Anthropomorphizing PTSD Symptoms, Part II: Triggers and Hypervigilance

Detective looking through giant magnifying glassIn his article “The Larger Self,” Richard Schwartz stated the following: “…if I can help people approach their own worst, most hated feelings and desires with open minds and hearts, these retrograde emotions will be found not only to make sense and have legitimate purpose in the present psychological economy, but also, quite spontaneously, to become more benign” (The Center for Self Leadership, This statement captures the objective of this article; to address how posttraumatic stress (PTSD) symptoms are thought of and as a result, how survivors and therapists feel about them. In renegotiating the assumed position that PTSD symptoms are inherently bad to considering them as possibly functional, we create some breadth for exploration. Opening space would possibly cultivate curiosity (or at least mitigate fear and perception of self as broken) of the ways in which their trauma has expressed itself.

The manifestation of trauma can feel like agony to those recovering from emotional abrasions; the aspiration here is to soften that in the following ways:

  • Differentiating the person from their symptoms
  • Creating a relationship between the person and their symptoms
  • Through differentiation and distance, providing opportunity for mastery over symptoms
  • In facilitating mastery over symptoms, opening space for exploration of symptoms

The process by which each of the above items is pursued is through anthropomorphizing symptoms as an internal character with specific functions.

This should be differentiated from a treatment model; rather, this would be a perspective from which we view individual expressions of PTSD in order to utilize them. In turn, this would cultivate a nuanced strategy that is reflective of the person through a lens of strength and optimism. Here, the internal private investigator (PI) will be introduced as the part of ourselves that is employed to search for external (occasionally internal) cues that relate to our trauma. The tools utilized by this character are triggers and hypervigilance.

Characteristics of an accomplished PI likely include a capacity for survelliance, developed observational skills, mental alertness, a specific and reliable memory, and a capacity for environmental analysis. The purpose of this occupation is to discover information that would otherwise seem unavailable or difficult to obtain. The value in the skill set is that discovered information is related to the reasons behind the PI’s employment. For example, a spouse may hire someone to discover an affair so that he or she knows how to respond to the relationship; an insurance company might want to ensure that a customer is not fraudulent in a claim in order to determine whether or not to make payment. The internal PI is seeking environmental information in order to ensure safety and proximity from that which resembles the initial injury.

The mechanisms by which the PI gathers information is through triggers and hypervigilance. There is a perpetual scanning of the environment to search for sights, sounds, people, behaviors, smells, or anything else that is reminiscent of trauma. The individual is placed on high alert in order to be certain danger is not near. Triggers are possibly activated when there is concern about proximity; the PI has scanned the terrain and discovered something a little too familiar. Triggers highlight the specifics of what feels too close or too familiar in order to activate a response, such as a retreat or a protective reaction.

The ways in which trauma symptoms manifest can be overwhelming and quite painful to both experience and observe. The involvement of the central nervous system in PTSD creates a feeling of it being out of control, harmful, and scary. Expressions of hopelessness are frequently intertwined with the explanation that the marks of trauma are housed in the reptilian brain; being told that is why you are experiencing this symptom sometimes causes survivors to feel helpless. It is a relief to know you are “normal,” provided that it does not mean that normal is painful and permanent. Shifting the way in which we think about PTSD (as the brain’s protective attempt at repair and safety) hopefully opens the door to compassionate mastery over our own pain, the avenue through which is a kind and thorough internal inquisition.

Related articles:
Anthropomorphizing PTSD Symptoms, Part 1: Flashbacks & Nightmares
The Externalization of Trauma: A View of PTSD Symptoms as Healthy
Pulling Alongside Distress

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Athena H. Phillips, MSW, LCSW, Post Traumatic Stress/Trauma Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Jerry B

    July 12th, 2012 at 4:58 PM

    Too many survivors with PTSD tend to run aawy from the pain but really the healthiest way to deal with the pain is to confront it. It can be scary to do that, but if it can turn your life around in a meaningful way, than how could you chhoose not to do that?

  • Kip

    July 13th, 2012 at 4:26 AM

    At least when patients face their fears they will then have the chance to actually overcome them. When there is the unwillingness to make some change then that will never come.
    If you are lucky enough to find a good therapist then this is something that can be possible in your life.
    PTSD can affect so many people, from veterans to rape vistims to those who have witnessed violent acts but felt incapable of stopping it.
    The most important thing to do is to recognize that yes, there is a problem, and that you need help.

  • beth

    July 13th, 2012 at 4:30 AM

    I’ve experienced such trauma before and I can tell you it feels like there’s going to be no end to it. I wish I had all these things in my mind back then, things would have been much easier.

    But that is not to discount the help of my therapist who I am grateful to this day for helping me end that horrific phase of my life after a very bad episode.

  • Leslie

    July 14th, 2012 at 6:39 AM

    hiding from the fears only gives them more power over you; but when you confront them, doesn’t that make you the strong one instead?

  • E.J.L

    July 14th, 2012 at 1:32 PM

    “The process by which each of the above items is pursued is through anthropomorphizing symptoms as an internal character with specific functions.”

    But if these things are causing an imbalance in life,bringing trouble,then of what use is such a component in the individual? Isn’t throwing it out is what every survivor attempts to do?

  • carlos

    July 16th, 2012 at 4:17 AM

    Sometimes there may be no apparent trigger to set off the events. There is never any control over what will set off PTSD in some people, and what will keep them mired in their negative memories.

  • Rochelle

    July 17th, 2012 at 8:30 AM

    I work with many individuals coming out of years of incarceration and the level of PTSD is astounding. Getting used to the ‘outside’ world is a challenge for which their skill set is very low. Hypervigilance is extreme and so unbearable that some revert to prison behavior. In addition, coming to terms with new experiences, rules, feelings, etc… is often so overwhelming. To help someone adjust to the trauma they have experienced, I think some distance is necessary and that’s why I really like the concept and function of the private investigator (PI). Healing, with the right guidance, is possible.

  • Cris

    April 17th, 2016 at 5:58 PM

    Finally figuring out that you were a victim of child abuse when you are 52 years old is inexplicable. Looking your abuser in the eye and getting them t admit what they have done with the statement, “Rapes and things just happen in society”, is a hideous thing to hear coming out of someone’s mouth as if I should have enjoyed it. Mt brother took his life in a hideous manner over 4 years ago I am sure for the same reason. My diagnosis is Major Depressive Disorder with PTSD. I live to this day in a hypervigilant state but am in the process of breaking out of my state of isolation, which I have lived my entire life. It is especially hard when all indications are that my abuse took place before I was 3 years of age so there is no memory of a specific event. Progress is slow, but there is progress. I am in the second phase of my recovery which is putting myself out in the world so I can have some sort of social life. I have excellent Psychiatric care and I am very diligent with my recovery. It will happen! It is just painful and slow. It is a battle, but the battle will be won.

  • Cris

    April 17th, 2016 at 7:13 PM

    So being hypervigilant my whole life, I know it isn’t going anywhere any time soon if ever. So now I try to look at it as a gift of sorts. My boss and I sometimes discuss crazy in-laws and family members. I will tell him what I think is going on and what to look for the next time they get together. I have been spot on almost every time. He laughs and calls me Dr. Phil.
    So my new journey of putting myself out into the world has many difficulties. The hardest is when I am out there, I see all of the people with their families and friends enjoying life and I am all alone. It can be depressing to say the least. But I know that if I am diligent, I too will make new friends and acquaintances. And in time and with patience the loneliness will be a distant memory. The key for me will be having patience. I have a tendency to get impatient with these type of things and think if I just snap my fingers, it will be done. This is a marathon, not a 40 yard dash. It is a painful one, but as long as I am moving forward, it will all be worth it in due time.

  • Tamara

    May 12th, 2017 at 1:46 AM

    DDNos should have not been thrown away. I am now pushing 60 yrs old and have been dx with ddnos for over twenty years. I agree its more of a gift at this stage of my life and I no longer search for a therapist that knows about this. It was exhausting having to educate social workers, counselor’s and even a few pdocs on dissociative disorders. You will either sink or swim with this dx. I have excellent skills that help with relaxation, meditation,and self hypnosis.

  • Sarah

    April 28th, 2021 at 11:55 AM

    Knowing I’m okay through councilling is a major part of my recovery. Before I felt different from everyone and used alcohol to cope with extreme anxiety. Knowing my triggers, even knowing what triggers are helps me feel more connected. Learning to be kind to myself is hard but
    One day at a time

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