Understanding and Managing Triggers: How to Cope When It Feels Like It's Happening All Over Again
Triggers can take you back to a painful moment in the past, making it feel like the trauma or distressing experience is happening all over again. Understanding what triggers are and learning how to deal with them is crucial for emotional well-being and healing. In this article we explore the concept and science of triggers, and practical strategies to help you learn to manage them effectively.
What are triggers?
Emotions motivate us to take some kind of action. Unpleasant or distressing emotions, such as fear or anxiety, warn us of threat and tell us to take action to make ourselves safer - such as fighting, protecting, or escaping. More pleasant emotions, such as love and joy, promote connection, achievement, and enjoyment.
Emotions provide us with important information about our surroundings, for instance fear usually indicates that there is an imminent threat to our safety. However, in many psychological conditions, our fear response becomes activated despite the absence of actual current threat. We can experience fear suddenly and it can be totally debilitating. For instance in phobia, paralysing fear can be triggered by just seeing a dog on the street, and in post-traumatic stress disorder, severe and debilitating fear can be triggered by feelings, thoughts, memories, people, or situations. The things or events that activate our fear response are what we refer to as triggers.
If you, like so many others, are living with trauma, triggers can happen regularly or appear out of the blue, and they can have a huge impact on your daily life. Triggers are many and varied, and they are personal to us and what we’ve experienced.
How are triggers formed?
To understand how triggers are formed, it’s helpful to understand what happens in the brain. Normally when memories are encoded, they are stored in the hippocampus, a part of the brain shaped like a seahorse. Under conditions of trauma, the normal storage of memories may be interrupted by various process including high levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, and instead the memories may come to be retrieved via the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for detecting danger. This is the case in PTSD and when those memories are triggered, by a thought, an association, a place, or a person, our threat system goes into high alert and our fight or flight system is activated leading to overwhelming symptoms such as intense fear and physical symptoms such as a racing heart, hyperventilation, and chest tightness.
Identifying and learning your triggers along with tools you can use when triggered can be helpful in starting to manage and cope with your trauma symptoms, and can help you feel more in control.
The first step of trauma recovery - establishing safety in both body and mind
Top trauma psychologist Judith Herman’s recovery model says you must - establish safety in both body and mind before you can start processing the trauma and recovering.
When triggers and subsequent symptoms occur, it often feels like the traumatic event is happening all over again, leaving us feeling unsafe physically and/or emotionally. We need ways that we can quickly re-establish safety and bring ourselves back to the present moment.
Retrieval of traumatic memories under safe conditions when our levels of stress are relatively low and under control enables us to update or reorganise our traumatic experience. Slowly our brain can start to learn how to access those memories without the distressing physical and emotional responses.
When we can safely recall and process traumatic memories not only is recovery possible, but great personal growth can occur. Psychologists call this post-traumatic growth. Once we can start being confident experiencing memories and situations that once caused us terrible distress we are well on the way to recovery.
What are grounding tools and why are they helpful?
Grounding tools are quick and handy exercises that we can use when triggered and can help us calm down our nervous system and bring our attention safely back to the present moment in the face of distressing feelings or experiences. They can help us better manage traumatic memories and overwhelming emotions when we are triggered and give us confidence that we will be able to manage these in the future. Confidence is not something we just have or don’t have - confidence is a habit that we can build.
What can I do when I’m triggered?
It’s helpful to know what grounding tools you can use to help when you are likely to experience triggers and where your symptoms are likely to appear.
If you’re going into a situation where you expect you will be triggered, you can prepare by starting a grounding tool before going into the situation and by having them readily to hand.
You may find that different grounding tools help in different situations. Different tools can also work differently for different people, so if you've tried one that you don't find helpful - don’t despair! - there are plenty more you can try. Practising these tools when you are calm, or during milder distress, will start to build up your skill and confidence that you can use them when you need them most.
How can the re;mind app help me?
Throughout our user research we heard time and time again that many of the struggles our users face are related to difficulty bringing themselves back down when they experience trauma symptoms. This was my own personal experience too. This can feel terrifying and isolating, especially if you’re on your own, feel you can’t call anyone, or if your friends and family don’t know how to help. Our app was built with all of this in mind and designed to help you understand and track your triggers and to give you immediate access to grounding tools when you need them most.