’ve been through, or where you’re coming from. Group sessions are led by a therapist who usually starts the session with a topic or question, though members are welcome to talk ad hoc about any issues they’re dealing with. The most important thing about these meetings, however, is that everyone comes together to help a fellow brother or sister out.
Step 3: Exposure
This is likely the toughest step of all, but I promise you it will pay dividends in improving your life. I highly recommend giving prolonged exposure therapy a shot. Exposure therapy is just that—it exposes you to your triggers in a safe environment, desensitizing you to them. For instance, if your trigger is loud fireworks, exposure therapy will expose you to the sound of fireworks, incrementally increasing the intensity of the exposure until the sound of fireworks is no longer traumatic for you.
Exposure therapy lasts 12-15 weeks, if you complete it, but you can stop at any time. These 12-15 weeks are tough and push you out of your comfort zone. However, I promise if you go in with an open mind, you will get out what you put into it (like most things in life). You will start with small goals, overcoming less severe triggers, and work your way up to overcome the larger ones. The therapy can also help you uncover other triggers, arming you with additional knowledge.
Through identifying your triggers, gaining peer support, and participating in prolonged exposure therapy, you too can overcome them. If you’re like me, you’ll also develop closer bonds with your loved ones, enhance your communication with your family, and improve your life. But you must take the first step.
About the Author
Justin Miller is the major inspiration behind Objective Zero. Originally from Wheeling, West Virginia, Justin enlisted as an infantryman in the U.S. Army in April of 2003 and served for 11 years, deploying twice to Iraq. Justin served as a rifleman with the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, was an infantry scout and sniper team leader with the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, and was a infantry squad leader with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment at Fort Stewart, Georgia. Justin also served as a military recruiter in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. He has an Associate of Arts from Columbia Southern University.