Do you have a self-care plan to manage your stress and trauma triggers?

Jason Brien.

When I first started my trauma healing journey many years ago, I had very little knowledge about psychology or mental health and my paranoia, stubbornness and shame prevented me from seeking out professional support. I pretty much just navigated my way through the healing journey by following my instincts and using logic. The first trigger pattern that I began to notice was the one between my work hours being cut/reduced and subsequent strong feelings of inadequacy, worthlessness, etc, etc. This pattern arose quite often because I worked in the hospitality industry where if there are no customers, there is no work. At that point in my life, a lot of my self-esteem, self-worth, etc, was attached to my work. No matter how hung over I was, no matter what was happening in my life, I was always an extremely proficient worker.

When my work hours got cut or reduced, I would take it personally. It was always a case of “I’m the best worker so why me”? I would then of course experience all of the negative thoughts and emotions centred around how useless, worthless, inadequate I was. I would find the nearest pub, get as drunk as could be, gamble all of my money, probably get into a fight, go home and self-harm before bed and then wake up in the morning regretting everything. The thing that started to annoy me the most was that I seemed to have no control over these downward spirals. This is when I reached the point of “F this. I’m going to get on top of this” and I started to create my emotional safety/self-care plan. I will now outline some of the most important aspects of a self-care plan. Remember though, self-care plans are highly personalized so always think of things which are going to work best for you. 

1. Identify your triggers/patterns;

I have already identified one of my triggers/patterns. People who have experienced trauma will often have many, many triggers. The key to creating effective self-care plans is to develop the plans with your ‘worst’ thoughts, feelings and behaviours in mind. Whilst having my work hours reduced wasn’t the only trigger for thoughts and feelings of inadequacy, worthlessness, etc, the range of behaviours (getting drunk, gambling, fighting, self-harm) were always pretty consistent. Other triggers can be anniversaries, certain people, certain places, smells, flashbacks and even nightmares. When we are unaware of our triggers/patterns we can feel like we have no control over ourselves or our lies which makes us scared and anxious because everything seems so random and unpredictable.

2. Identify your warning signs;

This is about identifying what begins to happen immediately after your trigger has been activated. If you look at my work hours getting reduced example, going to the pub and getting drunk was not the immediate response. I may have found out that my hours were getting reduced half-way through my shift. The first warning signs then were the types of thoughts running through my mind for the remainder of the shift (i.e., “You’re useless”, “Fuck them”, “They don’t deserve me so I should just quit”). During a smoke or lunch break I might have started googling pub events, alcohol prices or getting in contact with my drug dealer. The sooner that you recognise that you are triggered, the sooner you can begin implementing your self-care plan. You can say to yourself “Oh sh*t. I might be triggered because this is one of my warning signs. I better start doing something before it gets out of hand”.

3. Start challenging the negative thoughts:

If for example one of my warning signs was “When my work hours are reduced, I will begin having thoughts of “Fuck them”, “They don’t deserve me”, etc, I would make a plan to challenge these specific thoughts. I would write in my self-care plan (which can just be a sheet of paper, a diary or an email to yourself) ‘When I am having these thoughts, I am going to remind myself that hospitality is a fickle industry and getting hours reduced is not reflective of your work abilities, etc’. I would write in my emotional safety plan ‘When I am having these thoughts, try and recall five times when your employer rewarded you for your hard work’. If my thoughts were along the lines of “You’re so worthless”, “They are cutting your hours because they don’t like you”, etc, I would write in my self-care plan…When I am having these types of thoughts, I will use positive affirmations such as “I love myself and I have a lot of value” or “Lots of people like me as evidenced by coming to my house, calling me, etc, etc”.

4. Monitor your emotions and use calming/self-soothing techniques;

Whenever we are triggered (stressed), our fight, flight or flee responses activates. Our heart starts racing. We might start sweating or we might have hot flushes. Our stomachs feel queasy and the chances are anxiety will kick in adding more to all of this. If your typical trigger/stress response is to fight, you may have to monitor your feelings of anger. If your typical response is to flee, the you would want to monitor your feeling of being trapped or wanting to escape. I would write in my self-care plan ‘When I am having these feelings, I will take 10 deep breaths. If that doesn’t work then I will ask to take a small break so I can walk somewhere. If I can’t take a break I will try and distract myself by listening to some music’. The more calming/self-soothing options you have, the more you can tailor your calming/techniques to match your situation/environment.

5. Monitor your environment and behaviours.

This tip is particularly useful when it comes to flashbacks and other trauma/ptsd related triggers. We don’t always know at first how significant an environment is until it triggers us. Let us imagine that you have lost a loved one and today just happens to be the anniversary of that loss. If you and your loved one created a lot of special moments whilst at the beach, then going to the beach today is likely to become a trigger. Similarly, you may find that you have a consistent pattern of behaviours you perform when you are triggered (drink excessively, take drugs, etc). Ideally, you want to try and find ways to counteract these potentially destructive behaviours before you go too far down the proverbial rabbit hole. 

6. Build a strong support network. 

This tip can be tricky because you really need to have the ‘right’ people to seek support from. If for example you have been triggered and you call your toxic mother for support, what do you think is likely to happen? Chances are they will either make the call about themselves, dismiss your need for support or further invalidate you with statements such a “Oh you’re always complaining about something. Just suck it up and stop being such a baby”. In my self-care plan, I would write down a list of people. The more people you have in your support network, the better you can make a plan. For example, your friend John may be really supportive but can you call them during work hours? 

Self-care plans can be quite complex and highly personalized and so they can involve much more or less than what I have included in this post/article. There are also different types of self-care/emotional safety plans. Whilst I discuss ones related to trauma, triggers and stress, there are other self-care/emotional safety plans centered around protection from family violence. I am happy to email my readers a self-care plan template if you are interested. Simply comment or message me your email address and I will gladly send it through. Self-care plans may seem quite complex and arduous but the advantages are significant and trauma healing in particular requires time, patience, hard work and commitment.