People love using the word “triggered” online these days to describe anything from mild discomfort to self-defense after a mean-spirited joke. But what does it actually mean? For people who have experienced trauma, triggers can be completely terrifying and all-consuming. Worse, they can seemingly come out of nowhere. Learning how to deal with trauma triggers is a great first step in overcoming them.
A trauma trigger can be anything that reminds you of your past trauma. That could include smells, songs, sounds, a piece of clothing, or even a certain phrase or mannerism. Triggers are unique to each individual.
Trauma, unfortunately, has a long-lasting and repetitive effect on our minds. That being said, there is hope. Trauma-informed care and other treatment can help you live a happy and fulfilling life.
What is a trigger?
A trigger is anything that sparks the memory of a trauma, or even just part of a trauma. For example, maybe your partner sighs a certain way, and it brings you right back to childhood when your mom would sigh while doing a chore in an attempt to make you feel guilty. And it works. You jump up when you hear your partner make that sigh to help them with whatever they’re doing, because that made you safe as a child.
When a trigger is encountered, memories and thoughts linked to the trauma resurface suddenly. Intrusive thoughts cannot be halted, leading to an emotional shift and reactive response.
Encountering a trigger can make you feel hopeless, panicked, insecure, and overwhelmed. It may seem as though you are reliving the traumatic event, experiencing the same emotions as during the actual incident.
Triggers are perceived by the mind as threats, prompting reactions such as fear, panic, or agitation. Consider these reactions as a defense mechanism; the memory of the trauma places you back in the experience, prompting a defensive response against the perceived threat to safeguard yourself.
Although infrequent, triggers can instigate flashbacks. The severity of our response to triggers varies from person to person.
Following exposure to a trigger, it takes time for the nervous system to recover and return to a baseline state. This is partly due to trauma narrowing your window of tolerance—the emotional range where you feel grounded, balanced, and calm. A reduced window of tolerance means stressors are more likely to result in heightened emotional distress.
Experiencing triggers is a characteristic feature of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), often manifesting during key events that give rise to or highlight PTSD symptoms.
How to deal with trauma triggers
Dealing with trauma triggers is incredibly challenging, and it will take some time. It might seem tempting to sidestep or ignore the challenges it presents. However, rather than avoiding it, the most effective approach is to identify your triggers and learn how to manage them.
Even if the source of your triggers is unclear, there are actionable steps you can take. When a trigger overwhelms you emotionally, consider employing the following strategies to soothe and regulate your nervous system:
- Center yourself in the present. Focus on the here and now.
- Remind yourself that what is happening is normal and you can get through it.
- Practice breathing exercises to calm your mind.
- Manage the trigger with different ways to cope, like using the flashback halting protocol.
The Flashback Halting protocol
Triggers can give the impression that you are reliving the traumatic event. The flashback halting protocol is designed to interrupt the flashback and guide you back to the present moment. This process helps your mind and body recognize that the trauma is no longer occurring.
The next time you encounter a flashback, consider thinking about the following questions:
- Right now, I am feeling _____. (Scared, anxious, panicky, sad, etc.)
- And I am sensing in my body _____ (shaking, sweating, dizziness, etc.).
- Because I am remembering _____ (the bad person, the vehicle, the war, etc.).
- And at the same time, it is now _____ (say current date and time).
- And I am here at _____ (name the place).
- And I can see _____ (name five objects around you).
- And so I know that _____ (the trauma) is not happening now.
Examples of triggers
Reactions to trauma are unique for each individual. It’s likely that two people who undergo a similar traumatic experience will not have common triggers or exhibit identical symptoms afterward.
Trauma triggers vary widely among people and can encompass a broad range of things. These triggers can include specific emotions, encountering routine events, or seeing highly distinct patterns. Some examples of possible trauma triggers include:
Hearing a specific sound can lead to a negative response and trigger our bodies to react and feel unsafe, even in a safe environment. Some example of sound triggers are:
- Sounds of crying
- Sounds of yelling
Seeing something can easily be a trigger. For example, if you were abused by your father, seeing someone in public who looks just like him, even if you’re hundreds of miles away, can lead to an unwanted response.
Some other examples include seeing:
- Other people of similar age to those involved in the trauma
- An intoxicated person
- A building or certain place
- First responders or other healthcare professionals
- A piece of clothing
- A car that looks similar to one involved in the trauma
Even though all of our senses directly connect our brain to the world around us, smell is the one most closely linked with memory. You might find that certain smells trigger good or bad memories, depending on what they are. That’s because when we smell something, our brain immediately tries to identify the scent. As it works on identifying the source, it can also jog buried memories of when we’ve smelled it before. Some examples of smells that could be triggers include:
- A fragrance or cologne
- Alcoholic drinks
- Grilling meats
- Certain food or drinks
- Animal urination
Certain situations can trigger a specific traumatic memory. These situations can include:
- Speaking with an authority figure (like a police officer)
- Talking to someone who may be narcissistic
- Driving a car
- Experiencing rejection
- Having your boundaries violated
- Unwanted touch
How to identify a trigger
Once you’ve identified a trigger, you can begin to anticipate it. But what do you do if your triggers are subtle or surprising. If you can identify these, you have taken the first step to learning to manage it.
Triggers can feel surprising or even unpredictable, but identifying them helps us find connections between events, feelings, or sights that cause an immediate emotional or behavioral response. There are many ways to accomplish this.
Journaling can help you identify triggers. Anytime you experience a flashback or feelings of panic, try writing about it. You may want to try prompts such as:
- What did you hear/see/smell?
- How do you feel?
- What do you sense in your body?
- Where were you when it happened?
- What are some ways you can tell that trauma is not happening now?
Then you can begin making connections and finding your triggers.
Talking through your experiences with an objective third party can help you identify triggers you didn’t even realize you were reacting to. A therapist can help you become more mindful of your reactions to situations and teach you coping mechanisms to help you through them.
If you suspect you have trauma or even PTSD, it’s important to seek professional help. A therapist can teach you coping skills, work you through triggers, and even work with you to go through your traumatic memories and make them have less of a hold on your life.
If you’re interested in seeing a professional, Modern Era Counseling can help. Our practice specializes in treating trauma, especially childhood trauma, and our team of therapists are specially trained to help you face anything.Give us a call at (704) 800-4436 or click here to shoot us an email and get started today.