December 6, 2023 Dec 06, 2023 10 min read
Triggers and trauma responses… These important mental health terms have become buzzwords in recent years, through memes, criticism, and pop psychology.
Unfortunately, popular discussions of these terms are often not rooted in science, making it difficult to clarify or understand what they actually mean. But for trauma survivors struggling with the way trauma affects our bodies, minds, and relationships, understanding triggers and trauma responses is essential.
Below, we’ll discuss these terms in the context of trauma psychology and explore some strategies trauma survivors can use to cope with being triggered.
We’d like to be able to share more of our resources and support with you.
A trauma trigger is anything that activates a survivor’s fear-response system due to associations with a past traumatic experience.
While some triggers might feel obvious in the moment, triggers can affect us whether or not we realize what’s happening. The more familiar you become with the way your body reacts to trauma triggers, the easier it will be to recognize when you’re triggered and what may be causing it.
While the terms “trigger” and “trauma response” are typically discussed in the context of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an individual does not need a formal PTSD diagnosis to understand their experiences through this lens. That said, the vast majority of sexual trauma survivors experience diagnosable PTSD within the first weeks or months of a traumatic experience.
Triggers are highly individual. Due to the wide range of potential experiences and associations a person might have, virtually anything could become a trauma trigger.
Some of the most common triggers experienced by survivors of sexual assault and relationship abuse include:
While a trigger is a stimulus that activates an individual’s fear-response system, a trauma response is the physical, emotional, or behavioral reaction an individual has to being triggered. In other words, triggers are the cause and trauma responses are the effect.
All trauma responses can be categorized into four basic types – fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. These responses are controlled by the sympathetic nervous system – otherwise known as the fear-response system – meaning they happen more or less without our conscious control.
At first, trauma responses happen solely on an emotional and physical level, detectable only by the person experiencing them. This includes symptoms like elevated heart rate, sweating, and shallow breathing. But trauma responses can also influence an individual’s behaviors and decisions in a way that may feel involuntary or unpredictable.
Now that we have a basic understanding of what triggers and trauma responses are, let’s look at a few coping strategies.
One of the best ways to support yourself in any aspect of your trauma healing journey is to seek support from a trained therapist or counsellor. Trauma-informed mental health professionals are skilled and knowledgeable about the inner workings of the nervous system and the body’s fear-response system. With this expertise, they can help you understand and cope with what happens in your body when you become triggered.
For help finding a therapist, check out our article “How to Find a Trauma Therapist.”
When we’re triggered, it’s more tempting than ever to engage in our least healthy coping mechanisms. Things like alcohol and substance overuse, emotional eating, and “doom-scrolling” become especially appealing to us when we’re feeling triggered.
But indulging in these habits doesn’t do us any favors even if they bring momentary comfort. Although it can feel immensely challenging at times, try your best to avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms when triggered.
Coping with being triggered can feel much easier and more manageable with the support of a trusted friend, family member, partner, or other loved one. In fact, our nervous systems are predisposed to regulate more easily in the presence of safe, trustworthy people (this is called “co-regulation”).
By letting the people closest to you know what’s going on, you can begin to create a network of support for yourself to rely on when and if you become triggered. Speaking with close friends, family members, or a partner about your triggers and trauma responses can be especially important, as triggers tend to come up more often around people we share intimate or vulnerable relationships with.
Just remember to be careful about who you open up to, as not everyone will be capable of showing up for you in a triggered state. Don’t pressure yourself to open up to people you don’t feel safe with.
Coping with trauma triggers becomes much easier when you begin to understand exactly what happens in your brain and body when you become triggered. You can begin to familiarize yourself with your nervous system states by observing what happens in your body when you’re triggered. Are you more likely to become angry, scared, or numb? Do you feel the urge to run away or to stay and fight off a perceived threat?
Once you understand which nervous system state you tend to enter when triggered (fight, flight, freeze, or fawn), you can begin to find ways to soothe your activated nervous system and return it to a state of calm. This requires practice and skill, as it involves shifting the brain and body from a “hijacked” state back to one in which the individual is in relative control.
Working with the nervous system is best approached with the guidance of a trained therapist, counsellor, or coach.
Unfortunately, triggers are inevitable. While we can drastically reduce the frequency of our trauma responses over time, entirely eliminating all triggers from our lives is unrealistic. That’s why figuring out how to soothe yourself during and after a triggered state is an essential part of coping with your trauma responses.
Here are some examples of strategies some trauma survivors use:
While the coping mechanisms discussed above will certainly help you manage your relationship to your triggers, shifting the fundamental way your brain and body react to trauma triggers is the most effective long-term strategy for coping.
Reducing reactivity to trauma triggers is a complex process that will look different for each person. In most cases, the process involves a combination of time, patience, self awareness, and skilled guidance from a mental health professional.
Although it may seem logical to avoid trauma triggers as a way of coping, this is actually a fairly ineffective strategy. As mentioned above, triggers are more or less inevitable, and when we avoid them at all costs, we don’t develop the skills necessary to cope with and manage them when they arise.
Avoiding triggers also teaches the brain that the perceived threat is dangerous (otherwise, why would we be avoiding it so diligently?). In most cases, however, survivors may feel triggered by things they actually want in their lives, like intimate relationships and sex.
This is why trauma-informed mental health professionals agree that mindful, controlled exposure to trauma triggers is a far better option for healing than trigger avoidance. However, it’s best to avoid practicing intentional trigger exposure without the help or guidance of a therapist or counsellor.
Triggers and trauma responses are inevitable features of the terrain survivors must navigate along their healing journey. But while these experiences can be stressful, painful, frightening, and confusing, there are ways to develop a manageable relationship to one’s trauma triggers.
For a more general look at the relationship between trauma and mental health, check out our article “How Sexual Trauma Impacts Mental Health.”
A trauma trigger is anything that triggers a survivor’s automatic fear-response system due to associations to a past traumatic experience. Trauma responses are the feelings, reactions, and/or behaviors that arise when an individual is triggered. All trauma responses begin in the sympathetic nervous system and can be divided into four types – fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. Coping with trauma triggers and responses is most effective when working alongside a trained and trauma-informed mental health professional. Other strategies include avoiding unhealthy coping mechanisms, seeking support from trusted friends and loved ones, befriending the nervous system, engaging in soothing activities during or after a triggered state, and working on reducing overall reactivity to trauma triggers. While avoidance of triggers may seem like a good coping mechanism, this can actually increase the severity of an individual’s trauma responses in the long run. As a result, mental health professionals recommend exposure therapy over trigger avoidance. Due to the complexity of these techniques, working on trigger exposure should only be done under the guidance of a mental health professional.
Dana Anastasia (they/them) is an independent writer, editor, podcaster, and artist. With a degree in interdisciplinary sociology and a background in domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy, Dana brings a keen awareness of victim and survivor needs and experiences to their work. Learn more at www.danaanastasia.com.
December 5, 202310 min read
December 6, 202312 min read