TRIGGER WARNING: Understanding and dealing with triggers
As we go through life, we encounter experiences which can remind us of times gone by. The smell of fresh bread for most people brings back very positive memories. The sound of rain on a roof when you are tucked up warm in bed can be calming and peaceful. However, there are also experiences which can trigger unwanted and unpleasant memories.
What are triggers?
People who have suffered trauma or witnessed a terrible event often find that completely unrelated things happening in day to day life will act as a trigger which unleashes unwanted thoughts, feeling and memories of their traumatic experience to come flooding back. We often hear it in relation to soldiers suffering PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) after returning from a war zone. Many people suffer PTSD, flashbacks and are at the mercy of their ‘triggers’ from events that have happened in their past, often from their childhoods or when they were exposed to deep trauma. Survivors of childhood sexual abuse are no exception: long after the abuse has ended, certain associations will remain which may remind the survivor of the time or the environment in which the abuse occurred, or of the perpetrator themselves.
In dealing with people who have been affected by such traumas, we can never really know what sensory experience will cause them to be ‘triggered’. It might be a particular smell, a touch, a colour, the temperature in a room. It is whatever sensory stimulus acts as a ‘gateway’ to the semantic recall (pulling the whole remembered experience from long term memory) of the event/s in question. For some people, the recall is complete (vivid memories of the trauma) whilst for others, it may be a vague memory but strong physical and emotional reactions. Everyone is different.
Dealing with the unexpected
For people who have suffered such traumas, these triggers can be known, but also may be unexpected as they appear in the course of living a normal life. It could be something on TV, a Facebook post, something in a book, or something experienced in real life. This means that they never really know in what circumstances they will be exposed to the thing, or things, that may trigger them. Many live on ‘edge’, worried that in any moment something may emerge which will recreate their terror, horror or memories of pain. This can also lead to enormous embarrassment and shame – what if they are triggered in public? What if they cannot cope without looking foolish?
In essence, the trigger is acting as a warning of danger. It is set to ‘high alert’ – and even though the traumatic experience is not being repeated in the present, the mind believes that the trigger signals that the event will re-occur. As such, the body tries to prepare as best as possible – the result being the recall of thoughts, images, feelings and emotions associated with the event.
Such triggers can be extremely debilitating and upsetting for people who suffer from them.
Understanding the impact
As part of a complete therapeutic approach, understanding triggers and their impact can be critical to a full recovery. Used in conjunction with other methods, specifically addressing the triggers can be critical in allowing patients relief from the awful experiences continuously reoccurring in their lives. This allows them to place the incidents in appropriate perspective and start action taking to move forward.
Steps for healing and recovery
If you are dealing with a series of triggers, which lead to flashbacks or unpleasant physical symptoms, you can take some immediate steps:
– Pay attention to what it is that triggers you. Understanding your sensitivities allows you to prepare for, or even avoid, things which may trigger you. For example, if it were the smell of a particular food, then realising this beforehand could allow you to prepare yourself before entering a restaurant, food market, etc.
– Know what happens when you are triggered. Everyone is different, for some people, the triggered response is physical (feeling sick in the stomach), emotional (rage, or fear), or cognitive (flooding images or thoughts). Knowing how we are triggered is also valuable, because when it happens we can start to recognise that the experience we are having is a triggered response, rather than a recurrence of the actual event.
– Take the time to examine your triggered response. You may need guidance through this step by an appropriate professional, or you may be comfortable enough to do this step on your own. By seeing your triggered response as something happening now, as to opposed to what happened then, it may be possible to frame the experiences as separate, and to break the connection between them.
– When you recognise you are being triggered, focus on just breathing. As you focus on your breathing, you can defocus from the experience. Know that it will pass, just as it always has. By breathing and focusing on this instead of the triggered experience, it may be possible to bring it to its natural end much faster. With practice, it may be possible to recognise the triggered response, take one breath, and have the response fade away. Often our responses involve intense focus on the symptoms, which increases them. Shifting to breathing and focusing on controlling your breathing can interrupt the pattern, and bring the response to an early end.
Recognise your own strength
– Finally, give yourself credit. Regardless of how long the triggered response goes for, give yourself credit when it does come to an end. Don’t beat yourself up that it occurred, rather recognise that this is how you are dealing with what happened before, and each time you get through it is a victory.
When you are ready, it can be worth working with a professional to deal with the trauma, and how you manage your current responses to it. Through specialised therapy and other supportive services, many survivors of sexual abuse learn methods to manage their triggers and gain relief from the traumatic events in their past. They are able to move on and be free of what happened, and to take a new level of control over their present and future, restoring their sense of hope for what lay ahead.