Trauma is the response to a distressing or disturbing event. Trauma can be caused by a major life-changing crisis or a series of smaller yet impactful events. Trauma overwhelms us, affecting our ability to process thoughts and feelings, causing helplessness, and in some cases worthlessness. When we recognise the traumas that have affected our lives, we can also begin to identify the triggers that are associated with these traumas.
In this post, I will walk you through triggers, how they show up, and what you can do to manage any triggers that are affecting your life.
What is a trigger, and Why Does it Matter?
A trigger can be anything that you have associated with a traumatic event. It can be a smell, an object, a person or even a phrase. Sometimes we are triggered by music, by food or locations. When we begin to recognise the triggers that cause us to experience anxiety, we can begin the process of challenging and diminishing these triggers, helping us to get on with life in a healthier manner.
What does it mean to be triggered?
In recent years, being triggered is a term that has been casually used to refer to an emotional response to feelings after a break-up or media content such as extreme violence. From a mental health perspective, being “triggered” more narrowly refers to the experience of people re-living or experiencing aspects of a traumatic event. Being triggered in this sense can cause an extreme response both physically and mentally after being exposed to a trigger that is a catalyst or reminder of that trauma.
Being triggered in this way can lead to overwhelming emotions, including sadness, anxiety, panic, and flashbacks. Triggers often lead to seemingly irrational behaviours. Wanting to leave a venue or event quickly with no apparent reason, dislike for a certain food or meal, the need to avoid a place or person or simply feeling fearful, nauseous or panicked when a certain song is played.
Triggers can be very destructive when suffering from anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and substance abuse, where experiencing a trigger may lead to a relapse into harmful habits or coping strategies.
Now, let’s take a look at the types of situations that might trigger symptoms and then consider how you can cope if these are causing problems for you.
How to Identify a trigger
While we don’t know exactly how triggers are formed, it’s believed that traumatic memories are stored differently in the brain than non-traumatic memories. Past events may be interpreted as current threats, which causes the body to experience symptoms similar to the original trauma, such as the fight-flight-or freeze response.
We do know that triggers can cause an emotional reaction before a person realizes why they have become upset. Often, triggers have a strong sensory connection to sight, sound, taste, or smell, or are connected in some way to a deeply ingrained habit e.g., a recovering gambler or alcoholic who associates a particular activity with gambling or drinking.
If you notice that you have a particular aversion that may not seem rational or sensible, then you may want to spend some time trying to trace it back to an event in your life. You may not even view this event as being traumatic, however, if the brain processed this event as a threat in any way, then it may have stored it as a trauma and associated everything from that event as a trigger.
Types of Triggers
As mentioned, triggers can be both internal and external events. Below are examples of the different kinds of events that might be considered triggers as far as anxiety and traumatic events go.
The most common internal trigger responses:
- Feeling overwhelmed
- A racing heart
- Feeling lonely
- Feeling abandoned
- Feeling out of control
Below is a list of potential external events that can trigger a person:
- Going to a specific location that reminds them of a traumatic event
- An anniversary date
- A violent movie
- A particular smell that is connected to a past trauma
- Seeing an overly thin celebrity (eating disorder)
- A particular interaction (e.g., an argument)
- Seeing someone else use drugs (for substance abuse)
- News stories about bad events
- The ending of a relationship
- Being alone too much
- Feeling judged
- Money problems
- Physical illness
- Sexual harassment
- A particular time of day (e.g., middle of the night)
- Being in a crowded place
Tips and Reminders for Coping with Triggers
How can you cope with triggers? Empower yourself by preparing to cope with triggers. Becoming aware of signs in your body that you’re reacting to a trigger, such as changes in your breathing, or the need to escape, so that you can learn how to calm yourself down.
Your ultimate goal should be to first notice you are being triggered and then detach yourself from the trigger, by using a coping tool or technique.
I have put together a list of 7 simple techniques that you can put into action as soon as you realise you have been triggered.
- Practice deep breathing and other relaxation techniques
- Avoid reaching for unhealthy coping strategies (drinking, overeating, gambling)
- Tell yourself everything is going to be Ok
- Call someone you trust who will help to calm you down
- Keep a journal – write down the triggers as they happen
- Engage in regular exercise – mindful walking, running or yoga
- Practice mindful meditations
If you are feeling triggered on a regular basis and unable to cope with various situations or feelings that arise in your mind or body, it is important to make an appointment with a mental health professional to discuss your symptoms. In the meantime, check out more of my blog posts on how you can manage anxiety, triggers and take care of yourself.