How to Help When PF-related Trauma Shows Up Unexpectedly

Charlene Marshall avatar

by Charlene Marshall |

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It’s hard to forget traumatic events. Even if we’re not directly involved, these moments often become ingrained in our psyche.

When we face trauma firsthand, we tend to remember many of the sensory experiences connected to the event. My most traumatic experience was being intubated after an exacerbation of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF). I vividly remember the sights, sounds, smells, and physical sensations. I’ve been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result.

As most people with PTSD will tell you, triggers can occur unexpectedly. We may respond by crying, screaming, withdrawing, or being unable to focus. Our body could also react by jumping or swinging our arms or legs. Watching someone respond to a trigger can be frightening, but we don’t mean to scare or hurt anyone; our body is just reacting.

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Personally, I am triggered by loud and unexpected noises, especially overhead announcements in grocery or department stores, which remind me of code blue calls in the hospital. Despite being unconscious or heavily sedated while I was intubated, I somehow heard those emergency alerts.

I was recently in the emergency room after accidentally inhaling secondhand smoke, and was unexpectedly triggered by an overhead page. Thankfully, I was with a former supervisor who knew how to help my mind and body handle the trauma response. Following are a few ways she helped me through it.

Activating a pressure point

Applying pressure to certain spots on our body can help ground us and bring the mind back to a focus point. It can bring someone out of a PTSD flashback by forcing the body to respond to a physical sensation. My supervisor slowly moved her hand toward mine, ensuring she made no sudden movements, and applied pressure to the thin layer of skin between my thumb and index finger. It didn’t cause me any discomfort, but it’s the first thing I remember feeling amid my panic.

Placing a hand on the back

As long as it’s safe to do so, having someone put their hand on your back during a trauma response allows them to communicate nonverbally that they are with you. In my moment of panic in the ER, this helped remind me that I wasn’t alone, and my supervisor was with me.

Encourage use of the senses

This technique can be used during a trauma response or with those experiencing overstimulation. I often use it in my clinical practice as a therapist. When you have determined that a person can follow verbal commands, quietly ask them to use their senses to describe what they can see, smell, feel, and so on. This forces the mind into the present, helping someone focus on the current moment rather than the traumatic event.

Unfortunately for those of us living with IPF, it can be counterproductive to encourage deep breathing, as this can often trigger a cough. However, this strategy can help someone without a lung disease through a trauma response or anxiety attack.

In the ER, I was grateful that my supervisor knew how to help me when my PF-related trauma showed up unexpectedly, but I know others won’t always be that fortunate. In addition to these tips, I recommend fellow PF News writer Christie Patient’s column about the importance of talking about trauma.

In hindsight, I’m also grateful that I was vulnerable and talked with my supervisor about my trauma triggers prior to a hospital visit. This enabled her to be aware of how I might respond to a code being called.

Have you experienced PF-related trauma? If so, what helps you in the moment? Please share in the comments below.

Note: Pulmonary Fibrosis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Pulmonary Fibrosis News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to pulmonary fibrosis.


Will Willis avatar

Will Willis

This is a wonderful report and valuable in any trauma event for anyone. These tips work, and will help bring anyone back if they start to go over the edge. Example; even a minor car accident will bring about trauma. Remember, calm is key! Talk slowly and help by asking a person's age or address, this is what first responders are trained to do and we should too. Thanks for this article.

Charlene Marshall avatar

Charlene Marshall

Thank you for reading my columns and connecting via the comments, Will. I completely agree with you and the suggestions in my piece can be relevant to anyone experiencing trauma. Calm is key! Thanks for writing and take good care.

jimnox avatar


Thank Charlene. Glad to see we are both still here. I find the article very helpful and can confirm that the techniques described (as well as similar ones), have been quite helpful to me, the patient, to get the train back on the track when some event has triggered a PH attack (which can be quite mind boggling) and help stem the panic that the next breath might not come with any oxygen or relief.
Greetings from deep in the heart of Texas,
Jim Knox


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