top of page

Coping with Triggers: Understanding PTSD and Addiction

Living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and fighting against addiction can feel like navigating a world rigged with landmines. For those who have experienced trauma, seemingly harmless events can trigger a cascade of emotions and memories, catapulting them back to their darkest moments. Addiction, often a numbing agent against the pain of past experiences, further complicates the struggle by posing relapsing temptations in response to these triggers. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the intricate relationship between PTSD and addiction, the devastating impact of triggers, and the empowering coping strategies that can help individuals reclaim their lives.

Understanding PTSD

veteran struggling with ptsd trigger

PTSD is a complex mental health condition that can develop in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, serious accident, terrorist act, war/combat, sexual assault, other violent personal assault, and/or other abuse. The symptoms can be debilitating, disrupting normal functioning, and include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

The Power of Triggers

Triggers are stimuli – such as smells, sounds, or sights – that can bring back the memory of the traumatic event and elicit the same emotions and physiological responses as the original trauma. For individuals with PTSD, avoiding these triggers is not always possible, and the unpredictability of their appearance can be distressing and disabling.

The Role of Triggers in Trauma Responses

Triggers play a significant role in activating the body's trauma response, particularly when effective coping skills are not used. These responses are broadly categorized into four types: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.

  • Fight response is triggered when an individual perceives a threat and instinctively prepares to confront it. This might manifest as anger or aggression in response to a triggering event.

  • Flight response drives a person to escape the perceived threat, which can lead to avoidance behaviors, such as withdrawing from social situations or substances use as an escape mechanism.

  • Freeze response occurs when an individual feels powerless to change the situation, leading to numbing or dissociation. It’s a state of being 'stuck' in the face of triggers.

  • Fawn response, less commonly known, involves appeasing or trying to please others to avoid conflict or further trauma, often at the expense of one’s own needs and boundaries. This response is most common for those who have experienced abuse.

Check out our in-depth exploration on trauma responses here.

Without effective coping skills, individuals with PTSD might find themselves uncontrollably cycling through these responses, with triggers acting as the catalyst. The unpredictability and intensity of these reactions not only exacerbate the symptoms of PTSD but also increase the risk of substance abuse as a form of self-medication, thereby creating a vicious cycle between PTSD and addiction. Identifying and understanding these triggers and responses is the first step towards developing healthier coping mechanisms.

Understanding Addiction

drug deal

Addiction is a chronic disease characterized by drug seeking and use that is compulsive, or difficult to control, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain—they change its structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long-lasting and can lead to the harmful behaviors seen in people who abuse drugs and alcohol.

Triggers to Use

Triggers to use substances can be environmental, social, or internal (such as emotional states or physical discomfort). Exposure to a trigger can initiate cravings and compel a person to use substances, potentially leading to relapse. Understanding and managing these triggers is essential to maintaining sobriety.

The Trauma-Addiction Loop

Trauma, especially when unprocessed or unresolved, can increase the likelihood of developing an addiction. Similarly, the repetitive use of addictive substances can lead to trauma, creating a cycle of trauma and addiction that is difficult to break without specialized intervention.

The Truth About Triggers

While we can't entirely control our environment and the triggers it may present, we do have the power to control how these factors affect us, shaping our response and resilience in the face of adversity.

Triggers are powerful but perishable. They can surge through our system with the intensity of an electric shock, but they can also fade away. Recognizing these triggers for what they are— reminders of the past— is the first step in disempowering them. It’s about acknowledging their presence without giving them the power to control our behavior.

The Perspective Shift: From Victims to Victor

The paradigm shift from viewing triggers as weapons forged against us, to recognizing ourselves as the ones holding these weapons, is revolutionary in coping with PTSD and addiction. It's a shift from a passive stance, where triggers control our reactions and emotions, to an active stance, where we acknowledge the presence of these triggers but refuse to grant them the power to dictate our actions. This perspective empowers individuals, emphasizing that the trigger, no matter how daunting, is essentially powerless unless we decide to "pull the bang switch." By adopting this mindset, people can reclaim control over their lives, making conscious choices rather than being swayed by the echo of past traumas. It's about understanding that while we may not have control over the existence of triggers in our environment, we certainly have control over our reactions to them, transforming from victims of our circumstances to victors over our challenges.

Coping Strategies for PTSD and Addiction

mindfulness breathing technique

Seeking Professional Help

Therapeutic support from counselors, psychologists, or psychiatrists is vital for those struggling with PTSD and/or addiction. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), EMDR, and trauma-focused therapies can help process traumatic experiences and develop healthier coping mechanisms. Similarly, addiction treatment with medication, therapy, and support groups can provide the foundation for a sober life.

Mindfulness and Meditation

Mindfulness practices can help individuals remain grounded in the present moment, reducing the impact of triggers by centering their attention on the here and now. Meditation and deep-breathing exercises have been shown to alleviate symptoms of PTSD and can be effective tools in the fight against triggers.

Building Coping Skills

Developing a toolkit of coping skills is crucial for managing the onset of triggers and urges to use substances. Here are some strategies:

  • Grounding techniques like ‘5-4-3-2-1’ to shift focus away from triggers: 5 things you can see: Look around and identify five objects, such as a blue pen, a green plant, a white mug, a red book, and a yellow notepad. 4 things you can touch: Feel different textures, like a smooth table surface, a soft pillow, a rough wall, and a warm cup. 3 things you can hear: Listen to sounds like birds chirping, a clock ticking, and distant traffic noise. 2 things you can smell: Take a whiff of scents like fresh coffee or flowers. 1 thing you can taste: Savor a piece of chocolate or a mint to engage your sense of taste.

  • Delaying gratification: Instead of immediate rewards, wait for a more significant benefit to not engaging with the trigger later on.

  • Distracting yourself with a hobby or activity: Engage in activities like painting, playing a musical instrument, or reading a book to shift focus.

  • Refocusing thoughts on positive aspects: Redirect your mind towards positive thoughts and affirmations to promote a better mindset.

  • Deep breathing exercises: Practice deep breathing techniques to calm your mind and body, such as inhaling deeply through your nose and exhaling slowly through your mouth. A valuable technique is, breathing in to your diaphragm for 4 seconds, holding it in for 4 seconds, then slowly exhaling for 4 seconds. Counting can help manage distress, along with transitioning to diaphragm breathing instead of chest breathing. Breathing into the chest triggers the release of cortisol into the body, while diaphragmatic breathing reassures the body of safety and calms somatic dysregulation.

  • Journaling to express emotions: Write down your feelings and thoughts in a journal to process and understand your emotions better.

  • Engaging in physical activities or exercise: Stay active through activities like jogging, yoga, or dancing to boost your mood and overall well-being.

  • Setting boundaries and avoiding triggering environments: Establish boundaries to protect your mental health and avoid situations that may trigger negative emotions.

  • Using relaxation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation: Practice techniques such as tensing and relaxing different muscle groups to release tension and promote relaxation.

  • Service: For addicts in recovery, a useful tool is diving into service. Helping others, whether in a fellowship, community, or individual setting, can provide fulfillment and purpose outside oneself.

Support Systems

Engaging with support systems, whether through therapy groups or anonymous groups like AA or NA, can provide a network of peers who understand the struggle. Their shared experiences and wisdom can offer invaluable support during moments of vulnerability.

Intersection of PTSD and Addiction

Dual diagnosis is an approach to treatment that effectively addresses the co-occurrence of PTSD and addiction. By employing a combination of psychological therapy and medication management, patients can tackle both conditions simultaneously. This integrated approach is crucial for long-term recovery.

Supporting Trauma Survivors

Supporting individuals who have experienced trauma requires a conscious effort to provide a safe, empathetic environment. Creating a supportive community where survivors can share their stories without judgment is essential for healing.

Embracing Triumph Over Triggers

Navigating the path to healing from PTSD and addiction may seem challenging, but it's a journey filled with opportunities for growth and transformation. By investigating into the depths of triggers, embracing effective coping strategies, and seeking support from professionals and communities, individuals can conquer these obstacles and forge a path to a life of sobriety and fulfillment. Managing triggers is a continuous journey, a testament to your resilience, perseverance, and unwavering belief in a brighter tomorrow. Stand tall, empowered to overcome, and let the spark of hope guide you towards a future filled with possibilities.

Experiencing triggers can exacerbate symptoms of PTSD and addiction, underscoring the critical importance of employing healthy coping skills to manage their effects effectively. Chateau Health & Wellness offers a dual diagnosis residential treatment program tailored to adults grappling with PTSD and addiction, providing comprehensive care and support.
To learn more, call (435) 222-5225 today.

recent posts

about chateau

get in touch

bottom of page