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9 Ways to Promptly Manage Trauma Triggers

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced domestic violence or emotional abuse, sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering.

You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Triggers suck.

There, I said it.

Granted, that’s probably not the most eloquent way to start a post. But it is the most honest I can be about the way it feels to stumble around a psychological minefield of trauma triggers, hoping and praying that one doesn’t go off.

• What is PTSD?

In my journey of learning to live with complex-post traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), I have become increasingly aware of how many triggers I have and how quickly my world can fall apart if I don’t know how to appropriately process and manage those triggers promptly.

Learning how to recognize, process and manage my triggers is a choice I make every day to advance my recovery and help ensure that I do not get stuck in trauma.

Thankfully, because of successful PTSD treatment, I’ve learned to identify my triggers and deal with them before I’m in a challenging situation — most of the time. It’s important for me to know what my triggers are so that I don’t feel powerless And Lost When They Do Rear Their Ugly Heads (And They Will).

So, What is a Trigger?

A trigger is a type of catalyst (it propels, causes, cues, etc…) that sets off a chain reaction of symptoms of PTSD in our bodies. Triggers are both internal (unspoken, like a thought or feeling) and external, such as a song, a smell, a situation or something we witness or hear in our day-to-day life. When “tripped,” these triggers can cause anxiety attacks, flashbacks, the fight or flight response, and a myriad of other PTSD symptoms. Wikipedia says that “a trauma trigger is an experience that causes someone to recall a previous traumatic memory… and can be indirectly or superficially reminiscent of an earlier traumatic incident.”

A quick, realistic glimpse at what a trigger is and what a trigger does can be hugely helpful when we perceive something to be life-threatening. Physiologically when we are triggered, our body and brain speed up and our heart pumps faster, sending blood to our muscles, communicating the message that we need to quickly escape. Our bodies then automatically move into the fight or flight mode, as they begin to pump out hormones (that are responsible for helping to stave off bleeding and keep us safe from infection in case we get hurt). As our brain communicates to our body that some of its functions are less important, it shuts down the part that stores memory, emotion and thinking.

Here’s the truth: the word “trigger” or “triggered” can make people uncomfortable. For some, to say that a person is “triggered” is a slap at someone they perceive as weak, dramatic and far too sensitive. This common misunderstanding can have a devastating effect on those who are living with post-traumatic stress and trauma-related disorders.

The solution (in part, at least)? Trauma-informed care.

Trauma-informed care is a huge step in the right direction for those of us who deal with PTSD (or C-PTSD, my diagnosis) or other mental health issues that manifest in a physical way. Medical professionals who have an informed understanding of the term “trauma,” or “post-traumatic stress disorder” and other trauma-related conditions, will be the better doctor for those navigating life with PTSD.

Internal triggers include:

  • feelings of anger, anxiety (racing heart, sweating, etc…), loneliness or sadness,
  • frustration,
  • feeling out of control and vulnerable,
  • physical pain,
  • negative self-talk.

External triggers include:

  • Traumatic events, which if not processed appropriately, will lead to post-traumatic stress,
  • Seeing a picture, watching a movie, a television show, or hearing a song that reminds you of your traumatic event,
  • Certain smells and/or sounds,
  • An anniversary of trauma or a holiday that prompts sadness,
  • A specific place,
  • Seeing a person who reminds you of someone connected to your traumatic event.

In the months following treatment for PTSD, I had a series of trigger failures. I hadn’t yet figured out how to stop my triggers from sending me into a downward spiral. I was exhausted trying to figure it all out. It was at this point that I knew I had to make a choice: confront my triggers now, voluntarily, or deal with them later when I’m not willing or able but my body is demanding immediate relief from the chaos inside. I began to use the tools that I learned in treatment… and to my surprise, they worked!

In the intervening years, I have become well acquainted with my triggers. So much, in fact, that I’m rarely surprised by them anymore. For me, knowing there is a successful way to navigate an at times trigger-laden life is a very liberating thing as it teaches me that I can manage my reactions to negative things if I am prepared. Of course, even being as prepared as possible won’t make it easy, but it does give you a head start.

Here are some ways that I manage PTSD triggers:

1. Awareness.

Being able to name and label the trigger is paramount! The awareness of trauma behaviors and triggers is one of the most valuable tools in successfully battling PTSD. Awareness allows for a realistic hope of learning to manage your instinctual trauma responses (ITR). And for the record, it’s most unlikely that any survivor of trauma is dealing with only one trigger.

2. Be curious.

Check it out… do a deeper dive to find out what the potential meaning of the trigger is. Be brave as you explore ways to thrive in your recovery from trauma. Once there is awareness of the trigger, interrogate it. A trigger really only has power as long as we are ignorant of it. Once the truth has been spoken, the cat’s outta the bag.

3. Self-soothe or self-repair.

How do I make myself feel seen and heard and cared for at the end of my chaotic and stress-filled day? How do I reward myself for a job well done in managing my triggers? It’s really very simple. It’s called self-soothe or self-repair.

There are many ways to make ourselves feel better without hurting anyone including ourselves. Some simple ways are favorite foods (in moderation), a hobby (again, in moderation, not breaking the bank), reading, writing, music, dancing, singing, photography, painting, drawing, creating, etc… all of these do wonderful things for us in terms of self-care. After an especially triggering day (actually every day), it is perfectly acceptable and encouraged to “self-soothe” or “self-repair.” Treat yourself to something that’s just for you and that you thoroughly enjoy. There are many ways to do this.

Tip: Plan your reward if you know when that trigger is going to happen (i.e., a difficult medical appointment, an exam, etc.).

4. Celebrate the win.

It’s important to remember to congratulate ourselves on every successful step we take. Give yourself credit (out loud!) for the decision you made to make different and healthier choices than before! It’s vitally important to take notice of when we do something well and then tell ourselves the truth about that thing. I rocked it. You rocked it. Don’t be afraid to say it!

5. Mindfulness.

Making ourselves aware of where we are, in the present moment, and knowing that in that moment we are safe and OK can work to alleviate the anxiety and fear that has been triggered.

6. Recovery support system.

Talking to someone who understands PTSD and is supportive of our recovery is a way to manage the effects of being triggered. After my PTSD treatment, I moved across the country where I was thousands of miles away from my nearest family member. I knew I had to build my own support community and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

7. Tell yourself the truth.

Remember that our fear and anxiety, while real, are not necessarily appropriate reactions at times. In these anxious moments, we need to be reiterating to ourselves that we are not hopelessly lost in trauma and that there is help and hope to recover. Remind yourself that you are safe now. In trauma recovery, we often need to remind ourselves that we are NOT that little child, soldier, abused partner, etc… that we are safe and can step into our power and make safe choices for ourselves.

8. Journaling.

Journaling when triggered feelings come up can be helpful in figuring out those emotions.

9. Grounding techniques.

Triggers root us in our past while grounding techniques bring us back to the present where we can deal with our triggers. Grounding techniques use our senses to bring us back to the present moment, much like mindfulness.

Grounding techniques are simple:

  • Holding onto a special object (like something hot or cold, or with a pronounced texture),
  • Listening to music from a particular time period,
  • Smelling or tasting something with a strong scent or flavor,
  • Holding someone’s hand or patting their arm can bring someone back into the here and now.

It’s my hope that you find your way out of the darkness of PTSD triggers and into the light of the truth of who you are. It’s liberating to know that you can learn to choose to react in productive, life-affirming ways and choose to change your life for the better.

I’m cheering you on!

Getty Images photo via digitalskillet

Originally published: July 6, 2021
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