How to overcome trauma triggers

(Goalcast | Natasha Burton) Past trauma can stay with us long after the actual traumatic experience itself. Trauma survivors often experience post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms following a traumatic event and the effects on their mental health can last for weeks, months or even years to come.

Overcome trauma triggers

If you’ve experienced trauma in your life, chances are that you may also experience trauma triggers as you go about your days. These triggers can come from a traumatic memory or an experience that mimics the trauma you went through in some way.

However, while these triggers can be uncomfortable or even painful, they can be managed. Here’s what you should know about trauma triggers and actionable steps you can take to deal with the symptoms they create for you.

What is a trauma trigger?

A trauma trigger is essentially anything that brings up feelings of past trauma for you. Traumatic event memories, thoughts, feelings or similar situations can trigger PTSD symptoms. Triggers can be cued by external factors, or internal ones, and they can make you feel anxious, afraid, sad or uncomfortable. These trauma related symptoms can take a toll on your mental health if left untreated.

It’s important to understand that people may have different definitions of what constitutes trauma to them. Some people’s traumas may seem inconsequential, while others’ appear insurmountable. Everyone is entitled to feel however they feel about their own trauma—it’s a very individual experience. Comparing your trauma to someone else’s is never productive or helpful for your own healing.

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How are trauma triggers created?

Trauma triggers are a product of traumatic stress. You experience a traumatic event and your brain will automatically relate certain details—smells, feelings, sounds—into your traumatic memory. When you experience these details after the traumatic experiences are over, you will feel triggered by them, feeling PTSD symptoms even though you are not actually within that trauma anymore.

Past traumatic events can be anything from getting into a serious accident, experiencing war, a natural distaer or a pandemic, surviving physical, emotional or sexual assault, having a near death expereince or being close to someone who was seriously injured or died. The event could be a one-time trauma or a sustained traumatic experience, like being married to someone who physically abuses you or having a boss who berates you on a daily basis. You could also develop trauma triggers via a trauma bond where you have a close relationship with someone who went through trauma or you went through the same trauma with this person.

These traumatic events create internal triggers and external triggers that create traumatic associations in your brain. Sometimes these trauma triggers don’t make logical sense to you. A particular song, for instance, may not seem related to the traumatic events that have occurred in your life, yet you feel triggered when you hear it. Somehow, your brain has been wired to associate that music with a traumatic event and that makes the song a trauma trigger for you.

What are the symptoms of traumatic stress?

After a traumatic event, you might experience a decline in mental health overall as you cope with what you’ve been through. However, there are also specific post-trauma symptoms to be aware of, which can be sparked by your particular trauma triggers. They are:

Shifts in mood and memory

Following a traumatic event, you may experience depression, self-blame for what took place or happened to you, shame, guilt or fear. You may also not remember what actually happened to you as your brain tries to process the events. You may not remember particular details or remember these details differently than how they actually occurred.

Reactivity

Another way your mood might shift is toward anger or irritability. You may feel on-edge, be quicker to anger, feel irritated or annoyed easily and have trouble relaxing and sleeping.

Intrusive thoughts

After a traumatic event, you might not be able to stop thinking about what happened, even when you try not to. Some people have nightmares and flashbacks (a common PTSD symptom) where they relive their trauma over and over again.

Avoidance

Finally, another symptom of traumatic stress is avoiding any people, places or situations that could relate to the event. You might also refuse to discuss what happened, try not to think about it and avoid anything that might be potentially triggering to you.

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Types of trauma triggers

To best understand trauma triggers, it’s important to know what forms they may take. There are both internal triggers and external triggers to be aware of. Here is a breakdown of each type:

Internal triggers

These triggers come from within. There are emotional triggers like anger, anxiety, feeling lonely, sad or frustrated. Anxiety feelings can lead to physical sensations like pain, racing heartbeat, muscle tension and headaches. You may also feel out of control emotionally.

External triggers

These are the triggers that you’ll encounter out in the world. Certain dates, like anniversaries, birthdays or holidays can be triggering if your past trauma occurred on one of these dates or you associate a day with a certain event or person. Going to a specific place or having your senses encounter a sound, smell or taste that reminds you of your trauma can also be triggering. Finally, you might see a movie or TV show, witness an event or read an article that replays your trauma or deals with topics related to your trauma, which can also be triggering.

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How to deal with trauma triggers

After experiencing trauma, it’s important to take care of your mental health and find healing. If, after reading the above, you find yourself feeling a sense of familiarity with the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder and have identified some triggering events or feelings, you can start to form a plan for dealing with your trauma triggers in a healthy way.

Whether you’re experiencing external triggers or internal ones, the steps outlined below will help you cope with your PTSD symptoms and find peace.

Create a mental health safety plan

If you’ve already experienced trauma triggers, the first step is to make a plan for what you can do to help yourself when you are triggered. This plan could include a particular breathing exercise, a mantra you can tell yourself, calling a friend or family member you can trust or anything else that can help you in the moment to calm your mind and body. If you need to, write down your plan where you can easily find it—like a piece of paper taped to your mirror or laptop and a note on your phone—so that you know where to find your plan when you’re triggered. If you simply try to remember it while in the middle of being triggered you may not be in the state of mind to recall what to do to help yourself.

Identify your triggers

Pay attention to what triggers you: Where are you? What are you doing? What do you see, hear and smell around you? What thoughts and feelings are you having? How do you feel in your body? If you have any sensations of physical discomfort, try to identify where they are and what they feel like. (You could even give them a color to help further identify what these sensations are like.) Try to write down your PTSD triggers so you have a clear record of what’s going on in your mind and body. This will help you identify patterns and better understand what’s triggering you and why.

Find support

Seek out support groups for others who have been through similar traumatic events to find community and healing. You can attend groups in person or online via Zoom or even participate on group message boards without having to interact with anyone face to face. Consider talking to a trusted friend, partner or family member about your trauma as well so you have someone in your life you can go to when things get rough.

Trauma Triggers

Try therapy

People who experience traumatic events and have PTSD symptoms often benefit from speaking to a licensed therapist or counselor who has experience with helping people find coping strategies and manage intrusive thoughts. You can find a number of behavioral health services in your community (and online) tailored to your trauma needs.

Finding a therapist who specializes in trauma or has worked with clients who have been through the same trauma you have can be particularly helpful. Know that you may want to interview a few professionals or have short sessions with a couple candidates to find the right therapist for you.

As for which type of therapy to try, there are a number of therapies that are beneficial for people with traumatic experiences and who have PTSD symptoms, including:

  • Cognitive behavior therapy: a form of therapy that focuses on shifting habits and behaviors into ones that are more beneficial to your overall mental health
  • Exposure therapy: a common PTSD treatment that exposes you to a trauma trigger in order to help you disassociate that trigger from the trauma and ultimately remove that trigger from your life
  • Family therapy: a from of group therapy you can do with loved ones who have experienced the same trauma for collective healing
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): a type of therapy that uses rapid eye movement to help lessen the power of emotional memories from traumatic events

Practice grounding

Grounding yourself in the present moment can be a powerful way to mindfully relax and ease the hold of a trauma trigger. When you’re not triggered, you can build up your mindfulness muscle by practicing daily meditation or yoga so that when a PTSD trigger comes up, you can find your footing again. Some other mindfulness techniques you can try are box breathing, holding crystals for anxiety, positive visualization and feeling your feet rooted to the ground. You could also have a certain song you find grounding or a special object you can touch to help you return from reliving the trauma and get back into the present moment.

Pay attention to trigger warnings

As more and more people become aware of common triggers for trauma, you may see trigger warnings before certain TV shows or news articles or even on social media posts to help people avoid potential triggers. Use these trigger warnings as a guide to help you manage triggers: You probably don’t want to do DIY exposure therapy by knowingly confronting your PTSD triggers without the help of a professional. Trigger warnings are there for a reason. Don’t try to toughen yourself up and confront these external triggers until you’re ready.

Find a balance between self-protection and avoidance

While it may be unhealthy to fully avoid your trauma, and your trauma triggers, you can be kind to yourself by eliminating triggers until you’re more healed from your trauma. If you know there are certain places, people or situations that trigger your trauma, it’s okay to avoid them. Put yourself first by being mindful of your actions and how they might trigger a PTSD symptom. If you need to block or unfollow certain social media accounts or change your in-real-life social routine for a while, do so. Protect your peace as much as you can for the sake of your mental health. Allow yourself a break from pleasing other people or putting other people’s needs first if you find that you’re not giving yourself permission to do so.

Freeing yourself from trauma

After going through a traumatic experience, it can feel as though confronting your trauma triggers is simply your new normal. This is to be expected, particularly if you have intense PTSD symptoms following the traumatic event.

Know that it’s okay if you feel like you can’t escape your trauma. For many people, it can take years to feel at peace with the traumatic experiences they’re gone through. Remember that you are not on a time table or deadline to heal. Go at your own pace. True healing takes time. Identifying and working on your trauma triggers will not change what you’ve been through, of course, but these actions can help you process these experiences and make them feel less impactful to you emotionally over time.

About the author

Natasha Burton is a freelance writer and relationship expert who has written for Cosmopolitan, Maxim, Women’s Health, Livestrong and Brides, among other publications. She’s the author of What’s My Type?: 100+ Quizzes to Help You Find Yourself―and Your Match!, 101 Quizzes for Couples, 101 Quizzes for BFFs and 101 Quizzes for Brides and Grooms, and the coauthor of The Little Black Book of Big Red Flags.
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