A significant percentage of people with substance use disorder (SUD) have trauma-related mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you have ever misused substances to cope with PTSD symptoms like flashbacks, triggers can get complicated. You may experience flashbacks or intrusive thoughts related to your post-traumatic stress disorder, followed by intrusive cravings. You can take steps to lessen or eliminate specific triggers and lower the risk of relapse.
Anyone can experience severe trauma and develop PTSD or other anxiety disorders. One study on the subject concluded that approximately “46.4% of individuals with lifetime PTSD also met criteria for SUD.” Triggers are a common symptom of both conditions and can be caused by:
- Thoughts or memories of a stressful or traumatic event
- Seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, or tasting something that reminds you of a stressful moment or event
- Mood shifts
- Feelings of anxiety and panic
- People, places, and items that remind you of a stressful event
- Certain dates or anniversaries
Identify Your Triggers and Responses
Any of your senses can trigger a flashback, craving, or other reaction. Most of the time, it is relatively easy to identify triggers. One way of doing it is by following the four steps listed below:
#1. Learn to recognize when you have experienced a trigger. Usually, this manifests physically with increased heart rate, loss of focus, and physical reactions like flinching or other involuntary movements. Sometimes it takes the form of flashbacks or body memories.
#2. Keep track of these moments by physically writing them down or recording them in some other way. Write down how you feel, what you think when it happens, and the events directly before and after each instance.
#3. After some time, you will begin to notice a pattern. For example, you may feel yourself growing anxious and feeling scared whenever you pass a location that reminds you of the trauma. Once you identify the triggers, you can work towards dismantling any maladaptive thought patterns or behaviors.
#4. Work with your therapist to find healthy ways to counter the symptoms and work through the triggers. Often this takes some time, but therapy designed to treat PTSD can successfully treat the underlying issues and lessen or eliminate the effect of triggers.
Use your treatment and aftercare resources to cope with trauma reminders and prevent relapse. When you return home after completing a program, the familiar environment may cause an increase in anxiety, triggers, and intrusive thoughts. During your treatment at a rehabilitation facility like White House Recovery and Detox, you will work with a case manager and clinical team to develop a care plan that includes finding ways to process trauma and cope with symptoms.
4 Useful Tips for Overcoming Triggers
No one coping mechanism works for everyone, so you may need to try a few before finding the one that you find most useful. In addition, coping skills may help you manage one trigger and not another, so the more options you have, the better. Below are four quick tips for decreasing the effect that triggers have on your day-to-day life:
#1. Keep a journal for tracking triggers and cravings by writing down the dates, times, and activities or thoughts you experience during those moments. Doing this helps you understand stress points in your life so you can plan ways to work around or avoid them. Monitor the frequency of these moments and any trends so you can work through them with your therapist.
#2. Practice becoming more aware of your body and the physical symptoms that accompany triggers like increased heart rate, inability to catch your breath, and difficulty focusing. The more you understand how your triggers affect you physically, the faster you can work out ways to counter them.
#3. Learn breathing and relaxation exercises that you can use to counter the physical reactions caused by triggers and cravings. If you can consciously relax your body, then it becomes easier to quiet your thoughts.
#4. You can choose from hundreds of possible grounding techniques to find the ones that work best for you. Being anchored in the present moment can decrease the symptoms of PTSD and help lessen trigger responses. Learn more by visiting our page on Mindfulness.
The Dangers of Avoidance Behaviors
Triggers can include anything that reminds you of a traumatic event, and they often happen without warning. Because of that, many people choose to isolate themselves to stay away from anything that could lead to a reminder of the trauma. Unfortunately, the isolation can lead to depression, anxiety, and an increased risk of relapse. Avoidance behaviors are a natural response to trauma and stress, but you need to try minimizing them during recovery. Your therapist and support system will help you work through any issues you may encounter.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance use disorder (SUD) are often co-occurring, and they share specific symptoms, including flashbacks, triggers, and other behavioral responses. Any treatment program you complete will have valuable tools and skills you can use to process your trauma. Only by addressing the root cause of mental health problems can you hope to fully heal and move forward. White House Recovery and Detox staff work hard to help people overcome any challenges related to achieving long-term sobriety. We use evidence-based treatments like psychotherapy and medication-assisted treatment (MAT). Trauma responses manifest due to specific events, and often, it can take months or years in therapy to fully work through the memories and feelings related to that event. We cannot overstate the importance of having regular one-on-one therapy and a comprehensive support system. Get access to treatment and resources when you attend White House Recovery and Detox. Learn more by contacting us today by calling (800) 510-5393.