One aspect of recovering from PTSD is not knowing when or if your trauma response will be activated again.
(Some people don’t like the word “triggered” and prefer to say “activated”. I’m using that term now to be more neutral. If a gun was involved in someone’s trauma, to say “triggered” in itself could be activating.)
I recently had an experience that really showed me how much progress I have made in trauma recovery, and I want to share it here in case you or someone you care about is struggling with PTSD recovery. It may give you/them confidence in the healing process.
But first, some background.
I’ve had an extreme stress response activated several times years after doing a lot of work on trauma recovery, which was many years after my childhood trauma.
These stress responses always seemed to happen out of the blue…as once again, the rug was pulled out from under my feet, and I lost my ground and was sent spinning, not knowing which way was up or down.
It’s pretty miserable to be flooded with stress hormones just because something happened in the present that in some way reminded me of the original trauma. The threat seems very real at the time.
However, I’d like to make it clear that each time I went into a stress response, I learned something. I wasn’t entirely helpless.
The most important learning was to check the situation out: just because my body and mind were all jacked up in response to an apparent immediate threat to my safety doesn’t mean there was an actual immediate threat to my safety.
I did some simple critical thinking. Am I safe in this very moment?
I was safe. No one was directly threatening me or my loved ones.
My perceptions played a trick on me because the original trauma was wired into my nervous system. That’s what PTSD is.
Even though I was grateful to be safe, I still had to deal with the cascade of stress chemicals.
When that happened, I tended to hole up by myself because I felt toxic and didn’t want to spread the toxicity. I did more self-nurturing than usual, taking soothing baths, skin brushing, giving myself manicures and pedicures and facials, listening to soothing music or recordings (Pema Chodron is great, also anything funny), taking naps and getting plenty of sleep, wearing soft fabrics, eating healthy, drinking endless cups of camomile tea.
I listened to guided meditations because it was so difficult to calm my monkey mind down when I tried doing my usual silent meditations.
My acupuncturist at the time said I had adrenal fatigue and recommended taking rhodiola and ginseng. After the first few times of being activated, I sought a Somatic Experiencing practitioner who helped me a lot.
My usual behavior was more go-go-go, hmmm, must be nice to have time for that stuff.
Was I addicted to stress? Did that make my stress response worse? I don’t know.
I made time to slow down and nurture myself and came to appreciate these activities when not activated.
I noticed that each time my trauma response was activated, it took less time to return to normal than before. The first time I was activated, it took three full months. The second time, about six weeks. The most recent, about a week.
And then just a few days ago, this happened:
I woke as I often do about 4 am. I laid in bed, in the dark, and my mind made its way back to a memory associated with the original trauma.
I started to feel activated. My back felt prickly and I felt agitated and a little panicky, like I need to do something! Now!
I realized I was at the beginning of a stress response. For the first time, it happened mildly and slowly enough that I was conscious of it beginning.
I did not want to go into a full-blown stress response.
I stopped thinking about the original trauma and brought my attention to my body, curled up safe in my bed, under the covers with my favorite pillow in the dark, in the present moment.
And the agitation and panic and chemical cascade just stopped. It seems like it took less than a minute to feel fully back to my safe and healthy self.
It seemed marvelous to me that I stopped being retraumatized simply by using my mind constructively.
I later told this to my colleague who’s helped me with trauma recovery bodywork, and he said I had agency.
Yes. I was not helpless, which seems to be a hallmark of traumatic experience. I could do something about it because I was conscious of the onset, able to distinguish present from past, able to direct my attention, and I knew what I wanted — safety and peace, not activation.
Also, there may have been some energetic guidance helping, but I don’t know for sure.
I do recall recently voicing what so many trauma survivors experience: How does one ever know that one has fully recovered from a trauma? How can one know there are no more flashbacks, no more activations?
I can’t know for sure, but this feels like a huge step forward in the direction of being free from reactivation.