Steps to Developing a Safety Plan for PTSD Symptoms

How to Plan Ahead for Emergencies with PTSD

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Take the time to put together a PTSD safety plan so that you are prepared when triggers arise or symptoms occur. J.A. Bracchi/Getty Images

Planning Ahead When You Have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

If you have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), then you likely know that your PTSD symptoms can occur at any time and in any place. PTSD triggers are all around, and it may not take much for a trigger to cause intrusive memories and thoughts about a traumatic event, symptoms of hyperarousal and hypervigilence, or emotional distress.

Therefore, given that the occurrence of PTSD symptoms can be unpredictable, it is important to create a safety plan for coping with them when they occur.

What Is a Safety Plan for PTSD?

As the name implies, a safety plan is designed to keep you safe when you are suddenly confronted with a difficult situation or crisis. It is basically a way of planning ahead for how to cope with problems should they arise. For example, what would you do if you start to experience a flashback while at the grocery store? How would you cope with intrusive thoughts while in a business meeting?

Below are some ideas of things to consider including in your personalized safety plan for dealing with your PTSD symptoms when they occur.

Think Ahead

Before you go out, think about whether or not you might encounter some triggers for your PTSD symptoms. Identify what those triggers may be and how you can avoid them. If you can't avoid them, come up with several methods of coping with them.

In other words, learning how to identify and cope with PTSD triggers is an important first step in putting together your PTSD safety plan. Some common external triggers include:

  • Seeing people or who remind you of your traumatic event
  • Seeing places which remind you of your traumatic event
  • Seeing a television show which reminds you of your trauma
  • Anniversaries
  • Holidays
  • Smells (such as the smell of a hospital)
  • Seeing an accident

Write Down a List of Emergency Numbers

Social support can be an excellent way of coping with PTSD symptoms. However, social support is only useful if you can get in touch with someone when you are in need. Therefore, make a list of supportive people you can call should you be in a situation where you need help. Make sure you put more than one number on the list in case the first person you call is not available. If you have a therapist and you are able to contact him or her outside of session, you may want his or her name on your list as well.

You may want to make sure you have these numbers programmed into your phone in addition to written out in an easy to access location.

Make Sure You Have Your Medication With You

If you are on a medication for PTSD, make sure that you have it available so that you don't run into any risk of missing a dose. Also, if you are on PRN medication (medication taken as needed), make sure that you have it with you in case you are in a situation where you need it to manage your symptoms.

Identify Ways of Coping

When people are experiencing emotional distress, it can be very difficult to think of ways of coping with that distress. Therefore, it is best to think ahead of how you might cope with emotional distress should it arise.

It may be helpful to make "coping cards," notecards you can carry with you that take you through a particular coping strategy. To make your own coping cards, get some index cards and write down, step-by-step, what you would need to do to cope with distress using a particular coping strategy, such as deep breathing or grounding. Take these cards with you wherever you go. Then, when you are experiencing distress, take out the card and go through each step.

There are also phone apps available which can help you prepare for crises with PTSD.

Identify Early Warning Signs

Take a time to learn about and write down the early warning signs that a PTSD symptom may be coming on. Most symptoms don't suddenly occur, but are, in fact, preceded by these warning signs. Warning signs may include:

  • Changes in how you think
  • Changes in your mood
  • Changes in your behavior

Learning to recognize these warning signs is important both when you are coping with PTSD daily and to avoid relapses as you heal.

Enlist The Help Of Others

Finally, if you are going someplace where you know there may be PTSD triggers, have someone you trust contact you at several times throughout the day to see how you are doing and whether or not you need any support. Check-ins like these will make sure that help is not far away should you need it.

Bottom Line on Making a PTSD Safety Plan

A safety plan is all about being prepared. Even if you feel as though there is hardly any chance that your PTSD will be triggered, it is best to take the time to come up with a plan in case you do encounter a trigger. The amount of time that you spend coming up with a safety plan will be well worth it if a crisis situation is prevented.

Sources:

Kuhn, E., Kanuri, N., Hoffman, J., Garvert, D., Ruzek, J., and C. Taylor. A Randomized Controlled Trial of a Smartphone App for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychiatry. 2017. 85(3):267-273.

Reich, C., Blackwell, N., Simmon, C. et al. Social Problem Solving Strategies and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in the Aftermath of Intimate Partner Violence. Journal of Anxiety Disorders. 2015. 32:31-7.

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