Disclaimer: Today’s topic is sensitive in nature. We will be discussing topics that may be difficult for some listeners, such as trauma, death, and things that elicit very emotional responses. Listen at your discretion.
Trigger is a buzzword these days. It seems to be a part of this decade’s zeitgeist. Being “triggered” is a notion popularized by today’s media and culture.
From a clinical standpoint, triggers are a serious consideration. For someone suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, grief, etc. the word trigger is not a trite term.
Today, therapists Vincent and Laura Ketchie of Relationship Helpers examine triggers. What are they? Where do they come from? What should we do with them?
Things we see, things we hear, things we touch, even the day of the year can be a trigger for some of us. These can ingrain and store certain memories in the body, bringing us back to how we felt during a traumatic situation of the past. We can have emotions from the past in the present moment due to triggers.
A trigger is something that pushes the “rewind” button in your body—transporting you back to a different time. You begin to feel what you felt during that time, your body feels as if it is back in that time. You experience that same emotion and physical feeling or maybe you zone out.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is seen often in someone who has experienced a trauma and they have had difficulty coping with that trauma. They may experience nightmares and hyper-vigilance (looking for threats constantly, frequently concerned about their safety). Those suffering from PTSD may struggle with functioning at work and/or home.
An example could be a combat veteran who has lost a friend in uniform. He may struggle with the sudden sounds of fireworks or watching a movie, or something that reminds them of the person they lost. Whatever the trigger, his body and mind is sent back to that moment where he lost his friend. His mind and body are responding as if he is back at that traumatic situation.
A Post Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnosis can occur over countless types of traumas. It is not specific to combat. People with PTSD often have anxiety attacks. Some have panic attacks. Be sure to check out our episode on how to tell the difference between an anxiety and panic attack.
Laura feels there are varying degrees of response to stimuli. She shares her experience with PTSD, finding that being in the presence of a very direct trigger could elicit a strong PTSD response. She mentions, however that there could be lesser triggers. Rather than having a full-on panic attack, a sufferer may have milder responses.
There are many layers to the situation of a trauma. There are many things in your environment, at the time. Some things that may have not seemed to be all that significant during the trauma could still be a trigger. In essence, there could be some very direct triggers that causes extreme responses, but there could be some more subtle ones that cause a response as well.
Obvious things such as the sight of blood or the sounds of gasping for air could be pretty direct, but others such as the air temperature or the lighting could be more subtle triggers. Triggers can be subtle or obvious.
If you are having difficulty understanding why you are having some mild anxiety symptoms, it may be helpful to identify any subtle triggers that you may have.
Acknowledging these triggers is important because your trigger-response behavior may be affecting your relationships now. You may be irritable, standoffish, blowing up with your spouse. You could be hesitant about things without knowing why.
For some that struggle with triggers, they may not know today’s date, yet are still triggered by the anniversary of a trauma on that date. This person’s body and mind still transports them to that time, even without direct awareness of the day.
Grief is often associated with anniversary triggers. The date of someone’s death or the date of a breakup are both examples of possible anniversary triggers.
Holidays and birthdays can be very natural triggers. Sometimes we get triggered days before the anniversary. He or she may become irritable days before the anniversary. They may seem depressed, leading up to that day. Or, they may experience depression and irritability at any time or frequently.
It is important to be aware of your triggers, but also to give yourself grace. Don’t put too much on your schedule around an anniversary. You need to know how you best cope. You may need to schedule some fun activities around an anniversary to get you through that time. Don’t overcommit yourself or put too much stress on yourself if you know this is going to be a difficult time.
When someone experiences trauma, usually the most concrete things are visual. We are very visual people.
Vincent describes a story about our professor, Dr. David Ludwig. He shared that he had difficulty with a very specific shade of blue cloth. One day he was sitting in the choir loft during a church meeting. The choir was wearing blue robes. On this particular day his father, the pastor, was being criticized by someone in the congregation. They were threatening to let him go from the church. Dr. Ludwig was embarrassed. He continued to look down and to the right, staring at his robe. Now he finds himself feeling that sense of shame sometimes if he looks down and to the right at something blue. He had made an association of shame with that color.
T.V. and movies can be very triggering for some people. The visual paired with audio can be very stimulating and stir up emotions, sending someone back to a traumatic situation.
Sometimes we don’t consider how physical touch can set us off. The body keeps memory of things that have happened to it. Someone who may have been held down by the shoulder by an attacker may have difficulty being touched on the shoulder later.
Some people struggle with having their personal space impeded or struggle with being cornered because of a past trauma. They may have difficulty handling a situation with a person with a poor sense of personal boundaries. Being crammed in an elevator may be hard. Standing in line at a theme park or being crowded may cause this person to have feelings like they did when they were abused or attacked.
Getting your haircut, going to the dentist and/or doctor, having a massage all could be difficult because of the close proximity of another person who is touching you.
Some people don’t realize that a physical reaction to being touched could be connected to a trauma. Triggers are not a cut-and-dry, black or white thing. For instance, a rape victim is not going to be only triggered by sex. Air temperature, lighting, voice tone, body language, environment, and more can all be contributing triggers.
Having a very broad understanding of triggers is important because each person’s experience of trauma is different. No two people or traumas are alike. We can’t say that this person’s trauma is that person’s trauma or that this person’s reason for having PTSD is that person’s reasons for having or not having PTSD. It’s a very individual experience.
Sometimes what is said or not said can be a trigger. Tone of voice can be a trigger. A certain language or dialect could be triggering.
If someone has been assaulted and their assailant had a deep voice they could be triggered by the sounds of deep voices. It could be the kind of words their attacker said. T.V. and movies could be difficult to watch because of these types of triggers. Songs could be difficult to hear.
Triggers and Grooming
Grooming is the process that a pedophile uses to establish a trusting connection with a child. (Be sure to check out our interview with Tracy Lamperti on How to Protect Your Child From Pedophiles to learn more about preventing child molestation). The pedophile may have used certain tactics to make the child more comfortable with him or her. These could become triggers later.
People who have been molested as children may struggle with figures of authority because their trust in authority has been broken.
Cologne, perfume, laundry detergent smells may all be triggering for some people. The sense of taste can be triggering.
Certain textures and tastes can be disturbing for some people (especially those who have experienced childhood sexual traumas.)
We’ve never really walked in another person’s shoes. It is good to broaden your understanding of trauma and its affects on people. Being aware of triggers and how they impact people is very helpful in improving your relationships with others.
If you have suffered from trauma, being in the here-and-now and having an awareness of your triggers is helpful in coping with day-to-day activities.
Out of hurt we have a tendency to shut out others. Acting out of hurt can shut us out from being able to support others and have relationships with others. Sometimes hurt people make the assumption that they are the only ones who have hurt this bad and that no one can understand. Regardless of whether someone near you has experienced the hurt you’ve experienced, there are people that want to support you.
If you have a “difficult” person in your life, they have probably experienced trauma. Being caring and empathetic will take you much further in trying to be in relationship with that person than being defensive and dismissive.
Have patience with people and with yourself. Be aware of what’s going on and ask God to help you to step back and gain understanding.