how to deal with trauma triggers

How to Deal with Trauma Triggers

Key Takeaways:

  • Trauma triggers are any stimuli that can cause traumatic memories to resurface.
  • There are internal and external trauma triggers, such as feelings of anxiety, people, places, sensations, and emotions.
  • Dealing with trauma triggers involves self care, building a support network, psychotherapy, and others.

Here’s a scenario you may be familiar with:

You’re going through your days, weeks, or even months just fine. One day, something seemingly small happens and all the unpleasant memories come flooding back. It’s overwhelming, and you don’t understand; you thought you’d healed from your trauma by now. This is why it’s important to learn how to deal with trauma triggers.

Dealing with triggers is one of the most challenging parts of healing from trauma. But it is not impossible to do. Here we’ll talk about trauma triggers, what they are, how to identify them, and how to deal with them for your well-being.

What are Trauma Triggers?

A trauma trigger is any stimulus such as a person, place, or thing that can cause traumatic memories or reactions to surface without warning. For instance, you may get a tight feeling in your chest whenever you pass the place where your car accident took place. Another example is when the smell of a place (like a hospital) triggers certain memories, making you feel nauseated.

Triggers cause a rush of intrusive thoughts and overwhelming emotions. They may also make you feel unsafe, helpless, and panicked as if you were reliving the traumatic event all over again.

These reactions take place because your mind perceives the trigger as a real threat. This sets off a chain reaction of responses like fear, panic, or agitation. Reactions to triggers can be thought of as a defense mechanism designed to protect you from an experience your mind and body have identified as harmful.

How people respond to certain triggers will depend on each individual and the severity of the traumatic experience. For some people who have dealt with childhood trauma, it may be more challenging to respond to triggers that have been present for many years. After facing a trigger, it may take time for one’s nervous system to recover and return to its baseline. This is partly because the window of tolerance is reduced after experiencing trauma, meaning that stressors can cause greater emotional upsets.

What are Examples of Trauma Triggers?

Some trauma triggers examples are physical sensations or negative feelings that can cause a response. There are two main types of trauma triggers:

Internal Triggers. These types of triggers happen within a person’s body. Things like feelings, memories, or bodily sensations can trigger trauma. Some examples of internal triggers are the following:

  • Memories
  • Pain or muscle tensions
  • Feelings of anxiety or anger
  • Feeling vulnerable
  • Feeling lonely or abandoned
  • Feeling sadness
  • Feelings of frustration

External Triggers. External triggers happen outside of the self. People, places, things, or situations and events can trigger trauma symptoms and bring back feelings of the event. External triggers can include:

  • Anniversary of the trauma
  • Smells
  • Sounds
  • Movie or TV show scenes similar to the traumatic event
  • Seeing someone who is connected to the traumatic event

How to Identify a Trauma Trigger

Identification is key to dealing with trauma triggers and your response to them.

Some triggers are quite obvious and easy to identify. For instance, passing by the place where you experienced the traumatic event might trigger symptoms of trauma. However, other triggers might be more subtle. You may not even recognize them until you’ve already had a negative reaction.

To identify triggers, consider when your trauma symptoms usually manifest. You may ask yourself the following questions to help in identifying triggers:

  • Where am I when my trauma symptoms usually start?
  • What am I feeling and what thoughts do I have when I feel my trauma symptoms?
  • What type of situation am I in?
  • What is happening around me when I feel my trauma symptoms?

Using your phone or a sheet of paper and pen, list down as many internal and external triggers as possible. You can also use something like a triggers worksheet to help you identify what is causing your traumatic response to surface.

How to Deal with Trauma Triggers

Experiencing trauma triggers can be difficult and unpleasant. Fortunately, there are several ways you can deal with these triggers:

Self-care

Self-care encompasses many different activities that can help you calm your body’s stress response when dealing with a triggering situation.

Start with something simple such as deep breathing. You can also pair this with grounding techniques that will keep you focused on the present moment rather than fixating on your triggers.

You can also try mindfulness techniques, which encourages more self-awareness and, similar to grounding, focuses on the present.

Journaling or expressive writing can help you process any thoughts, feelings, and memories that add to your trauma symptoms. This is an excellent way to combat the long term effects of childhood trauma because you are actively processing your triggers and learning how to deal with them effectively.

Avoid harmful substances

One of the signs of childhood trauma in adults is substance addiction or abuse. However, this is an unhealthy way of dealing with trauma. A study on university students with childhood trauma revealed that having more effective ways of dealing with stress decreased the chances of developing alcohol use disorder [*]. Avoiding harmful substances will also contribute to better health in the long term.

Do not avoid

Many people want to heal from childhood trauma but often try to avoid dealing with unpleasant feelings that come with triggers. While it is natural to want to avoid a potentially dangerous or scary situation, this strategy only works in the short term. Avoidance may lead to more isolation, which can lead to detachment from important social networks and communities that are vital to recovering from trauma and overall well-being.

There are many ways to process your trauma triggers rather than avoiding them. You can use trauma worksheets to help guide you.

Build your support network

When it comes to dealing with trauma and your triggers, having a social and community support system is more important than ever. Research has found that social support is significantly associated with recovery from prior PTSD [*]. While it may be tempting to isolate oneself from the community, reaching out to a network of people who can empathize and provide support has proven to be more helpful and valuable for trauma survivors.

Try psychotherapy

Various psychotherapy techniques can help with trauma triggers, including cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, and cognitive processing therapy.

These techniques can help you change negative thoughts that contribute to your triggers, strengthen your response against the triggers, and process and cope with difficult memories.

Do Trauma Triggers Go Away?

Unfortunately, trauma triggers do not go away. With the right treatment, symptoms can be managed effectively. While there is a possibility for a person to be triggered again in the future, how they respond to these triggers can be healthier in the long term.

The Bottom Line

Trauma is often the result of a tragic incident, and its effects should not be ignored. Triggers exist all around us. They may be more difficult for some people to deal with than others. Identifying your triggers and learning how to deal with them is an important part of healing trauma.

The good news is that there are many ways to handle your triggers, and there are many people willing to help on your recovery journey, mental health professionals included.

References:

  1. Akcan G, Öztürk E, Erdoğan B. The investigation of the mediating role of coping trategies on the relationship between childhood traumas, depression and alcohol use disorder in university students. April 2021.
  2. Dai W, Chen L, Tan H, et al. Association between social support and recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder after flood: a 13–14 year follow-up study in Hunan, China. 29 February 2016.

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