Supporting PTSD & Compounded Grief Triggers
(TRIGGER WARNING: This article discusses suicide, surviving a suicide loss, a traumatic accident, and triggers that come with PTSD and compounded Grief.)
July 21st, September 1st, March 14th.
Fresh flowers, New car smell, The taste of metal in my mouth. Headlights. Extension cords. Driving in the rain. Suicide scenes on TV/ Film. Gaslighting. Sirens. Hospitals.
Songs. Weather changes, Pain points in my body… it goes on.
The list above will most likely mean nothing to you but to me, these dates, times, experiences, and senses become similar to walking daily through an emotional minefield for me.
Since my 19th birthday, I have witnessed and survived being “Just to The Left” of three traumatic deaths of loved ones and spent almost all of my spare time, or what I like to call my second full-time job – navigating the path of three complex and compounded grief processes. And most importantly, the triggers that go along with them.
I spent years trying to “fix my grief” and my mental health. As that sentence sets in I want to fast-track you through a decade of my learning and tell you that the number one takeaway I can offer is that there is NOTHING to fix- grief is a daily relationship and your mental health is something you honor.
Let’s talk about the dates I mentioned above and the experiences that have guided me away from my dreams in Hollywood to Silicon Valley where I am a co-founder of the men’s mental health app tethr and focus on building community and encouraging emotional fitness.
Sept 1, 2008 – After a four-year battle with a brain tumour I stood at my brother’s bedside with my family as he passed away.
July 21, 2012 – I went to check on my dad and found him after he had died by suicide.
March 14, 2018 – After surviving the loss of half my family, going to the ends of the earth to honour my mental health I finally felt like myself again. I went to a concert with a friend and then out to celebrate. On the way home, a fatal accident killed her and left me re-learning to walk and navigate a brain injury.
Resulting from these experiences, I have noticed a specific list of triggers that can ignite panic, fear, intense sadness, grief, or what I used to fear most – a PTSD flashback. For me, grief isn’t just about losing a person or a life. Grief can result from the loss of anything meaningful to you a partner, a job, access, a major life transition or change. I have witnessed many friends and family grieving the lifestyle changes that the pandemic brought on.
I am not a doctor and am not a mental health professional. In fact, I have purposely stayed in a peer position. I’m just one of the guys, a human being with the divine right for healing as an exploration for everyone. The following 5 takeaways around triggers are from my perspective and I hope they can serve you in some way. I have not watched from above or studied grief academically, as Brene Brown and Theodore Roosevelt would say – I have been in the area. I have become an expert in my lived experience with the hope of empowering others to do the same.
Acknowledge your triggers, rather than trying to dismiss them
It seems too simple, but I often would avoid my triggers and their aftermath entirely. By Acknowledging them and the feelings that came up for me as a result I was able to not just be reactive to them but become proactive. When I notice a trigger coming up – the smell of fresh flowers for example I now breathe into it and lovingly acknowledge what comes up physically, mentally, and emotionally
Make a list of your triggers
Much like I did to start this article, arm yourself with the list. I have come to learn that my grief is not going anywhere. It is a daily relationship and something I honor every day based on how I’m feeling and what triggers the next wave of memories, emotions, and even flashbacks.
My list exists as a source of knowledge and power for me. I don’t avoid the items listed at all costs or fear them – instead, I try to approach them by coming up with a little more self-care and radical acceptance. Consider what your positive triggers are, and neutral triggers too so you can use them in your mental health tool belt to ground yourself.
Obviously, I can’t avoid fresh flowers, rain, and headlights if I want to live a normal life. Each interaction allows me to be a little bit more resilient.
Get the help you need, when you need it.
Part of the process is figuring out what truly serves you, and what will ultimately allow you to heal within your relationship with grief and triggers, is getting help. Whether it’s naturopathic, psychedelic, psychiatric or trusted peers in a safe space – I encourage you to begin seeking help as an undeniable strength. Community and compassion are the reasons I have survived my own suicidality in the wake of my losses and injuries.
Consume Content Consciously (Netflix and chill, like actually stay chill)
We have all had that moment when watching a film where we know something from our own life might be triggered by the next scene. Whether it’s our spidey senses telling us things are too calm and there’s about to be an accident or a gut feeling that we are about to witness a sexual assault or a character’s suicide. Trust that.
Many friends know that viewing a horrific accident or a suicide can really set me back. And they know because I have acknowledged the triggers and shared them. I will get texts from friends that say a tv show title, an episode number, and sometimes even a minute count. I instantly know what it means.
Being prepared by getting a heads up or researching trigger warnings before a Netflix binge is proactive.
Create new experiences with your triggers
Over the past six months, after ten years of many mental health modalities, I felt grounded and safe enough to begin to rewire my neural pathways in response to my triggers. Essentially, I have been purposely exposing myself to my triggers and anchoring new memories to them.
Here are some examples:
- Whenever something very positive is happening I will go back and listen to an old song that I love but that also reminds me of a triggering event. I bring the song forward with me into the new memory and detach it from being a direct correlation to a past event.
- Plan a trip where the triggers will exist but the environment changes. I recently went to Positano in Italy. It was an amazing experience because the sound of the sirens is different, so I was able to acknowledge that sirens exist without being an attack on my nervous system. Additionally, part of what makes Positano one of the most beautiful places on earth is the nature that surrounds the hillside town. I made a point of stopping to smell the fresh flowers every day. Flowers aren’t just in funeral homes, they are also an essential part of my new favorite place in the world.
- I made a lot of silly and fun trips to Home Depot to desensitize myself to household items that remind me of my father’s suicide. My friends who tagged along had no idea that I was spending extra time in certain aisles to do this.
- Lastly, my brother’s name was Austin – and if that name came up it usually meant that we were talking about my brother who passed, brain tumors, or something that would be triggering. As I write this, I am currently working remotely from Austin, Texas. His name is everywhere and I can find peace in knowing that we can co-exist and I love seeing it and hearing it without the direct correlation.
I share this in an effort to connect. I can remember countless times in my grief process where I felt unnecessarily isolated and alone. While every grief process is significantly different and we all have different triggers from trauma and life experiences, I find peace in knowing experientially I am not alone.