Your heart is racing, your palms are sweating and your thoughts are in an anxious jumble – you’ve just been triggered. Preparing for triggers, and having an array of techniques ready to manage them, can help minimise the impact they have on your life.
We have all experienced the power of an unexpected memory – the ability for a familiar smell to transport you back to a family holiday during childhood, or a special place to send a rush of memories of your first kiss. For those living with PTSD however, the sudden release of memories can suck someone back into a painful and traumatic event, even eliciting a physical or emotional response similar to the one experienced in the past. Learning how to manage triggers is a critical component of recovering from trauma.
What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that can develop following exposure to a traumatic event. Traumatic events can include things like:
- Sexual assault
- War/combat/state violence
- Serious accident
- Death or injury (or threat of death or injury) to oneself or a loved one
- Natural disaster
- Domestic violence
People can develop PTSD from direct experience with a traumatic event, or from repeated, indirect exposure to such events, such as through one’s profession, or through a close relationship with someone who is experiencing trauma.
People living with PTSD experience intense and disturbing flashbacks of the traumatic event that can be triggered by things encountered in everyday life. These flashbacks can be overwhelming and result in significant physical and emotional effects, both during the flashback and over a longer period of time.
Symptoms of PTSD can range considerably in their severity, but tend to fall into four different categories, including:
- Intrusion – repeated flashbacks, nightmares, and involuntary recall of the event
- Changes in thinking and mood – loss of memory of specific details around the event; depression; fear; shame; guilt; self-blame or self-criticism for the event
- Changes in reaction – being constantly on-edge, frequently irritable, and prone to angry outbursts; unable to relax; difficulty concentrating or sleeping
- Avoidance – avoiding anything related to the event, including potential triggers; refusing to think about or discuss the event.
PTSD symptoms generally develop within days of the event, and must last for over a month for a PTSD diagnosis to be established. For some people, symptoms will eventually subside on their own, but for others, professional treatment is needed to overcome the trauma and manage triggers.
What are Triggers?
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. Common triggers include things like:
- Feeling vulnerable or abandoned
- Feeling out of control
- Break-up or end of a relationship
- Specific places
- Witnessing another accident or similar event
- Seeing people that remind you of the event
- Movies or books that remind you of the event
An important step in learning how to manage triggers is clearly identifying them. This can be done with the guidance of a mental health professional. Listing out the things that trigger a physiological response, as well as detailing the emotional, physical and mental impacts that the response generates, can help you to get a sense of how to address them.
Managing Trauma Triggers: A Tool Box
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:
- 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.
- Be mindful – this is very much tied to the above point, and focuses on being able to bring 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 internalise 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.
- Be kind to yourself – remind yourself that you are healing from a major psychological injury, and the process will require both time and rest. You must be gentle with yourself as you move through this, and pay attention to what you need and what helps alleviate stress. Prioritise 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.
- 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. 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 behavioural 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 Desensitisation 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
Overcoming Trauma at The Dawn
The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab is an internationally accredited inpatient mental health treatment centre that offers comprehensive mental health treatment, including a specific trauma treatment programme. Our approach to treatment focuses on healing both the mind and body through the seamless integration of the most effective psychotherapeutic techniques with proven wellness practices.
A Safe Haven Conducive to Recovery
Located on the outskirts of Chiang Mai along the banks of the Ping River, The Dawn is an oasis of peace. Our resort-style facilities in lush gardens are a world away from the people, places and things that contribute to your condition. With no more than 35 residents at any time, our clients feel at home and safe at The Dawn, enabling them to focus on getting better. The Dawn offers professional, high-quality, personalised care to all of its clients.
If you are feeling overwhelmed by your trauma triggers, call The Dawn today to learn more about how we can support you.