When you encounter a trigger after trauma, a strong emotional and behavioural reaction comes over you. It’s as if you are reliving that trauma all over again. The word “triggered” has become a popular term to describe anything that causes emotional discomfort. But for people who have experienced trauma, triggers can be terrifying, all-consuming, and can seemingly come out of nowhere. Trauma triggers can be anything that reminds you of a past trauma — which might include a certain smell, a particular song or sound, or a piece of clothing. Triggers are unique to the individual. Trauma is known to have a long lasting and repetitive effect on our minds. However, there is hope for those who experience trauma’s aftereffects.
What are triggers
A trigger can be anything that sparks a memory of a trauma, or a part of a trauma. When you encounter a trigger, memories and thoughts associated with the trauma come back without warning. You cannot stop the intrusive thoughts, and in response, you feel a turn in your emotions and begin to react.
A trigger might make you feel helpless, unsafe and overwhelmed with emotion. You might feel the same things that you felt at the time of the trauma, as though you were reliving the event. The mind perceives triggers as a threat and causes a reaction like fear, panic or agitation. Think of the reaction to triggers as a defense mechanism: The memory of the traumatic event places you right back into the experience, which causes your walls to go up against the perceived threat in an attempt to protect yourself.
After encountering a trigger, it can take some time for your nervous system to recover and return to baseline. This is partly because trauma reduces your window of tolerance — the emotional zone in which you feel grounded, balanced and calm. A smaller window of tolerance means stressors are more likely to cause greater emotional upset.
How to deal with triggers
Healing from trauma is challenging and takes time. It may feel like the easiest way to overcome it is to avoid it or pretend it isn‘t happening. However, it is best to spot your triggers and to learn how to manage them instead of avoiding them. Even if you’re not sure what has triggered you, there are steps you can take. When a trigger leaves you feeling emotionally flooded, you can try following these steps to soothe and regulate your nervous system:
Focus on what’s happening in the here and now.
Remind yourself that this is a common reaction to a traumatic event, and you can get through it.
Perform breathing exercises to calm your mind.
Manage the trigger with different ways to cope, such as using the flashback halting protocol.
What is flashback halting protocol?
Triggers can make it feel like you are living the traumatic event all over again. The flashback halting protocol aims to halt the flashback and bring you back to the present moment. This can help your mind and body realize that the trauma isn‘t actually happening anymore. Next time you find yourself faced with a flashback, try reading and answering these questions to yourself:
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.