When I am triggered, I am physically ill. I can’t breathe, sounds are twice as loud, I shake and I try not to vomit. But sometimes I get the feeling that people actually construe my intense reaction to a trigger as my being “offended” or “insulted” or maybe “seeking negative attention.”

Interestingly, the medical definition of a trigger is “Something that either sets off a disease in people who are genetically predisposed to developing the disease, or that causes a certain symptom to occur in a person who has a disease. For example, sunlight can trigger rashes in people with lupus. A predisposing event.

I have PTSD. The medical definition of PTSD is “A mental health condition (disorder) that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.” I am predisposed to having a reaction.

When I smell smoke, when the fire alarm goes off, when I see flames, news about fire, photos of fire, I am triggered. And I work extremely hard to control my reactions so I can function. In fact, I work so hard at being “normal” that I hold two jobs. I make music and art. I perform and network with creatives and I travel the world. I live in the center of a city with sirens, screamers and violence around me. IT’S NOT EASY, but I’m proud that my hard work pays off and I am able to function.

But sometimes, a trigger assaults me as unexpectedly as the precipitating trauma itself and I shatter into tiny shards of terror. Take this weekend for example. Every time I closed my eyes I saw myself crawling on my hands and knees overcome with smoke, trying to find my dying dog while my house burned around me. Every single cell in my body tasted the soot, heard my ex screaming as he burst into flames and smelled his burning hair and flesh. The only person who unfortunately witnessed me in this pitiful state was my mate, who fed me Xanax and tried to make me feel better.

About 8% of the US population has PTSD. It may not be a huge percentage, but it is a huge burden to carry. PTSD and its triggers are real and they are sometimes debilitating. If you have PTSD, I understand your struggles and hope you find peace. If you don’t have it, please don’t take our reactions to triggers personally. Instead, just listen, be encouraging, help build feelings of trust and safety, ask how you can help or maybe give that person some space.

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