PTSD and Fight-or-flight Response: It’s Sound that Triggers and Haunts You
October 3, 2019
Driving and hearing a loud motor. Sitting quietly in my backyard when my neighbors start sawing or mowing their lawns. Hanging out with my husband when he drops something accidentally on the hardwood floor. Sounds that have for decades sent me into a fight-or-flight response, and yet, no one understood what was happening to me. Not even myself.
Doctors didn’t ask me what was sending me into fits of rage and bouts of dissociation. Leading to debilitating anxiety and depression. And even if they had, I don’t think I would’ve known that sometimes it was sound.
It wasn’t until I started seeing my occupational therapist a little over one year ago that I was even diagnosed with PTSD, at the age of 37, when I’d been desperately seeking help since I was 15. Over two decades of no one properly diagnosing me. Over two decades of being triggered by sound and not knowing why.
It was something that not even my sensory processing disorder (SPD) diagnosis could explain. Because being triggered by sound is different than being triggered by other sensory stimuli. Perhaps it’s the inner-ear connection that sends sound straight to the brain stem that makes sound a different trigger. Cutting me to my core. Causing me to dissociate. Chasing away my soul. Affecting every aspect of my life until it passes. And even then, the next trigger is somewhere lurking in the shadows. Ready to strike.
Being Followed by Fear
I recently accompanied my husband on his work trip, and I had a triggering experience that followed me into my sleep.
We were at dinner—all 120 of us—dining in the vines at a vineyard. The weather was perfect. The food and wine were delicious. There were good people surrounding us. Positive vibes in the air. And aside from the beginning of the dinner where I had to excuse myself and run into the restroom while people were applauding, it was quiet. Peaceful even.
After, there were buses waiting to take us to the hotel. We walked to the back of our half-empty bus and it was quiet. So we relaxed. I closed my eyes and rested my head. Holding my husband’s hand and feeling joyful. Then it started.
The bus driver turned on the music so loud that it sent instant fear throughout my body. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t speak. I covered my ears with my hands and tried to scream, Turn it down, but nothing came out. My husband asked, but no one heard him. I pushed my earplugs into my ears, covering them with my palms, trying to block out the sound as tears ran down my face. Trapped in a metal box, I felt the panic wash over me. And I was frozen.
The second the bus stopped, I ran to the front. Fleeing. Not following the courteous exiting order. Once off the bus, I sobbed. My husband hugged me. We made our way through the hotel lobby and toward the elevators, but I couldn’t bring myself to get into another metal box. Especially not with people who were still celebrating. Feeling good from the wine. Being loud.
When we got back to our hotel room, my body was in shock. I was paranoid. Afraid. My husband wanted to leave the room to get something to drink, but I couldn’t be alone, and I was not risking leaving our room to accompany him. So we were both trapped by my fear. I asked him to hold me tight, and I finally fell asleep under my weighted blanket. But even my slumber wasn’t safe.
I dreamed I was in a parking lot getting into my car, and a man walked up to my window with a gun and told me not to go anywhere. He did the same thing to the other cars near me. After he made his rounds and went back to his car, I put my car in reverse and sped out backward, thinking he wouldn’t be able to see my license plate that way, and headed home. Once at home with my husband, a home that was dirty and didn’t resemble ours, I still didn’t feel safe.
In the next part of my dream, I was alone in the house, and when I opened the front door, there was the gunman, walking up our driveway. With his gun pointing at me. How’d you know where I live, I pleaded. We’ve worked together for years, he said, still walking toward me with his gun, And you just walk past me.
Then my husband appeared with a gun in his hand and began approaching the gunman from behind. The gunman heard him and told him not to try anything or he’d shoot me. He had the gun pointing at my throat. Then I woke up.
Recovering from Being Triggered
It took me almost a full day to recover. Not only from my traumatic experience on the bus, but from the fear that followed me into my dreams.
The next day, I had to skip the scheduled winery tours that I had been looking forward to. I couldn’t interact. I needed to sleep and to rest. The loud music on the bus had triggered fear. Real fear. Fear that invited the trauma back into my body. And chased out my soul. Taking me days to get back into my body. To feel safe.
But the tricky part about PTSD is you never know when you’re safe. You’re haunted. Around every corner. Where you’re not even safe in your dreams.
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This story originally ran on Psych Central on October 4, 2019. Since Psych Central has been sold, the link to the original is no longer available: