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How I’m Navigating My Triggers As a Trauma Survivor

As a woman with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), I try to navigate this world as best as I can. I find myself facing triggers head-on time to time, and I also try to be mindful so I can avoid being triggered.

The word “trigger” has become very popularized and because of this, it can lose its meaning and seriousness at times. The word has also been used to intentionally exaggerate someone else’s feelings in a way to mock them.

A trigger in terms of trauma is defined as a stimulus that mentally brings us back to a past traumatic experience. Trauma can include abuse, neglect, assault, near-death experiences, loss and many, many other things.

Triggers can happen through any of our senses, like smell, sight, taste, sound or touch. For instance, if you were to smell a passerby wearing a cologne in the present moment, the smell alone could trigger a trauma memory where you remember someone from your past wearing the same or similar cologne, and perhaps an emotionally charged, traumatic experience is surrounding the memory of that person, so then you are triggered and experience a flashback. Triggers attached to the senses can be especially upsetting because they can have a stronghold in your memory. We may not fully be aware of these types of triggers until they occur, unfortunately.

Trauma triggers can make us feel as if we are in immediate danger, sometimes initiating a fight or flight response. We can feel things like panicky, tearful, frozen or even experience panic attacks due to being triggered. Flashbacks can accompany triggers, which is when we have a vivid memory of the trauma. Triggers and flashbacks are very serious and can impact our emotional state greatly. It is important we attribute the word “trigger” appropriately, and perhaps find different words when we want to explain other disappointing, upsetting or emotional responses.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a therapy created by Marsha M. Linehan, has introduced life-saving skills to me so I can return to my baseline if I feel triggered or experience flashbacks and nightmares. I learned about DBT in a women’s trauma program some time ago. Some of my go-to skills include paced breathing, utilizing cold temperature from TIPP and half-smile. Mindfulness, wise mind and behavior chains are helpful to me, too. Being able to drink cold water, run my hands under cold water, do breathing exercises or visualize my safe place are instrumental methods in soothing myself when I experience flashbacks.

In the women’s trauma program I attended, I also learned about different responses to trauma as it is happening. We often learn about fight or flight. There are actually more responses: fight, flight, freeze and submit. This new information — that there are more responses to trauma than just two — was comforting to me. I felt confused about why I froze in the past when I wanted to run. I felt as if the trauma was my fault. There are real, psychological reasons why we may react in different ways in traumatic experiences.

Today, some ways I try to avoid triggers is to be mindful of what I am consuming visually. I have made a great effort to not watch Demi Lovato’s latest documentary series. I support Demi and celebrate her strength; however, I had heard about some of the content that was going to be discussed, and made the decision to watch it at a later time in the future. In recent weeks, flashbacks have resurfaced for me, so I have been especially mindful of what I watch and listen to in order to avoid triggers. We cannot avoid every trigger, but it is important to me to do my best to avoid what I can, when I can.

There is a song I gravitate towards that makes me feel validated, but I realized it was also bringing up a lot for me emotionally. I would listen to this song and feel heard, but then would break down when I finished listening to it. I have decided to delete it off my phone for now.

I love writing poetry and doing creative writing. I noticed when I finished doing trauma work in therapy a couple of years ago, I felt more of a desire to write about it. I had bottled it up for so long on account that I wasn’t ready to unpack it back then. It began to spill out in my writing. I have had to stop myself from writing at times because I would be sobbing on and off for hours. I’m more mindful of when it’s too much and will use distress tolerance skills if I find myself becoming emotional. I have found it is good to allow myself to get emotional when I’m writing and trauma writing starts coming out, but I never let it get to that point anymore. I will put my writing away and do something soothing for myself like take a hot bath or chat with a friend.

I also work on being open with my close friends and therapist on when I am feeling triggered so I’m not facing it alone. One of the worst things we can do when we are experiencing the effects of trauma is to not tell anyone. Shame thrives off of our silence. And there is nothing to be ashamed of because trauma is never our fault. The effects can also escalate and worsen if we are not seeking help.

I try to be as gentle as I can with myself when I’m experiencing the effects of trauma. It is so easy to be hard on ourselves or overlook our feelings, but it matters that we treat ourselves kindly, especially in moments we feel so lost in emotion. We are not bad or broken for the wounds we carry. We deserve to be gentle with ourselves and have others be gentle with us.

It is distressing to experience triggers from trauma, as well as nightmares and flashbacks. I have struggled to be present when these things overcome me. I can feel unsafe all of a sudden, as if I am in danger. I am an adult but can feel as if I go back in time to being a kid or teenager. It can feel as if the traumatic experience is happening all over again. The effects of trauma can feel debilitating at times. There is a heaviness that comes from carrying painful and scary memories. At the same time, there is help for us and there is hope. I try to remind myself that the child in me who was not privy to therapy or a life where she was not always in so much pain is still with me and I can show her healing today. My healing today is unifying my present self and my inner child.

I am stronger than the effects of trauma, and you are, too.

Photo by Geetanjal Khanna on Unsplash