What Are Triggers?

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man and woman seated on couch in living have difficult conversation; man experiences triggers

“I feel triggered!” We hear this phrase so often that it can diminish the value of the phrase when it comes to understanding and caring for someone with trauma. In daily conversations, being triggered is frequently used to convey when something reminds us of something unpleasant. However, casual and excessive use of the phrase can make us become less aware of the weight it can carry when spoken in the context of mental health.

What Do Triggers Mean in the Clinical Sense?

Clinically, the concept of a trigger is looked at differently than in the colloquial sense. A trigger is still something that reminds one of the past, except in clinical terms, the recollections are extremely painful or disturbing memories. These intense feelings cause a change in one’s concentration, mood, or concept of reality and affect their ability to remain in the present.

For example, for someone who never experienced trauma as a child, spilling a glass of water all over the floor will likely not be a big deal. They can quickly mop up the mess and move on with their day. But for someone who grew up in an abusive household, the spill might remind them of the criticism they’d receive as a child for making simple mistakes. This small moment, a glass of water toppling over, can plunge them into distress, cause them to break down and cry, or paralyze them with fear.

Triggers may cause flashbacks, overpowering memories that feel like they are happening all over again. There are many kinds of triggers: anniversaries of events, physical environments, a movie or song, sudden or loud noises, names, or the tone of someone’s voice. Triggers are unique to each individual.

What Happens Psychologically When I’m Triggered?

When someone encounters a trigger, the amygdala, the part of the brain that is largely responsible for emotion and instinctual responses, becomes activated. Simultaneously, the frontal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for cognitive thinking and decision-making, becomes less active.

This process activates something known as the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response. The person becomes less able to think critically and respond objectively to a situation and enters a state of instinct and emotion. For someone who was addicted, if they get triggered, it can be challenging for them to keep sight of their recovery. That’s why it’s important for sober individuals to take extra self-care and proactively jump in front of potential triggers.

What Are Common Responses to Psychological Triggers?

Responses to triggers look different for everyone. Some people may not even look like they are triggered because they are suppressing their intense emotions by compartmentalizing, a psychological defense mechanism in which someone separates conflicting emotions and thoughts so they can focus only on one. In some cases, others may express all of their emotions outwardly and openly. For triggers that become repetitive or too intense, there may be an urge to numb the pain and self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.

Psychological Symptoms

  • Panic attacks
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Flashbacks
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Uncontrollable agitation or anger
  • Depersonalization or dissociation
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Mood swings

Physical Signs

  • Shaking
  • Stomach pain
  • Chest pain and breathlessness
  • Tense muscles
  • Sweating
  • Mood swings
  • Sudden nausea or fatigue

How to Recover from a Trigger

When you are triggered, your goal is to stay in the present, regulate distress, and refrain from hurting yourself or others. Self-soothing strategies can help you manage the difficult emotional responses stored in your body after trauma and recover from a trigger.

Some grounding techniques are:

  • Putting your hand to your chest and taking deep breaths
  • Spending a few minutes focusing entirely on the connection between your feet and the earth
  • Calling a friend
  • Taking a warm shower
  • Smell a relaxing scent like lavender
  • Use the 5-4-3-2-1 Technique: Identify five things you see, four things you feel, three things you hear, two things you smell, and one thing you taste
  • Petting an animal
  • Wrapping up in a cozy blanket
  • Holding an ice cube

These strategies help the nervous system to adjust so your emotional and physiological responses can decrease. After the nervous system begins to regulate, some people find it helpful to speak with a trusted family member or friend to work on reframing or restructuring their negative thoughts. For individuals experiencing triggers, it can be especially helpful to work with a therapist long-term to understand their triggers more deeply and develop specific coping strategies that work well for them.

What To Do If Someone Is Triggered

If you are with someone who is triggered, it is best to respond with patience and compassion. Create an environment of safety both physically and emotionally and be mindful of their needs.

Take charge of the situation. Sometimes an individual who is too overwhelmed to make a lot of fast-paced decisions may turn to you for guidance. Remind the person that they are safe with you and give them options that could help them feel more comfortable.

Provide space if needed. Allow for the other individual to take the space they need to self-regulate. This might include taking your own space as well and making sure you are able to emotionally provide for someone who may be agitated, upset, or unlike themselves.

Create a safe environment. Turn off or block out any distractions. If it’s best to leave the space to get away from something overstimulating or continuously triggering, guide them to a place that has privacy and safety, which could be anywhere from their bedroom to a public bathroom stall. Get rid of anything that could make someone relapse or remind them of substance use. Reassure them that they have your support.

Help them regulate their emotions. Pay attention to the person’s physical reactions when offering them support. If the person is clenching up their body, suggest that you both stretch together and breathe deeply. If they are having a panic attack or crying, offer tissues, water, or a safe space to talk openly. Make sure you ask before touching someone who is triggered; just like visual and auditory sensations, physical touch can be overwhelming, too. When providing care for someone, it is important to check in rather than assume their needs.

Misuse of the Term “I’m Triggered”

Triggers can have a detrimental effect on people in an instant. Saying “I’m triggered” when you are feeling annoyed or frustrated can trivialize the psychological repercussions of being triggered.

We need to increase our emotional vocabulary to avoid minimizing the experiences of others. Instead of using the phrase “I’m triggered” casually, we can describe what we are experiencing more accurately by using more expressive words. For example, if someone is not experiencing a debilitating trigger, but is instead feeling overwhelmed, stating, “I am feeling overwhelmed right now” could explain an emotional state without minimizing triggers.

It is important to be mindful of how we treat this concept so that when someone is truly experiencing a trigger, we are able to provide proper care. Moreover, understanding triggers and learning valuable grounding techniques will help you better manage troubling symptoms when you encounter stimuli. When you dedicate yourself to healing trauma, you give yourself an opportunity to thrive.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, Mountainside can help.
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