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Depression & Mental Health Blog
May 20, 2020
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Trauma, Triggers and Metal Health

For those who struggle with addiction, depression, trauma or post-traumatic stress, the world is full of stimuli that can trigger intense reactions. This is especially true for those who have faced significant trauma in their lives. Facing past experiences, whether one-off or over long periods of time can have a significant impact on mental health, and it's important to understand the triggers that those who have suffered from trauma face every day.

What are triggers?

Triggers are often related to specific senses, like sight or smell, that remind us of a traumatic experience. Encountering a trigger can effectively send us back to the traumatic event, forcing us to experience it all over again. Triggers are unpredictable however and don’t necessarily affect us every time. Sometimes triggers don’t even seem related to the traumatic event we experienced. Those experiencing long periods of stress, such as medical professionals during this time of COVID-19 or members of the military, especially during wartime, may be triggered more frequently and more severely. For those who have endured significant trauma, have lost friends or have witnessed horrific situations, sounds and smells can trigger memories. Loud noises may startle them easily, and the fight-or-flight instinct may remain active, leading to difficulty sleeping or increased anger. Specific mundane smells may also remind them of a trauma experience, inducing a reaction. Many simple experiences can trigger the memory of a trauma.

So how do you cope with these experiences?

Re-experiencing a traumatic event can have intense mental and physical effects. Often, people fall into substance abuse as a coping mechanism. Many don't seek treatment because they are concerned with the stigma of mental illness. They may be afraid of appearing weak, being treated differently, being discharged or losing privacy. Some may believe they can overcome their trauma and associated substance abuse and mental health issues without help. Sadly, the situation often worsens as a result. Instead, many turn to drugs and alcohol to dull the sensations that accompany reminders of their past experiences. These attempts at self-medication can lead to substance abuse, and without proper care, the ongoing presence of triggers may lead to relapse even after treatment for substance abuse has occurred. As we know substance abuse can also lead to the presence or worsening of mental illness and a vicious cycle ensues.

How Can You Learn to Deal with Triggers?

In recent years, governments and community organizations have made an effort to prevent and treat substance abuse amongst its citizens by providing better coverage for outpatient treatment, equipping healthcare professionals with better knowledge to recognize the symptoms of substance abuse and delivering better care. However, access to care has lagged significantly and insurance companies still do not have comprehensive coverage for programs proven to work and heal. Through therapy, you can learn to face and overcome your triggers. Being able to cope with triggers can help you avoid relapsing back into substance abuse or decompensating. Therapies that can help overcome triggers include medications, cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy and cognitive restructuring. The use of these techniques must be supervised by a knowledgeable addiction and mental health professional. Exposure therapy involves a measured encounter with your trauma while in a safe environment. This may include writing about or imagining your trauma. Cognitive restructuring involves revisiting the memories of a traumatic event. Many who suffer post-traumatic stress may feel guilt or shame because of their trauma, but cognitive restructuring can help you see the event without those feelings coloring the memory. Group therapy and holistic treatments, such as meditation and yoga, may also be beneficial for finding balance in your life and developing skills to endure triggers when you encounter them. Military service may expose you to traumatic experiences, and so it's important to recognize them and seek treatment. By learning to identify and overcome your triggers, you can avoid relapsing into substance abuse and live a happier life. The next step toward being free from trauma is contacting a mental health program such ours at Sylvia Brafman Mental Health Center that is able to properly identify and treat any mental health issues along with co-occurring substance abuse disorders. Taking the first step toward healing is hard, but incredibly rewarding.

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