Triggers—What Are They and What Do You Do with Them?
Triggers are something talked about frequently in the world of mental health, in all types of recovery settings. Everyone has them, some know what they are, and some don’t. If you do know your triggers and understand how they work, do you also know how you can minimize their impact? If you don’t know about triggers, here’s a short description to help get you started.
A trigger, simply stated, is like a light switch that when turned on connects without any conscious choice to memories from the past called “flashbacks.” The trigger can be heard, felt, seen, tasted, smelled, or any combination of these. Triggers and flashbacks in and of themselves are neither good nor bad, but a hurtful memory triggered by a frightening event can be the stuff of nightmares. The flashback can be experienced as if the event is happening all over again, so even just the fear it could happen can be crippling–physically, emotionally and psychologically. Triggers can result from any traumatic situation experienced at any point in life and is a common aspect of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
Triggers are well known to occur in relationships, particularly with romantic partners. Who else do we spend more time with or make ourselves more vulnerable? A partner may have the power to trigger us at a gut-wrenching level and never even know what happened, why you were angry, lashed out, fought back, ran way or cowered. You may not even know yourself what triggered you. Trusted and committed partners also have the potential to help us neuter the power of triggers if handled well and in a loving manner.
It helps to pay attention to what I call Action-Reaction dynamics, meaning if there is an action that is by itself no big deal but the reaction is a very big deal, something is going on that is worthy of paying attention to as a possible trigger. An individual can observe this dynamic in him/herself, but it can also be observed by others who may be confused or blind sighted by the reaction.
So, what do you do with triggers to take their power to hurt you and your
- First, work to identify your triggers if you don’t already know what they are; if you do know be open to discovering new triggers.
- Develop alternative coping strategies instead of simply reacting; if you find your reaction is disproportionate to the event, work to understand what happened instead of using up good energy on feeling guilty or weak
- Share your trigger information with your partner so he/she is not operating in the dark. Avoiding your partner’s triggers on both sides, when possible, is a loving act. Understanding triggers are NOT about you but rather pain in your partner makes room for support instead of escalation. Sharing triggers should only be done in a committed and trusting relationship where allowing yourself to be vulnerable is safe
- Sometimes people need processing time to pull themselves out of a trigger reaction or flashback; give them that time; if in doubt ask
- If you see your partner reacting to a trigger, it may be helpful to say something like, “This is now, not then,” or, “You are safe here with me now,” as a way to be supportive instead of reacting defensively which only adds fuel to the fire created by a toxic trigger
This is a BIG subject crammed into a small article. If you felt triggered by anything you’ve just read and want to know more, call for an appointment today. You don’t have to do this alone.