So, in my full-time life, I’m a mental health clinician for an unnamed government agency, and I am my site’s identified crisis counselor. When a Veteran needs same-day access services or is having a bad day, they generally meet with me. Trust me when I say there is no better job in the world. I get to connect with Veterans and help them in the moment. I’m one of those therapists who came to the profession later in life, and I’m still a drilling Soldier in the Army Reserve. Talking with Service Members is my thing.
This past year has been hard. COVID whooped everyone’s ass. This has been especially true for my fellow Soldiers with PTSD, so let’s take some time to understand it - because when we understand the “why” behind the “what,” we can get better faster.
We all have physical and psychological reactions to threats. This is our brain’s way of keeping us alive, and that is a good thing. This means that our bodies and our brains respond when triggered. Triggers are stimuli that cause our bodies and brains to react.
Triggers can be internal (like pain) or external (like fireworks) and they can bring us right back to remembering our past trauma. The smell of our attacker’s cologne, a box in the middle of the road, the sound of a gunshot - these are all examples of potential triggers.
Triggers can affect us in a variety of ways, making our hearts race to having a full-blown panic attack. Unfortunately, we don’t know our triggers until we experience them. It’s the worst kind of surprise.
And this is where COVID comes in; it brings with it many potential triggers. Fear, potential of death or serious illness, and all that not knowing is a trigger generator. In talking with Veterans, I think it’s helpful also to consider how many similarities there are with COVID and deployment. I can’t speak to the experience of our Vietnam Veterans, but here is the short list of triggers I see which remind me of deployment:
· Being stuck “on the FOB” = quarantine
· Not knowing who the enemy is = not knowing who is carrying the virus
· Face coverings
· Conflicting information about the threat
· Not being able to connect with family, loved ones. Isolation
· Not being able to help those affected
The list could go on.
Many of the folks I’ve seen for crisis counseling, previously went through an Evidence-Based Treatment for trauma and experienced real relief from their PTSD symptoms in the past. Their fear, they tell me, is that they have relapsed and gone back to a point where it feels like they never went through treatment at all because they are experiencing PTSD triggers again, such as anger and rage, nightmares, flashbacks, hyper-vigilance, or feeling suicidal.
I want to be clear: you are not back at square one. Our brains are doing their jobs and keeping us alive. Let’s take a knee and respond.
How Do We Respond To Triggers?
First things first: it’s important to stop and choose to be compassionate with ourselves. COVID had been hard on folks who have no history of trauma and have lots of money and resources available, so let’s intentionally try to be easy on ourselves. Experiencing a trigger is not a character defect. It is our brain’s way of keeping us alive.
To respond to triggers rather than let them fuck with us, we can create a simple two-step plan: (1) explore triggers, and (2) create a self-care plan.
Here’s How This Looks
For clients, who have worked with me in the past on PTSD and are feeling triggered now, we conduct one-hour check-in sessions to talk about triggers and create a self-care response plan. This, typically, is all it takes to get back on track. No need for big do-overs. Just a simple check in. If you can’t connect with your provider, here is how you can apply these steps to un-fuck your triggers:
(1) Explore triggers with a counselor or trusted ally or through journaling. Really take time to understand why your brain feels triggered. PTSD is a very logical disorder, and it is likely that your brain is stressed and anxious. Talking about it and journaling about it will help release anxiety and pressure.
(2) Create a plan of self-care. It is important to engage in self-care and ensure we are taking care of ourselves physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. Triggers can kick us out of gear and affect our sleep, our schedule, and our thoughts and feelings. There are great self-help guides available online, and we can use these to talk with those who support us.
Triggers are normal and do not mean that we are damaged. We absolutely can come back from our PTSD and reclaim our lives.
“If you believe change is possible, you want to change, and you are willing to do the work, you absolutely CAN get your life back.”