PTSD, Fight-or-flight and Relationships: When Being Triggered Makes You Difficult to Be Around
January 24, 2020
When you suffer from PTSD, it often appears as if you’re not okay. Because typically, you’re not. Whatever environment you’re in is probably triggering you. Whether you recognize it or not. So you’re either distracted or on edge. Ready to explode. And when others are around, it becomes difficult for them to be around you. Shows them the darkest side of you. The primitive side that only knows how to fight or flee.
But PTSD never goes away. And neither do the unhealthy thoughts and unexpected triggers that come along with it. Leaving those of us who suffer, and those who love us, left to deal.
When you have PTSD, your thoughts stay in the dark longer. For that is the place you know best. It’s the duality that lives inside of you. For you’re constantly reliving when you escaped death. So you might reference death. Unconsciously say you want to kill someone. Or yourself. Without meaning it. Because you think about death more. Often, actually. You probably think about death more in one month than most others do in a lifetime.
You often appear depressed. Anxious. Ill at ease.
People are timid around you. Hesitant. Don’t know how to treat you because they feel like they’re walking on eggshells while trying to engage with you. Or at least that’s what they tell you. That what feels safe to engage you about one day doesn’t feel safe the next. That they don’t understand why you were triggered. Didn’t see it coming. So they have their guard up. Expect the worst. Set up boundaries. Treat you as if you’ve caused a problem even though you have not. All of which is exhausting for them. And for you.
You don’t know what will trigger you either. And you not only have to survive your trigger, but you have to endure the aftermath. For something that happened that you couldn’t help. That you couldn’t control. Leaving both you and your loved one feeling out of control. Trying to find some peace until you are triggered again.
Like this morning. My husband was running on the treadmill in the basement below me, which woke me up prematurely. Because I could hear it. I could feel it.
And then there was the heat. We have baseboard heating in our house that was built in 1961. Since this is our first winter here, we had to have an HVAC company come out to see why some rooms were heating better than others. My husband was home with them, and they opened all the vents. Even the ones in our bedroom. Vents I wouldn’t have messed with. For I need the temperature controlled. In order to keep myself from getting out of control.
So as soon as I was awakened by the vibration of the treadmill below me, I was immediately overwhelmed by the wet heat surrounding me. My husband came upstairs and leaned across me on the bed to give me a kiss. And as soon as his arm went across my body, trapping me, I felt the panic rise.
I wouldn’t do that, I said. But it was too late. I was in a fully-triggered state.
I ripped off my clothes. Got up angrily searching for something cooler to wear. I was swearing. I was frantic. I walked forcefully from one room to the next. I pulled a pair of pants off the hanger so hard the hanger broke. I slammed one door. I punched another. I screamed. Then I sobbed.
I sat on the bed. Defeated and pants-less. All while my husband was trying to help me. But he was unsuccessful as the trigger worked its way through my body. So I smoked my medical marijuana. And was finally able to calm down.
My husband had already left by the time it was over, and I felt terrible for starting his day that way. But luckily, he knows I can’t help it—something that took us years to figure out—and he now forgives me quickly. Something our marriage wouldn’t survive without.
I texted him, Sorry to start your day that way.
He texted me back, It’s okay. Please be forgiving to yourself. Things happen.
I haven’t been as lucky with everyone else in my life when it comes to understanding my triggers. Causing problems between family, friends and coworkers. Making me shrink my circle of people to include only those who get it. Who can handle it. Because dealing with a disorder isn’t for everyone. And dealing with my triggers can be tough. Trust me, I know.
But when you have PTSD, you can’t help being triggered. Sure, you can learn to manage it better. By moving. By breathing. By taking medical marijuana. But it’s nothing you can prevent. Fix. Grow out of. It’s not because you have a bad temper or a personality flaw. It’s not because you had a bad breakup or lost your job. It’s not something you can change or stop. It’s because your life was threatened and your body doesn’t know it is safe.
So when interacting with someone who has PTSD, keep in mind that they are suffering and not trying to upset you or the environment you’re in. Remember that someone has PTSD because of a trauma they’ve suffered. Trauma that has altered their brain chemistry. Causing a serious, life-altering disorder. One not to be taken lightly. One that needs to be handled with care.
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This story originally ran on Psych Central on January 25, 2020. Since Psych Central has been sold, the link to the original is no longer available:
Cover photo by Peter Forster on Unsplash