As a dog trainer, I sometimes see things that can be applied to people as well as dogs. Last night I worked with a wonderful little beagle who gets so excited she can barely function. When she’s worked up, she barks constantly and won’t stop. It’s very frustrating to the owners, as you can imagine.
When the owners drove up, this dog was in the back of the car, and she was very excited over going for a ride. They took her out and she immediately spotted several other dogs and their owners. That also excited her. As there were many other dogs that had been on the grounds that day, she was able to scent them, and that further excited her. And, finally, when we took her to the exercise pen to stretch her legs, she spotted a fat rabbit nibbling the grass on the far side of the fence. She immediately went into hound behavior, baying at the rabbit and frantically looking for a way to get under the fence to get it. She was so excited, it was impossible to calm her down. She was a victim of trigger stacking.
Each one of those events made her excited and nervous. Added together, they created a situation where she became out of control. Unfortunately, I did not recognize what was happening until after the fact, but at least I was able to identify what was really going on: she wasn’t a bad little dog, just one that observed everything going on around her and was stimulated by it. Her response was undesirable: barking, non-stop, but she wasn’t “just misbehaving.”
I think trigger stacking happens to humans quite often, and we also may not recognize what’s happening. We’re driving and someone runs a stop sign in front of us. It scares us and makes our hearts race. Then we get home and the kids are running around the yard, screaming as they play. We go inside and the dog bolts out the door and runs away. Finally we sit down to relax a few minutes and the neighbor comes over banging on the door with a complaint. That may be the point where we lose it. They are little things, but they build on one another until you’re feeling frantic. It’s a perfect time for your PTSD triggers to go off too.
So, how can we respond to trigger stacking to stop the process? Recognizing what’s happening is the first step. When you start to feel that first racing of your heart, take a time out. Slow down and let yourself process what’s happening. Are you in danger now? No. Can you afford to pull over for a few minutes at the local park and let yourself calm down? If you can, it may break the sequence before it goes further. At each step, recognize that things may be out of control, but there is no actual danger at the moment.
Staying healthy means recognizing when we have multiple issues that are having a negative impact on us. Don’t let your triggers build up until you go over the edge and lose it entirely. Stop, evaluate the danger you’re really in, and then go on knowing you are in control.