What To Do If You’re Triggered In Public, According To Mental Health Professionals
One of the most difficult aspects of living with PTSD is that you usually can't control, or always anticipate, when you will be triggered and flooded with anxiety, flashbacks, or panic. These symptoms can interfere with day-to-day activities, but fortunately, learning and utilizing different skills can help you cope with PTSD triggers, even when you're out in public.
"A PTSD trigger is anything that recalls the memory of the traumatic incident. For example, seeing certain people, environments, symbols, sounds or music," Dr. Sheri Jacobson, founder of Harley Therapy, tells Bustle. Further, Anthony Nave, LCSW, a clinician at Mountainside, tells Bustle that while PTSD triggers are unique to each and every person, they are "often implicit memories or broken images, feelings, sensations, sounds, or smells that body and brain can remember subconsciously, but the mind can’t remember explicitly or consciously."
According to the National Alliance On Mental Illness (NAMI), around 8 million adults in the U.S. live with PTSD, which is classified as a type of anxiety disorder. Common symptoms of PTSD include intrusive thoughts, emotional numbness, anxiety, flashbacks, sleep issues, heightened senses, irritation, and avoidance of people, places, or things that set off traumatic memories.
Because of the nature of this mental health disorder, it is tricky at times to predict exactly where, how, and when these symptoms will be triggered. However, here are seven ways mental health professionals say you can cope with your PTSD when it's triggered in public.
1. Try The Five Senses Mindfulness Technique
Both Nave and Jacobson agree that mindfulness is key to dealing with flashbacks, anxiety, or other symptoms related to PTSD. Specifically, Naves says the "five senses mindfulness exercise" has been extremely helpful in his experience with his clients.
"Look around for five things you see, listen for four things you can hear, search around your desk, bag, or general area for three things you can feel, [and] then try to identify two things you can smell," he explains. "Finally, [find] one thing you taste like the gum you were already chewing, or the coffee you drank earlier that is lingering."
2. Use Breathing Exercises
PTSD can cause you to reminisce on past events and trauma, so using breathing techniques can help you stay present in the moment. "Instantaneously taking deep breaths relaxes us and tells our brain we are not in danger," says Jacobson.
3. Repeat A Mantra To Yourself
Reciting a mantra to yourself can help you combat much of the negative emotions that can come with PTSD. "Some [of my] clients have a go-to mantra on standby that they pair with deep breathing that helps to ground them," says Nave. "These can all be modified to fit your personality like trying to name all the players on your favorite sports team, to listening to your favorite song, or reciting the lyrics quietly to yourself."
4. Try Visualizing A Place Or Memory That's Calming
Research has shown that the practice of visualization can positively effect everything from your confidence and sense of motivation, to your motor skills. Nave says an effective way to deal with PTSD triggers in public is to take a moment to use this skill, and visualize "a calm place, either real or imagined [...] Then, similarly guide yourself through what your five senses would come across in your calm place, until internally you feel more relaxed, or grounded in the moment." This could mean picturing yourself on a beach vacation, curled up with hot cocoa watching the snow, or simply snuggling in bed with your beloved pet.
5. Or, Use This Specific Technique
In addition to visualizing your personal happy place, Jacobson says to "view thoughts as floating clouds that will come and go." This way, you dwell less on intrusive thoughts, and again, stay more grounded in the present.
6. Practice Mind-Body Practices Regularly
One of the best ways to cope with PTSD when it's triggered in public is to incorporate various mindful practices into your life on the reg that make these tough moments easier to manage. "I encourage clients who are in the early stages of recovery to be proactive, and routinely engage in mind/body/spirit activities such mediation, yoga, Qigong, mindful hiking, and acupuncture," says Nave. "[These] are all activities that help improves brain’s ability regulate emotions."
7. Practice Being Triggered In Public
Since PTSD symptoms and triggers often vary from person to person, Jacobson says, "It can be useful to work with a therapist to become more equipped to deal with certain triggers." She adds that experimenting with different techniques and scenarios in the presence of your therapist may help you safely find what works for you, and better prepare you for being triggered in public in the future.
Next time your PTSD is triggered in public, consider trying one of these tips to recenter and calm yourself. They may not all work for you, but if you can find even just one or two go-to coping skills, it can make dealing with triggers that much easier.