- What are trauma triggers
- Fear conditioning
- Complex trauma triggers
- Trigger warnings
- How to deal with trauma triggers
Have you ever smelled a particular type of food and suddenly remembered a childhood memory? Or heard a song that took you back to a specific moment in your life? These are examples of triggers, but not all triggers are tied to happy memories. For people who have experienced trauma, certain reminders can bring back distressing emotions.
Trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience that can impact an individual’s mental, emotional, and physical health.
One of the most challenging aspects of dealing with trauma is managing trauma triggers. These triggers are reminders of the traumatic event that can cause a person to relive the trauma, often leading to distress and discomfort.
What are trauma triggers
Trauma triggers are specific cues that remind a person of their traumatic experiences, such as child abuse, sexual abuse, natural disasters, and serious accidents. These triggers can be anything from loud noises, smells, physical sensations, or sights to a particular place, person, object, or situation.
They can lead to a range of anxiety responses, including intense emotional reactions, panic attacks, physical symptoms like increased heart rate and sweating, and intrusive memories or flashbacks of the traumatic event.
Fear learning is a natural response to traumatic events. This trauma response has helped us survive throughout evolution.
However, if this fear response isn’t controlled properly, it can become a problem. We can become too sensitive or start being afraid of things we shouldn’t be.
Normally, we remember and show fear in scary situations. But we then learn to stop being afraid when we’re in safe situations. The process of forgetting our fear happens gradually. We become less afraid each time we face what we’re afraid of but in a safe situation.
Trauma survivors who struggle with this process might find it tough to control their fear and could be scared of many different things. Unrelated things can become trauma triggers for these individuals. The external triggers might not even be similar to the original traumatic event. They could differ in looks, context, emotion, smell, meaning, and other aspects.1 The victim may become avoidant of any future encountering of trauma triggers by avoiding social interactions.
These trauma-related symptoms can lead to disorders, such as phobias or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Complex trauma triggers
Complex trauma is repetitive exposure to traumatic events over a long period, such as war or child abuse. Victims tend to develop a more complex type of posttraumatic stress disorder.
Trauma triggers tend to elicit two main types of traumatic stress reactions in complex trauma survivors.
One is primarily avoidant. This involves having too much control over emotions (emotional overmodulation), leading to dissociation from traumatic memories.
During dissociation, the individual disconnects from their thoughts, feelings, memories, or sense of identity. This is a defense mechanism to help a person cope with situations that are too violent, traumatic, or painful to assimilate consciously.
Another common reaction is primarily intrusive. This involves having too little control over emotions (emotional undermodulation). Hyperarousal leads to involuntary recall of the traumatic event. During the intrusive, vivid flashbacks, the individual feels as if they are going through the traumatic events again in their mind.
These two responses can often co-occur, creating a cycle of intrusion and avoidance or dissociative disorders that can be challenging to break.2
Also See: Emotional Trauma From Parents
Providing a trigger warning is a heads-up about upcoming content that might upset or disturb someone emotionally. It’s similar to the “viewer discretion advised” or “PG-13” warnings seen in the media.
Trigger warnings were initially created to protect individuals who have experienced trauma. However, the effects of trigger warnings are a topic of ongoing debate in education and mental health.
The effectiveness of trigger warnings can depend on several factors, including the individual’s personal experiences, the context in which the warning is given, and the nature of the content being warned about.
The issue of trigger warnings is that while they can be a valuable tool in certain situations, they may not be helpful for trauma survivors.3
Also See: Symptoms Of Childhood Trauma In Adults
How to deal with trauma triggers
Seek professional help
PTSD and CPTSD are severe mental disorders that require mental health professional help.
There is a high correlation between PTSD and suicide. The suicide rate of Vietnam-era veterans with PTSD was four times higher than those without PTSD.4
It is essential to seek mental health treatment if these trauma triggers cause emotional distress or other PTSD symptoms.
Also See: Free Therapy in the US
Help for other trauma-related symptoms
Trauma survivors often suffer additional effects of trauma besides the cues that trigger them. If you are dealing with issues such as substance abuse or being in an abusive relationship, get help from the following resources.
- FindTreatment.gov – find treatment for substance use disorders
- 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline – if you struggle with difficult emotions, suicidal thoughts, or self-injurious behavior
You may also grapple with emotional dysregulation, leading to angry outbursts or mood disorders.
Meditation, a form of mindfulness, can help you become more in tune with your emotions. Being mindful is being fully present in the moment, consciously aware of your thoughts and feelings without judgment. It can help you recognize when your emotions start to become overwhelming and then take steps to manage these feelings more healthily.
Grounding, also a form of mindfulness, is paying attention to sensory input to stabilize yourself and prevent dissociation. It is also a relaxation exercise that can help you relax.5
Join a support group
Having the support of others with similar struggles can be incredibly helpful. They can provide a safe space where you can share your feelings, fears, and hopes without judgment.
Trauma victims often steer clear of social situations to minimize the chance of coming across potential triggers. However, the more you avoid, the more your fears are reinforced.6
Do your best to reach out to trust friends and families. It can be challenging and intimidating, but isolating yourself will only intensify the difficulties.
Getting self-care doesn’t mean indulging in luxury but treating yourself with kindness and compassion. It’s about recognizing your needs and taking steps to meet them. This could be as simple as reading a novel, writing in a journal, or allowing yourself to take a break when needed.
Self-care is not selfish; it’s essential to maintaining physical and mental health.
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- 1.Morey RA, Dunsmoor JE, Haswell CC, et al. Fear learning circuitry is biased toward generalization of fear associations in posttraumatic stress disorder. Transl Psychiatry. Published online December 15, 2015:e700-e700. doi:10.1038/tp.2015.196
- 2.Şar V. Parallel-Distinct Structures of Internal World and External Reality: Disavowing and Re-Claiming the Self-Identity in the Aftermath of Trauma-Generated Dissociation. Front Psychol. Published online February 17, 2017. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00216
- 3.Jones PJ, Bellet BW, McNally RJ. Helping or Harming? The Effect of Trigger Warnings on Individuals With Trauma Histories. Clinical Psychological Science. Published online June 1, 2020:905-917. doi:10.1177/2167702620921341
- 4.Gradus JL. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Death From Suicide. Curr Psychiatry Rep. Published online September 17, 2018. doi:10.1007/s11920-018-0965-0
- 5.Zerubavel N, Messman-Moore TL. Staying Present: Incorporating Mindfulness into Therapy for Dissociation. Mindfulness. Published online November 21, 2013:303-314. doi:10.1007/s12671-013-0261-3
- 6.Norrholm SD, Jovanovic T, Olin IW, et al. Fear Extinction in Traumatized Civilians with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Relation to Symptom Severity. Biological Psychiatry. Published online March 2011:556-563. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.09.013