“Stay on target!” When the Slightest Change Causes Huge Explosions Thanks to PTSD

Russ building a Star Wars Lego set wearing a Star Wars shirt

Triggers are weird. I think we can all agree and many of us have been there before. You or someone you love has overreacted, possibly in an embarrassing way. A seemingly innocuous thing happens or there is a tiny deviation from routine and you or your loved one loses it. From the outside, it seems like a total overreaction but for the person who has been triggered, it is a fight-or-flight response. It isn’t always logical and can’t always be explained, even after calming down and reflecting on what just happened.

“Stay on target!” comes from one of my husband Russ’s favorite films, Star Wars. For fun, we often quote it and its sequels to each other. This particular quote would have been helpful during a recent post-traumatic stress trigger. One of our girls forgot to bring home her lunchbox. For Russ, the world came crashing down because something was different. For most people, a forgotten lunchbox on a school afternoon would not be a big deal. We’ll use something else the next morning and then retrieve it from school tomorrow … But for whatever reason, it was a big enough shock that Russ could not function. He was yelling, storming, confused. 

But that's how it goes with triggers. A reaction like this always feels over the top to me, but I can't say anything to calm him down when he's eddying in these moments. There's nothing I can do. Even saying a simple, “Let's try to take a deep breath and think about this,” or, “I've got it covered” yields no comfort. Even when I have planned around a change, if that is possible, he can still get triggered and, if I’m totally honest, it’s exhausting. He yells at the children for something absolutely unworthy of that level of anger. They simply forgot a lunchbox. And, they’re kids. 

Hell, just like kids, it’s totally normal for adults to forget things. I forget things all the time, even when I'm in the middle of walking to the kitchen to do something, repeating the task to myself the whole way. As soon as I walk over that threshold, I lose it. “What did I come in here for?” This phenomenon is actually called the “doorway effect” or “location updating effect,” which is a known psychological event. Basically, my short-term memory fails when passing through a doorway or when moving from one location to another. (You can read more about it here: "Why Walking through a Doorway Makes You Forget" - Scientific American.) 

But this is about reactions to triggers, not forgetting things. I am not my husband and he is not me. We process our worlds differently. I understand this but, in these moments of confusion and chaos, it’s hard to shut off my judgment. To me, a moment like the forgotten lunchbox seems like a small inconvenience, but to him, it was worthy of the “freak-out” moment. Preparing lunches is one of his main morning tasks. He’s responsible for making sure our daughters have healthy and fun meals, his way of caring for them. Luckily, we had a spare lunch kit in the garage so a replacement was easily found for that day. But it was a big enough change in routine to trigger him.

One of the more frustrating aspects of triggers is that we don’t always know what they are or when they will happen. They are not always logical … at first. It’s not until we are in the wake of the triggered episode that we can reflect on WHY it happened. Once we started talking about the lunchbox trigger, we discovered that there was some logic to his feelings. He felt like he was failing as a father, which given our recent loss sheds more light on why he reacted so intensely. Looking back at the incident, he said he felt unhinged, he felt as if he was losing control. He was triggered and his limbic system took over. That’s what triggers do. As parents who are trying to model healthy behaviors, it is hard when PTSD rears its ugly head but we have to keep working on it. The next thing we’ll be talking about with our couples’ therapist is how better to communicate so that when sudden changes like this occur he doesn't freak out.