Why am I so susceptible to stress? PTSD and triggers vs stressors

PTSD is weird. Some days you feel like you’re at an extremely close approximation of normal. Other days, you’re more susceptible. And still other days, you’re triggered or stressed by everything. This past week week and weekend was in the “susceptible” zone. And when you have PTSD, it’s harder to handle additional stress. It’s part of the PTSD cup theory.

PTSD-CupAccording to this theory, in a cup, you have daily stresses. I don’t know if I would call these “good stress,” but it includes things in our daily mental checklist: commuting, taking care of yourself, cleaning the cat box, etc. You know–things we have to do as a functioning adult. Add on top of this any bad stress: boss yelling at you, getting stuck in a traffic jam, getting laid off, and so on. These stresses can be big or small, but they are still abnormal stresses. Or “bad stress.”

Many adults can bear both kinds of stresses without the cup overflowing or hitting a breaking point. (This gives new meaning to the phrase “my cup overfloweth.”)

But when one has PTSD, it takes up a large chunk of that cup already, so any additional stress easily sends us spiraling. Me? I usually react by curling up, mentally and physically retreating, becoming suddenly lethargic, being prone to crying, or during the worst, having a mental breakdown like I did about this time last year.  I think some days the PTSD part is bigger than others, depending on where we are in healing and how we are feeling on any given day.

I’ve been in weekly therapy for about a year, now. Because of that breakdown, I found a good trauma therapist who understands personality disorders, which has helped so much when talking about my PD’d father. It’s reduced the size of that PTSD portion in the cup. It’s like regular exercise and shrinking the midsection; it takes time and determination (and often, medication) to shrink my PTSD and reactions.

PTSD-related stress can come from a lot of places, and can either make you actively relive the event (flashback) or actively feel at least a portion of the stress that one felt at the time of the trauma. There are two ways one’s PTSD can be set off.

Triggers, which ” is a symptomatic reaction from one of the five senses (sight, sound, touch, taste and smell) based only upon a direct connection to an actual traumatic event experienced.” (emphasis original).

Stressors are stresses that make your stress cup overflow.

I still have a hard time distinguishing between the two, even after reading articles about the differences.  They both trigger the same internal responses, and so I tend to call anything stress reaction that’s associated with trauma a “trigger.” (Mental-health terminology nazis, forgive me if I do call stressors a “trigger.” )

I was triggered last week when I was at work, and someone jumped up into a tall desk chair. The combination of the sudden movement and the noise from the jumpee and the  chair made me on edge and stop what I was doing. My heart rate shot up as I instinctively and warily looked at the person to see if he was angry. Like my father.

It was on top of an already stressful week, where a lot of things that did not directly set off my fight-or-flight response just made me tense. On edge. Stressed. These must have been stressors, and it wasn’t even anything overt. Just annoyances, really, because it no longer actually triggers me thanks to therapy. They still fill up that stress cup quickly.

Stressors, for me, could be the weather. A particular date, like birthdays. Holidays. Being around somebody that looks like the abuser. Being around someone who is not abusive, but has many of the qualities you associate with the abuser. Certain smells. Textures. How people move. Sudden noises. Angry people. Yelling. And thinking about money or spending it.

This past weekend was good, by all accounts, but I was still in a rather susceptible stage for some darn reason. I went to buy pots, dirt, plants, and trellises to spruce up our half of the balcony that has that ugly black divider. I knew I would be spending some money, but wanted to be careful with it since we’re still trying to save up to buy our condo from our landlady. All in all, we spent little over $200 on supplies. It looks fantastic, but money is still a stressor. My husband had to keep telling me not to worry–we’re doing just fine with our money goals. Still, it didn’t take much more to make me feel weepy and make me take a small dose of Ativan yesterday.

And by “much more” it was an email from a relative that I, for some reason, just have trust issues with even though the email itself was not bad at all.

spring fog

Ativan helped. So did cuddling with the cats and the husband. So did admiring my garden. And watching the fog swirl and tendril in from the lake.

So why do some little things really make me feel like my cup is about to overflow, like yesterday and this morning?

I know PTSD is responsible. And I know I can actually handle a fair bit of stress pretty well anyway, bounding into action and making sure everything is operating smoothly and efficiently despite challenges. I know I’m strong, even when I sometimes need Ativan to help me out.

I can say this for sure–I have improved significantly since this time last year in my anxiety and PTSD levels. And that’s saying something.

Filed under: Abuse


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  • It can all be very complicated, but in the end we have to know that we are not our thoughts. We are and react to scripts that have been verbally programmed and defined by words.

    May I suggest, "Get Out of Your Mind and into Your Life," by Steven C. Hayes?
    Also, "A New World," by Eckhart Tolle. In this case I would suggest the CD, as Tolle's narrative makes for a better realization of the ideas.

    Here is to your defusing the scripts and reactions and to health.

  • In reply to Richard Davis:

    Thank you so much for the recommendations, Richard! I will definitely look them up. Books have been and will continue to be a huge part of healing for me.

  • loved this post - i just started a new blog and i added a link to it as it was so relevant. Hope that's ok! http://chattyunicorn.blogspot.com

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