By: Janelle Schlueter, MS, LPC, NCC, CCTP
Understanding triggers: what are they?
We’ve all heard the word trigger. It seems to be everywhere. Interestingly, not many people know what triggers are and how to correctly use the term.
What is a trigger?
Healthline defines trigger brilliantly, “a trigger is something that causes someone to recall a traumatic experience … by causing extreme overwhelm or distress.” (https://www.healthline.com/health/triggered)
Think of how a trigger on a gun works. Someone can pull a trigger on a gun, and if there is no bullet in the gun, nothing happens, right? Same thing with a trigger. If there is a history of trauma, the traumatic experience becomes the bullet. Now, you pull the trigger with a bullet in the gun; there will be a giant explosion on the other side, right? That’s how a trigger works. It’s not going to do anything if there is no trauma.
Invalidating for those with life-altering trauma.
When someone is triggered, they experience a flashback to the traumatic event, or the emotion felt during that event. They lose touch with reality/space/time or experience a panic attack with a fast onset and a wild and out-of-control response. The person being triggered cannot control their response, no matter the situation. This experience differs from someone who becomes agitated or irritated or has manageable, even intense, negative emotions.
Over time the word ‘trigger’ has become used for negative emotions and experiences, not specific to traumatic responses. The overuse of this word can be harmful and invalidating to those struggling with trauma triggers. As a result, many trauma therapists have been rephrasing ‘triggers’ to ‘trauma reminders.’ Referring to triggers as trauma reminders shows respect for the level of discomfort from a trigger and the level of invalidation those struggling with trauma feel.
Uncomfortable or triggered?
I hear clients say, “That triggered me,” “that’s a trigger,” and so on. In situations like these, I challenge my clients to acknowledge what emotions they are feeling. Keep in mind that ‘triggered’ is not an emotion. Since triggered implies a lack of control over a trauma response, it is empowering to identify the emotion and the action one can take to address the issue that led to the emotion. It can feel easier to say that someone is triggered when they are uncomfortable or feeling another big emotion. Understanding what specific emotion is being felt is an empowering approach to dealing with these painful emotions, specifically ones surrounding fear. Often my clients say their triggers result in feeling anxious, irritated, scared, and so on. In these instances, it is essential to note that identifying the specific emotion is more helpful and actionable than using the word ‘trigger.’
If someone is triggered due to trauma, the response is powerful. The person will experience an uncontrollable and rapid escalation of emotion. This rapid escalation can look like difficulty understanding reality from fear, panic attacks, and even flashbacks to the event (sometimes feeling they are reexperiencing the traumatic event). A person triggered will often be ‘on edge’ for hours to days after a trigger response. For people who experience triggers like these, therapy is vital. The person struggling with these trauma triggers will need to learn how to identify their triggers, learn practical coping and grounding tools, communicate their triggers and how they need support to their support system, and possible exposure therapy to the trigger.
Trigger is a big word and an even bigger experience. If using the term ‘trigger’ works for you, you may also benefit from describing the emotion felt. This would look like, “I was triggered when that firework exploded; I felt scared and helpless.” A statement like this is more descriptive and helps you and others around you to understand your experience and even possibly how to assist you. If you feel like the word ‘trigger’ is not validating enough for your experience, go ahead and use the term ‘trauma reminder’; after all, that is what a trigger is!
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