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Trauma & Triggers

Updated: Mar 15, 2022

T&T…very similar to TNT, another way of saying explosive(s). In essence, that is what is felt when experiencing a trigger from a previous traumatic event(s).

Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. There are three main types of traumas: Acute, Chronic and Complex.

  • Acute trauma results from a single incident.

  • Chronic trauma is repeated and prolonged such as domestic violence or abuse.

  • Complex trauma is exposure to varied and multiple traumatic events, often of an invasive, interpersonal nature.

Anything that reminds you of what happened before or during trauma is a potential trigger. They're usually tied to your senses. You may see, feel, smell, touch, or taste something that brings on your symptom. While triggers themselves are harmless, they cause your body to react as if you're in danger.

Initial reactions can include exhaustion, confusion, sadness, anxiety, agitation, numbness, dissociation, confusion, physical arousal, and blunted effect.

What does it mean to be "triggered?"

This term has been casually used to refer to the experience of having an emotional reaction to some disturbing content (such as violence or the mention of suicide) in the media or another social setting. However, there is a difference between being triggered and being uncomfortable.

Feeling triggered isn't just about something rubbing you the wrong way. For someone with a history of trauma, being around anything that reminds them of a traumatic experience (also known as a "trigger") can make them feel like they're experiencing the trauma all over again.

A trigger is a person, place, feeling or thing that immediately induces a stress-based physical or emotional response based on a past traumatic experience. Triggers can be internally generated by feelings of stress, anger or sadness or have causes rooted in the external environment.

How to Manage Triggers

An important step in learning how to manage triggers is clearly identifying them. This can be done with the guidance of mental health professionals. Listing out the things that trigger a physical response and detailing the emotional, physical, and mental impacts that the response generates can help you get a sense of how to address them. There are two types of triggers- internal and external.

With time and practice, it is possible to manage your response to triggers so that they become less disruptive. Here are a few ways to help counteract the impact of a trigger:

  1. Be aware of what is happening – when you start to feel a trigger response, name the trigger. Is it internally or externally generated? What is happening in your body? What is going on in your mind? How is it affecting you emotionally? Journaling may also help with this process.

  2. Be mindful – this is very much tied to the above point and focuses on bringing your mind into the present. Triggers jettison us straight into the past, and so being able to reorient yourself and be in the current moment is critical in pulling you back from reliving that traumatic experience. This also helps you internalize that a trigger is only that – a trigger – and not a new source of trauma, which can aid in calming both your mind and body.

  3. Be kind to yourself – remind yourself that you are healing from a major psychological injury, and the process will require both time and rest. As you move through this, you must be gentle with yourself and pay attention to what you need and what helps alleviate stress. Prioritize this type of care as much as you are able, purposefully building time to do this, especially when you know you will be faced with a triggering situation.

  4. Be grounded – root yourself in the reality and safety of the present moment by using grounding techniques like putting on a song that is comforting, physically holding on to someone you trust, smelling a scent that reorients and relaxes you, or touching a particular object (something warm, cold, or textured can also help). Think of these things as ways to help quickly lead your mind back out of the dark place that it has suddenly gone.

Be supported – healing from trauma, like healing from any serious injury, is best done under the care of health professionals and with support from loved ones. So, as much as you can, talk about your experiences with those you trust and make sure to seek out guidance when you need it from a therapist.

Trauma has complex impacts on the brain, and therefore requires professional, holistic treatment in order to fully address the effects of trauma. A mental health specialist may recommend a range of trauma-specific treatment modalities, which might include things like:

  • Trauma-Focused CBT – a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy that addresses the mental and emotional needs of trauma survivors who are struggling to overcome the damaging effects of past traumatic events

  • EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) – a type of psychotherapy that processes a past traumatic event through the practice of specific eye movements, which helps rebuild positive pathways within the mind and results in stronger coping mechanisms that can shield the individual from negative thought patterns

  • TRE (Tension and trauma-releasing exercises) – basic exercises designed to help relieve tension and release stress stored in the body, decreasing the intensity of trauma-related symptoms

Reach out to get help if needed with learning to manage trauma triggers.

Remember that healing is a journey, not a destination and If You Hide It, You Can’t Heal It.


SAMHSA National Helpline

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1 Comment

Well said and thank you.

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