HEALTHY RESPONSES TO TRAUMA TRIGGERS: Strategies For Survivors and Advocates
Though “triggered” is an expression that has become a buzzword, within the field of neuroscience it remains a legitimate description of a person's involuntary response to trauma memories. This article will address the ways this term has been misunderstood as well as helpful strategies for processing trauma for both abuse survivors and their advocates.
What is a Trigger
“A trigger is a reminder of past traumatizing events.”
—National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma, and Mental Health
When we experience an extreme event, it impacts us in the form of trauma. To protect us, our bodies respond with rushes of hormones and chemicals, like adrenaline, as well as chemical reactions in our brains. Many of our responses to trauma are involuntary and unable to be controlled—we are operating based on instinct. A person should not feel guilty for how they responded in extreme moments.
One way our bodies react to trauma occurs in the Limbic region of the brain, which governs our instinctual response to high-stress situations. The “fight, flight, or freeze” responses come from our brain’s Limbic mode, and no one knows exactly how they would respond until something traumatic happens. Controlling this response is impossible. Additionally, our brains store the memories of traumatic events differently than non-traumatizing events. Our brain’s “amygdala” is engaged, the region of emotion which is very near our “olfactory” (sense of smell). Memories stored in this area of the brain are unable to be processed into the long-term, so when certain smells or emotions remind someone of the trauma, they are brought right back to that moment where their bodies are involuntarily responding to the event they wish they would never relive.
A lot of what we know about trauma comes from the military. “Shell shock” for World War I soldiers is now interpreted as “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” and scientific breakthroughs have continued to advance what we know about trauma and those affected by it. For many people, trauma is not “post,” as refugees, human trafficking victims, and rape survivors shamed into silence can attest. “Triggers” develop when victims are reminded of their trauma, but our bodies cannot always distinguish between safe and unsafe stimuli. Fireworks are sometimes difficult for soldiers to deal with, certain smells remind survivors of an event, and seeing society dismiss or minimize rape can all bring a survivor back to that moment of utter helplessness and isolation. A person can develop a trauma memory trigger for any traumatic event, and these vary in scale and scope.
It is normal to respond with fear, anxiety, and hyper-vigilance, even responding with fight, flight, or freeze. Our bodies are designed to do this to help keep us alive, but traumatic memories keep our bodies responding as if in a perpetual state of danger. In times of danger, these adaptive responses help to keep us safe from danger. But once out of danger, living with trauma long-term reduces our quality of life and impacts our relationships with others. Years later, a person can still experience PTSD and be negatively affected to the point that it disrupts normal activities and job performance. People who live with trauma may experience regular bouts of hurt and anxiety, with hypervigilance and strong reactions to otherwise harmless stimuli dominating what should be vibrant, healthy, and hopeful lives.
When abuse survivors experienced abuse, their bodies developed “triggers” that warned them of potential dangers. Certain seasons, behaviors of others, words or tone of voice, Scriptures, smells, songs, place, or other characteristics that remind them of the event bring the survivor back to that moment. The way traumatic memories are stored means a survivor often has little to no control over how their body responds in those moments. Triggers are different for each person, as is the way they respond.
Trauma survivors don’t even always know what will trigger them or how their body will respond.
It is important for survivors to know that their feelings of fear, panic, and anxiety are not their fault. These are involuntary responses to past events outside of their control. Even if the traumatic abuse happened years ago, traumatic memories are impossible to predict.
Learning to Cope with Trauma Triggers
Remind yourself that triggers are involuntary. The feelings associated with triggers are not your fault. You are not going crazy. This is your body trying to protect you.
2. See a licensed therapist who is trained in trauma response. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a highly effective psychotherapy tool that is used by rape crisis centers throughout the country. Other methods include “grounding” techniques to calm yourself when you are triggered. Try the ideas from my Self-Care Tool Kit.
3. Reflect after the trigger has passed. Ask yourself, “Was I actually in danger right then, was that person’s intent really to harm me, or is my body just remembering past dangerous events?”
—If the person, thing, or situation that triggered your response was in fact dangerous:
Thank your body for doing its job by warning you. For instance, maybe you saw an abusive person which triggered your body’s response to leave the building. If this is the case, make a plan to avoid this scenario again and reach out when possible for relevant professional help.
—If the person, thing, or situation that triggered your response was not dangerous:
It is important to remember that you can be triggered by non-dangerous people too. Something a person is wearing, saying, or doing might remind you of past abuse but this doesn’t always mean that person is abusive. In these situations, the trigger is not your fault but it is also not the fault of the other person. Just because a person wore a particular color hat or quoted a religious phrase previously used to harm you by another person necessarily doesn’t mean the person in front of you intended harm.
In these cases, you have a decision to make. Is this a person you can easily avoid and the loss of a relationship will not affect your quality of life? If so, it may be right to politely decline further engagement while being careful not to blame the person for the trigger you experienced. Is this person someone you work with and need to interact with or would benefit from a relationship with this person (or visa versa)? If this is the case, I recommend speaking to your therapist or counselor about how to overcome this trigger and whether it would be a good idea to discuss your trigger response with this person so they know it is not their fault but you may need patience. This is especially true of romantic relationships, or any that require a depth or intimacy that trigger you. Explain how you value the relationship and are working to overcome your trauma.
Strategies for Advocates
Learn all you can about trauma and the body. Check out the references at bottom of this article and consider taking a class on serving survivors with sensitivity and empathy.
2. Remember that trauma triggers are unavoidable. It is important to understand that sometimes something you wear, do, or say—even with the best of intentions—can be a trigger for a survivor. It is important to empathize with the survivor and communicate their trigger response is valid. Realize that, unless you intended to harm or caused actual danger, their reaction is not your fault. Do not internalize this as a failure on your part. You cannot be expected to know every person’s triggers especially when they may not even know all of their own triggers. Even if you could know every survivor’s triggers, it would be impossible for you to live a quality life trying to avoid all the triggers of all survivors in the world. Reach out to professionals if the situation escalates into a dangerous one.
3. Respect the reasonable boundaries asked of you by the survivor. As an advocate, it is not about you. You are there for the survivor. Validate the survivor’s trauma response by not minimizing it or implying it is the survivor’s fault. Listen more than speaking; giving space when asked is often best in the immediate situation unless urgent medical attention is needed. After the trigger has passed, if the survivor is open to conversation provide them with material on trauma response and talk about the value of a professional therapist trained in trauma response if they are open to it.
Triggers can be a painful and sometimes debilitating symptom in the aftermath of trauma. With 70% of adults in the U.S. having experienced trauma in their lives and up to 20% of these individuals developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, triggers are a common part of life. While we may not always know why people respond the way they do in a particular situation, with the prevalence of trauma and triggers I believe it is our duty to walk on the earth with extra care and empathy for those around us. You never know what your fellow human may be battling against.