What Can We Do When We Are Triggered?

“I am okay. I am safe. This is temporary.”

As trauma survivors, our trauma impacts us long after the actual events take place. The trauma we endured is remembered by not only our mind, but our body as well. We often experience triggers as a symptom of our trauma.

What is a trigger?

A trigger is something that reminds us of our traumatic experiences and causes our mind, body, or both to react. It can be something we see, hear, or smell. It may be the way someone interacts with us or speaks to us. Sometimes, triggers are hard to identify. However, if we can recognize when we are triggered, we can take back some of the power our triggers have.

What are the symptoms?

Triggers can cause emotional, physical, and cognitive symptoms. Emotionally, triggers can cause us to feel things like fear, panic, anger, sadness, or helplessness. Physically, triggers may cause our hearts to race, our bodies to freeze, shortness of breath, shaking, or they can lead our bodies to shut down. Cognitively, triggers can provoke unwanted and intrusive memories, or flashbacks where we feel as though we are re-experiencing our trauma. We can also suffer from episodes of dissociation. These are among the many ways that our body and mind may process and react to a trigger.

What can we do when we’re triggered?

In the past, I had an extremely difficult time calming my body and mind when I was triggered. I suffered panic attacks, dissociation, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, and intense emotions. Sometimes, my trauma symptoms would last for hours.

About a year and a half ago, I made a reminder to myself of steps I can take when I am triggered and started actively using it. This is a list of those steps.

  1. Stop and Breathe: Stop where you are. Sit down if that helps. Take deep breaths. This helps relax your body.
  2. Ground yourself: Keep your mind and body in the present moment. There are quite a few things you can do to ground yourself. One thing that works for me is describing ten or more things out loud that are in my environment. I describe things that I can see, hear, smell, or feel. Another thing that helps me is holding an ice cube or splashing cold water on my face. It can also help to pick something in your environment to count. For example, count the number of tiles on your ceiling, the number of lights you can see, the number of people in a room, etc. Touching your thumb to each one of your fingertips repeatedly is another useful trick, especially if you are among other people and do not want to bring attention to what is happening.
  3. Self-Talk: Remind yourself that you are safe and that you are okay. What is happening is temporary and it’s going to pass.
  4. Things You’re Grateful For: List at least three things in your life that you are grateful for. People, pets, a favorite movie, a favorite book, a place you like to go, nature, anything that makes you happy. You can list the same things every time or change it up, whatever works best for you. This allows you to combat the negative emotions and memories you are experiencing with positive ones.
  5. Distract yourself and relax yourself: Use a positive coping skill and give yourself the time to recover from the trauma trigger and trauma symptoms you just experienced. A positive coping skill is simply something you like to do. It is a healthy way for you to deal with stress. Exercising, coloring, watching a funny movie, listening to music, playing with a pet, playing a game, calling someone you identify as supportive, are all examples of positive coping skills.
  6. Process Your Trigger: When you feel like you are ready, it is helpful to process your trauma trigger. Identify what it was or may have been that triggered you. Why did that trigger you? I also like to keep a log of my triggers once I have identified them, so I can later talk through them with my counselor.

These are the steps I take to soothe myself when I am triggered. Try them out and tweak them as you see fit.

Empowerment

Before I started taking these steps, I often felt powerless to my trauma when I experienced a trigger. Sometimes, I would begin thinking that it didn’t matter how far I had come or that I had found the courage to leave my past and start a new life. It seemed that no matter where I went or how well I was doing, my trauma would always have control over me. I thought I would never truly be able to escape it and I felt revictimized by those thoughts and feelings.

As survivors, we didn’t have control over the trauma that happened to us. We also don’t have much control when it comes to facing things that may trigger us. This is especially true as we continue to discover new triggers. No matter how long we are in trauma recovery, there are times we will be triggered by something. A movie, a conversation, someone else’s journey, a song, a sound, a smell, a trigger can be anything. We can’t control that we are going to encounter things in the world and in our daily lives that take us back to a painful place. That can be hard to accept, but at some point you will be able.

What we can gain control over is how we react when we are triggered. When we practice steps that calm our mind and body, we take away power from our trauma and restore it to ourselves. We are stronger than our trauma; that’s why we are survivors.

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