How to deal with triggers
To know how to deal with triggers, you have to first understand what a trigger is and why they happen to us. Just to get it out there, this post comes with a trigger warning. We will be discussing my past domestic violence, describing triggers and some of the causes. As well as how to deal with triggers. If you are already too familiar with them or wish to skip ahead in the post, I am in full support of that.
You can listen to the podcast episode below. And make sure to bookmark the Journal Prompts for Triggers! These will definitely come in handy later on.
What is a trigger?
Triggers (or “being triggered”) are intense emotional responses. These responses are nothing like just feeling uncomfortable. If you have experienced past trauma, it’s as if that trauma is happening all over again.
What causes a trigger?
These can be brought on by things you might expect – violent scenes in movies or tragic news headlines. For me, hearing the cause of death for Gabby Petito was triggering. As a survivor of domestic violence, it brought back some of my worst memories. It felt like having that memory stuck on repeat for me.
Not all causes of triggers are so obvious. For some people, it’s a place, a smell, a song, or even a date. If you are consciously or even subconsciously linking it to something that caused intense emotional pain in the past, it can all come back up for you with that association.
There are neural pathways in our brain that are created with repetition. My past history with abuse established neural pathways that cause me to continue to expect this treatment. And can cause people to actually seek out that same treatment. It’s like a pathway in my brain that says “if this, then that, then this” and so on and so forth. Until I’m living my worst-case scenario in my head all over again. It’s like there is no other possible outcome – other than what I’ve always known.
When I’m triggered, my brain automatically goes down that pathway, regardless of where I am physically, emotionally, or mentally. This case, for instance, caused me to feel unsafe in my own home. My loving, safe home that I built with my very stable, respectful, and gentle husband. It wasn’t something I had consciously thought of, it just happened.
Pathways to healing
Luckily, our brains have the ability to change and create new neural pathways. This process is called neuroplasticity. We can create new, safer, more comfortable neural pathways based on our new reality. In these instances, I can start down that pathway and take the time to stop and question each turn of that pathway. By asking myself whether or not I could spot the warning signs of abuse now or even whether I felt my husband was capable of hurting me, I take a right turn where my past might have gone left.
How long do triggers last?
I wish there was a set amount of time for how long triggers last. That would just make it that much easy when learning how to deal with triggers. If you knew you only had 15 minutes left, it might not feel so overwhelming. Yes, some triggers might only last 15 minutes. But they could last much longer. My most recent one, with the Gabby Petito case, has lasted more than a week. Sure, its intensity might not be at a 10 out of 10 all of the time. But, it hangs over me like a dark cloud.
How to deal with triggers in therapy
I will always, always, always recommend therapy. To everyone. Regardless of whether you feel you are struggling in life or not. Just like we have to exercise to maintain our physical health, we have to take care of our minds to maintain our mental health. And everyone has mental health. In the case of my PTSD and triggers, therapy has given me so many tools to heal. Tools that I still use today.
The insight I am offering today is not medical advice. Really, I am not a licensed mental health therapist. I am someone who has been learning to cope with triggers for over a decade now and wants to help someone else in that same position. Someone has to benefit from all of this hard work I’ve been putting in, right? At least that’s my intention for this blog.
How to deal with triggers and feeling triggered
While working on learning how to deal with these triggers, I believe that we should be exploring this experience. We can learn a lot by working through triggers. Our healing journey will benefit from this uncomfortable work. And yes, it’s going to be uncomfortable. But, it’s important to remember that feeling is just a visitor passing through your life, it does not live there.
I’m all about processes, so here is the process that works for me. This might look different for everyone, so I hope you can find some value in what I do. I’ll give you my own personal examples along the way. These triggers come from my past experience with domestic violence. For you, the triggers might come from a form of abuse, a significant death, or another painful memory. There is no right or wrong reason for it.
Ok, let’s dive into it.
Acknowledge the trigger
First, we want to acknowledge that we are triggered. And try to identify the source. You might need to backtrack a little to find the exact moment. Or it might be clear to you – like for me with the announcement of Gabby Petito’s cause of death. Also, when I hear couples fighting. That will really get me spiraling. I’ll start making up scenarios in my head based on my past experiences.
And it’s important that we acknowledge that these feelings are also real. Let’s not judge them. They exist and they are valid. We can use them as an indicator for an area of ourselves that needs some extra TLC.
Check-In with ourselves
Now, we need to identify how the trigger made us feel. We really need to be gentle with ourselves as we are working through these emotions. They can be pretty overwhelming at times. One of my favorite tools to use for situations like this is Feelings and Needs cards. You can look through these decks filled with different feelings and needs. It helps to see each card and consider whether or not it applies to you. I’ve used them in therapy and found cards that I didn’t know I would be attached to.
Just to toss out some examples…
Emotionally, we might be feeling:
Mentally, we might be feeling:
Physically, we are flooded with higher levels of stress hormones, like cortisol. Cortisol plays a huge part in the “fight, flight, or freeze” response.
Physically, this might feel like:
- Tightness in chest
- High heart rate
- Clenched jaw
Be grateful for your trigger
Ok, this next part is going to sound really weird at first if you have not heard of this concept before. I fully believe that we should thank the response we feel from our triggers. They served a purpose in our lives. Maybe they kept us safe, alert, or gave us the space we needed to heal in the past – when the time called for it. By taking the time to thank the response for the purpose it served us, we can recognize that we no longer need it at this moment. It’s much easier to let it go after feeling gratitude for it.
Be aware of your reactions right now
Take the time to intentionally and thoughtfully respond to the situation. Or remove yourself from the situation until you can self-regulate your emotions. We don’t always have the same mental or emotional capacity while triggered, because so much of our brain is preoccupied with the trigger and flooded with intense emotions. That’s ok.
If you can’t respond. Just be sure you aren’t taking this past trauma out onto whoever triggered you. While they may be in the wrong, it is unlikely that they deserve this intense reaction from you. You can return when you are more collected and regulated.
Use your voice
I say this one is optional because you do not need to lean on someone else for support right now. Although I always encourage ask for support in moments of need, like these. I also understand that you may not have that support around you. If you are with someone who feels safe, you can voice your experience to them.
You can also work to prepare those closest to you for how to handle your triggers. This will help them give a clear idea of how to best help you. And not offer comfort in a form that will feel patronizing or might further intensify your emotions. It can help to talk about different types of situations, like being in public. Personally, I don’t want any attention drawn towards me while in public while I’m triggered.
My husband and I have a secret signal for when I’m triggered. I use this to alert him without anyone around us realizing it. To do this, I will hold his pinky in my fist and squeeze for a few seconds. This signal is something very deliberate. And also something that is not naturally just done. It stands out to him.
Sharing your Trigger
If you are struggling to share your past trauma or story, make sure you read my article on Sharing Your Story. I talk about why your story is so important, how we can begin to give it a voice, and tips for sharing your own story. Or sit down and go through my Journal Prompts for Sharing Your Story.
Ask for a break
I think it’s healthy to take a time-out when we are feeling triggered. If we want a support person with us, that is ok. But it’s also 100% acceptable to ask for a few minutes alone to self-regulate. It’s crucial for the next few steps. And especially before returning to the situation that triggered us. (Assuming that is something we even want to do.)
Start using breathing techniques. I talked about square breathing in my article on Mindfulness in Everyday Life. For this technique, breathe from the stomach and not the chest. Inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, and hold again for 4 seconds.
This technique calms the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). Which is that fight, flight, or freeze response system. Becoming aware of your breath will help to bring you back to the present moment. Square breathing also helps regulate and calm the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS). This regulates the heart, breathing, and cortisol levels.
Teaching children how to deal with triggers
If you are a mother, this is a wonderful thing to practice in front of your child. In doing so, you are demonstrating a healthy skill that will benefit them for life. Sometimes we forget that there are benefits to allowing our children to see us while we are highly emotional. We want to make sure they only see the best sides of us.
But what will that really teach our children? I grew up with a mother who only showed me her best side. She locked herself away whenever she wasn’t in her happiest state – which was the majority of the time. I cannot fault her for not being happier, happiness is an emotion and not a realistic goal to aim for. No one feels any emotion 100% of the time.
How it impacted me
But I can’t help but feel sad for the little girl in me who was never shown how to be anything but happy. Who felt she could only show up in the world as this bright, happy, and charming person. I speak about this a lot in my article on Playing Small. We don’t need to be our best selves for our children, we need to be our honest selves. And show them how to navigate challenging emotions.
And please, don’t feel bad for me. I share this because I am much more aware than I was as that little girl. Truly, I have grown through these experiences. You can hear more about that in my article on Intergenerational Trauma. I feel empowered from these experiences now and have chosen generational healing.
5,4,3,2,1 Coping Technique
Another really great coping technique for how to deal with triggers is the 5,4,3,2,1 list.
You start by listing off:
5 things you can see.
4 things you can touch.
3 things you can hear.
2 things you can smell.
1 thing you can taste.
This forces you to focus on the present moment. And if you have removed yourself from any triggering scenarios, that present moment is a much safer reality than the one you are currently stuck in while being triggered.
Hydrotherapy, or in this case – cold exposure therapy, can help bring you back to the present moment. Splashing my face with cold water, taking a cold shower, or just rubbing some ice across my face has helped remove me from some of my most triggered moments. There is something about that immediate attention to the feeling of cold that stops me dead in my tracks and brings me right back to my present moment. It’s worth a shot, at the very least!
Find a strong positive affirmation
The next tip that I have is to keep a few really strong, empowering positive affirmations on deck for when you need it the most. Sometimes these are referred to as coping statements in these situations. Please choose one that resonates most with you and what you need in that triggered moment. To give you some examples, positive affirmations might sound like:
- I am safe
- I am capable
- I have overcome
- I can do this
How to deal with triggers using writing exercises
If you have a chance and the space to do this next tip, you already know I’m all about it. Journaling. Doing some writing exercises can help you to get the thoughts out of your head. And it also helps to create space so you can detach from those thoughts a little bit.
Here are the Journal Prompts for Triggers that I use. Bookmark it and use it when you need it the most.
One of my favorite writing exercises is brain-dumping. You may have heard me talk about this on many occasions. A brain dump is literally what it sounds like. Dump everything that is occupying your brain right now. Write out every single fear, anxiety, worry, and thought. I’m afraid you may have misunderstood that statement. When I say write out all of your thoughts, I mean every. single. one.
This may take 5 minutes or it may take 20. There is no right or wrong way to do it. And don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or mistakes. Because it’s not meant to be shared or even read after you write it. This is meant to purge your brain of everything. Get it all out of your head so you can move forward without it.
Now, get moving. I’ve been reading a lot about the stress cycle lately. And why it’s so important to actually complete the stress cycle. I know a lot of the time, the solution to burn-out or stress is self-care. You know I am a huge advocate for self-care, (You can check out my multiple articles on self-care. But when you are triggered or in the fight, flight, or freeze mode, self-care is just a bandaid on the situation.
The best thing that you can do at that moment is to relieve the stress. Your body is wanting to fight, flight, or freeze. So do that. Release that energy in one way or another. This can look different for a lot of us, based on our natural response.
Examples for How to Deal with Triggers using Movement:
If your natural response is to fight – complete that argument in your head or on paper. Or if you are more of a flight kind of person (like myself) maybe going for a run or walk and imagining yourself physically distancing yourself from the problem can help.
And if you are a freeze kind of person, try some a body clenching exercise. Clench every single part of your body for 5 seconds, release, and repeat. You dont have to move but you are releasing stress. This helps me fire all of my muscles, relieve stress, and then actively relax. Which intentionally helps my brain and heart relax too.
If you have kids, you can also just have a mini dance party. Shake it out! I guarantee they will find it incredibly entertaining and have a ton of fun. Release all of that energy through your dance moves. Shake, bounce, and jump it out!
And then, find a way to calm yourself. I have some favorite teas and supplements that I use to help calm myself down when I’m feeling heightened. Please speak with your healthcare practitioner first before starting any new supplements. Really, I highly recommend finding a Naturopathic Doctor that can support you on this journey.
Naturopathic Doctors have the knowledge and expertise needed to find the root of your problem, whether that be diet, lifestyle, or even hormonal. I’ll link the most reliable source, hands down, from my experience working with naturopathic doctors and non-profits. Naturemed.org has a Find an ND tool that can help you find your own Naturopathic Doctor.
Having this calming support can also help you level out your stress hormones. Getting mine in check really helped me to reset the baseline of my life while working through my own past traumas. It made coping with the challenging triggers and therapy sessions a little bit easier. They took the edge off a little bit so I could focus more clearly. Consider it. I will forever be an advocate for naturopathic doctors.
How to deal with triggers by doing good
Before we go, I’d like to encourage you to use this energy from this trigger as momentum to help others. To help a greater cause. If you are not in a place to offer help for a cause that caused this trigger, that’s ok. I understand. For years, I’ve known that I wanted to help domestic violence survivors. And for years I’ve known that is as not in a place to offer that. I needed to know how to deal with triggers first.
So I got creative in the ways that I offered help to others. I ran donation drives, organized blood drives, and made this blog. My writing and my podcast recording have been an outlet for me. It allows me to offer guidance and support to others. There are so many different ways for you to help a good cause – even if it’s just walking some cute dogs at your local animal shelter. Any good service is good.
But when that time comes and you feel you can offer help to someone struggling in the ways that you are now (and have been), I hope you jump at the chance to step in. You have the passion that a cause needs. And you are gaining insight and experience that people can benefit from. I’ve recently started reaching out to domestic violence groups to offer my help and I’m excited to be more involved.
Well, friend, I hope that you have learned how to deal with triggers. And that you have found a way to advocate for yourself while you are triggered. This episode was intended to offer you some guidance in those tender moments. I hope that you were able to find some value in them. Or, at the very least, know you are not alone in these very real, very valid feelings.
You’ve Got a Friend in Me
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