If you live with a mental health diagnosis or spend time with someone who does, you may have heard the word “trigger.” It is a pretty common buzz word that gets thrown around in the mental health world. But what is a trigger? A trigger is a sight, sound, smell, taste, event, sensation, or any other stimulus that causes a distressing emotional response or physical reaction.
You may be thinking ok, but what does that all mean? Let’s take a look at what is generally known about triggers first. While scientist are not entirely sure how a trigger is created, it is commonly thought to be created by a traumatic event. That trauma could be a number of things including but not limited to abuse, death, sickness, violence, or an accident. Even if the individual does not remember the traumatic event, it can have a significant effect on their future lives. This trauma leaves behind a psychological and/or emotional scar on the person who experienced it. That scar becomes a part of who you are. You carry it around with you, and when that triggering sound or other sensation pokes at the scar it can cause it to tear wide open.
When a person is triggered, they may experience feelings like fear, shame, anger, and anxiety. The individual dealing with their trigger may also feel overwhelmed or out of control. There might even be physical reactions such as a racing heart, vomiting, losing consciousness or pain. A triggered person suffering with an eating disorder might begin to binge or purge. A person dealing with a history of substance abuse might use again when triggered. A person who was abused or who was subjected to an overly violent situation (such as war) may react by becoming violent or abusive themselves. Sometimes the triggered moment is all encompassing, causing the person who was triggered to re-live the original trauma as though it is happening in that very moment. That person would be unable to see, hear, or experience anything but their own painful memories. They are trapped and forced to re-live every detail all over again.
How do we deal with these often-overwhelming triggers? What do we do? Learning to recognize what your triggers are is a vital first step. To identify a trigger, you need to be mindful of your emotions. Give yourself permission to really look at what you are feeling in the moment. Examine it and get to know it so you can understand and recognize the feelings as they arise. It may help to keep a journal so that you can observe any patterns in your reactions to specific stimuli.
When I was a girl I was triggered by bathrooms. I didn’t understand it and had no idea why entering the bathroom made me so uncomfortable. Every time I entered a bathroom, I felt like I was being watched. I had an overwhelming need to check behind the shower curtain so I could be certain that no one was inside the tub waiting to hurt me. I was also desperately afraid that I would be hurt when I was using the toilet. I experienced all kinds of fearful ideations from vampires living inside my toilet ready to bite me, to spiders hiding around the toilet preparing to consume me. I began to check obsessively around, under, behind, and above the toilet area every time I needed to relive myself.
These obsessions and fears took over a significant part of my life, even tormenting me in my dreams. I could not function without taking the time to go through my series of checks. Yet even after I finished my checks, I still didn’t feel completely safe. No one should have to fear for their safety over and over throughout a day. I was too young to understand what was happening to me. I was also too embarrassed to tell my family about it. How could I possibly explain my fear of the bathroom to my family. Even if I had been brave and told my parents they may not have understood. How could they? It’s not as if the subject of mental health and triggers were common knowledge.
On the contrary, mental health issues were shrouded in mystery. And my family members were not trained professionals with a psychological tool box to draw help from. It took me years of therapy to finally understand the truth about myself. I was being triggered by a traumatic event that had happened to me in a bathroom at a very young age. Imagine the difference it would have made in my life if I had not been afraid to talk about what I was experiencing, if we had known about triggers, and if mental health was not such a mysterious subject. Perhaps they could have helped me develop coping strategies or gotten me help from a professional much sooner, but we didn’t know any of that. We were all living in the dark and the stigma surrounding mental health was immense. No one talked about it. Thankfully, in today’s world it is slowly becoming easier to talk with loved ones, friends or professionals about the things that affect our mental health.
How does a person deal with the trigger once they recognize it for what it is? What next? In my case with the bathroom trigger, I had to understand why it was a trigger. I didn’t remember the abusive events that had created this particular trigger. The event had been buried very deeply in my subconscious. Therapy helped me become strong enough to face that memory. Once I did remember, I was able to work through the pain and trauma with both talk therapy and hypno-therapy. These two methods proved invaluable. Those therapeutic methods combined with medication, my own internal fortitude, and the support of loved ones allowed me to defeat that trigger. I can happily pee in peace now, unless you count the occasional intrusion of my cats.
Thankfully there are a lot of options for dealing with triggers. Cognitive Processing Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Hypno-Therapy, Prolonged Exposure Therapy, and Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing are some of the options that can be utilized with the help of a professional. Medications could also be helpful in that they may help with some of the symptoms associated with the anxiety a trigger may bring on. Other helpful methods might include meditation, yoga, healthy diet, proper rest, self-affirmations, self-talk, using positive imagery, utilizing distracting sensations such as something fuzzy or squishy and diaphragmatic breathing. It’s a good idea to be preemptive and self-aware.
If you know a bathroom triggers you practice a coping technique before, during and after to help yourself remain calm. You may find you need to avoid somethings for a while and that’s ok too. It is a good idea to remove things from your life that add stress or create additional triggers. Remember to take some time for yourself and practice self-care. Be patient with yourself and reward yourself for victories no matter how small. Talk to people, find friends, family or peers that you can vent to. Let them know how they can help you in a triggered moment. Its ok to enlist the aid of helpers if you need someone to talk you through a moment or be there for you in some other way.
If you are triggered, try doing something that makes you happy afterwards. By participating in something that makes you happy after the trauma of being triggered, you give yourself permission to move on and make new happier memories. In effect your pushing a reset button so that you don’t end up stuck and triggered all over again.
Don’t get discouraged if you fail, we all do. Pick yourself up when you are able, and try again. It’s important to keep your options open. Think outside the box and look at it from a different view point. Try to find the positive side. Even if the method you are using doesn’t remove the trigger from your life it could help you deal with the stress and trauma it causes. It might even reduce the overall effect of the event allowing you to recover faster and more easily. Triggers don’t have to control our lives. Keep trying until you find what works for you. Don’t allow yourself to fall into a cycle of negative thoughts and actions. When you feel a moment begin to spiral out of control, distract yourself with something that brings you joy. Celebrate the good moments, put them front and center. Allow those beautiful moments to be more important in your life than the ones that hurt or scare you. Give yourself the opportunity to grow and change. You can do it! I believe in you!