6 Complex PTSD Triggers — and 6 Things That Help


Editor's Note

If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

If you’ve experienced domestic violence, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for the first time when I was seven. My mom had fallen in love with this man who had turned out to be a monster and put us through absolute hell for 10 days shy of a year. He took us and hid us from the rest of our family, beat us, starved us, locked us up and so much more.

It wasn’t until I had gotten into college and started studying psychology that I even thought to ask about my childhood diagnoses. I remember having gone through some therapy and not enjoying a few of the therapists and eventually stopping, but I don’t remember any diagnosis or anything that helped me. One day after my first freshman psychology class I texted my mom and asked her if I had been diagnosed with anything after we ran away. She soon responded, “PTSD.” It wasn’t until almost three years after asking that I ended up experiencing life-changing symptoms; 15 years after we escaped. My life has completely changed. I am living with complex PTSD and it is so hard. One thing I have learned is that sometimes everyday things can make it so much harder. Oftentimes people have no idea.

1. Facial Hair

It seems stupid, but sometimes I’ll be walking through Walmart feeling completely fine and I will see a man with the same goatee as my abuser and my heart starts racing. I start to lose my breath and panic. Or I’ll be relaxing with my friends watching a Netflix docuseries and I’ll see a man with the same facial hair and it will cause me to have a panic attack. It is so weird and pretty unavoidable, but it’s sometimes a reality.

2. Yelling or Screaming

I went nearly 15 years without this ever being an issue, but now if I hear someone yelling or screaming it sends me into a panic. I currently live in a dorm, so it is very hard to go a day without hearing some guy yell about nothing or a girl scream because she got spooked. Sometimes I just have to put in my headphones and hide under a blanket. Sometimes it just makes me anxious, but sometimes it triggers flashbacks.

3. Incense/Other Familiar Scents

Sometimes all it takes is a scent to bring me back. He liked incense and sometimes if I get a wiff of that or certain foods I start to panic or begin to have a flashback. Even seeing incense makes me panic because it triggers so many memories. I don’t know what it is about the sense of smell that is so powerful, but I try to avoid incense at all costs.

4. Certain “Fun” Things

Living in a dorm is really fun. We like to pull harmless pranks and surprise each other, but there are certain pranks and surprises that are off limits for me. This year I had a young friend barge into the room I was in with a Nerf gun and I froze. I looked at her and blinked and just said, “Please don’t.” She left and I curled up in a ball on the couch and just shook. Another fun surprise for another friend on her birthday involved someone filling her room with nearly 300 balloons. Balloons aren’t the problem for me, it’s the popping that’s hard for me to take. Oftentimes, with things like balloons, fireworks and thunder, I can reason with myself that they are just noises that will not hurt me and will stop soon; but some days I’m just not able to. 

5. People

This one’s hard to explain, but certain kinds of people trigger my PTSD. It’s not even people who remind me of him, it’s people who are pushy or nosey or really anyone that I don’t trust crossing my social, emotional or physical boundaries. It causes me to feel trapped and panic. I often have to run up to my room during meal times because I’m not able to be around a lot of people that I’m not close with. It’s hard for me.

6. Stress

At the start of this semester I was a full-time college student. Managing six classes and a part-time job. I got sick, fell behind and everything fell apart. My PTSD symptoms are so much worse when I have too much going on. It is so much harder for me to talk myself down and cope with things when there are so many things happening.

Triggers are different for everyone, but it is important for loved ones to know that sometimes triggers aren’t what everyone considers to be “normal” scary things. they’re weird and often wont make any sense to anyone but the person experiencing them. Sometimes PTSD feels like a debilitating chronic illness. Like any illness, those experiencing it learn what works and what doesn’t work. Along with identifying triggers, it is important for those struggling with PTSD to identify what helps them. Here’s a few of my go-to’s:

1. Frankincense Oil

Alright, I know for those who don’t use essential oils, you may think I’m going to go all hippie on you, but hear me out; this stuff has changed my life. I have a spray that contains Frankincense, lavender and orange oil, and sometimes I will spray it on my clothes or my blanket, or sometimes I will just smell the spray itself and it can calm me down in minutes. Most often, I mix two drops of each oil with half a teaspoon of coconut oil and rub it on my neck and chest if I’m getting anxious, stressed or know it might be a tough day.

2. My Comfort Person

Not everyone has or wants one of these, but if you have someone who you trust who wants to be there for you, let them. One of my very best friends lives in the dorms with me and sometimes when I’m panicking she will hang on to me until I come out of it. She tells me I’m safe and reminds me I am OK. Sometimes extra comfort is needed on the hard days. It can be a difficult thing to ask for, but if there is a loved one who wants to help you feel safe and it helps you, let them. 

3. My Comfort Blanket

Lots of parents designate one or two comfort items for their small children to give them a sense of security and safety. For me, I have found that in the hard moments, I need that too. I have a big blanket that I can hold on to, wrap around myself or hide my face in when I am panicking. I actually spray it with the frankincense spray and try to take it with me on overnight trips or long car rides.

4. Grounding Techniques

When I am having a flashback, I genuinely believe that I am in the clutches of my abuser. I think he is with me and he is going to get me. Often times, if I feel a flashback coming on I try really hard to ground myself using one of the following techniques.

5. Hot Drinks 

I don’t know why, but sipping a hot drink when I start getting worked up helps ground me. Sometimes it’s coffee (that’s probably not the best route if dealing with anxiety), sometimes it’s tea or hot chocolate. The warmth and taste are both soothing and give my senses something else to focus on and sometimes it is able to bring me back to reality.

6. Therapy and/or Medication

I know, you’ve probably heard this a thousand times. I know it isn’t easy to get started and I know it’s hard work, but the healing and relief is worth it. My symptoms peaked and I went about four months before getting professional help, and those were some of the hardest months of my life. Making the appointments and figuring everything out can be daunting, but I promise it is worth it. Not every kind or therapy or medication is for everyone; some people prefer not to be on medication at all. Not all doctors are for using psychiatric drugs, but most hear you out and will work with you as far as what you do and do not want to do.

PTSD sucks. Hang in there and keep fighting because you are worth it.

Follow this journey here.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Unsplash image via Kinga Chichewicz


Find this story helpful? Share it with someone you care about.