In relation to trauma, a trigger is something that calls to mind a previous traumatic situation and may provoke a flashback of the event. Therapists suggest that triggers can vary person to person, and are dependent on an individual’s personal, and often private, experiences. It may be hard to predict what may be a trigger for you or a loved one, however, the more attention you pay to identifying triggers, the easier it may become to predict, control, or manage their effects.
Types of triggers
Triggers can be divided into different categories, including those based on our senses. Common categories of triggers may include:
- Sound triggers: Such as sounds of anger, sounds similar to those made by an abuser, or sounds related to the incident of abuse, such as a song that was playing at the time.
- Visual triggers: Seeing someone who looks like the abuser, seeing or being in a location that looks like where the trauma occurred, or an incidence of violence or abuse on a television program.
- Smell triggers: Smells that remind an individual of their abuser or the location of an abuse, including smelling alcohol, tobacco, or an abuser’s perfume or cologne.
- Taste triggers: Tastes that are reminiscent of an abuser such as a food they used to eat, a certain alcohol, or any food that may have been eaten around the time of the abuse.
- Touch triggers: An individual may feel triggered when a certain part of their body is touched, or if someone is physically too close to them.1,2
Since triggers are so personal, they can be broken down into any different kind of category and can include virtually anything. Sometimes triggers can be specific emotions or changes in role, such as becoming a parent. There are no silly or nonsensical triggers, nor a limit to how many or how few triggers an individual may be sensitive to.
There are various approaches to managing triggers. Although everyone’s triggers may be different, there are common tips that can be used to deal with them in a healthy manner. These include, but are not limited to:
- Practice “grounding” by reminding yourself that you are in the present and are no longer in the traumatic situation. Concentrating on your current breathing, focusing on your immediate surroundings, touching a concrete or comforting item around you, or doing a mental math problem are all ways to ground yourself.
- Engage in positive self-talk by reminding yourself of all you have accomplished and why you are happy to be you. Reminding yourself that the abuse was not your fault and that you’re in control of your life may help you conquer a current trigger.
- Enlist the help of a family member, trusted friend, therapist, or counselor. This can be helpful if a trigger becomes too big to handle on your own, or if you just want extra support.
- Track your triggers. Keeping a mental list, or physical list, of triggers that have caused you distress, and finding ways to take control or avoid them in the future may help you identify a potential trigger later on.
- Find a positive distraction or activity to engage in to get your mind off of the trigger.
- If you feel comfortable sharing, let others know that you may struggle with certain triggers. For example, letting medical professionals know you're uncomfortable with touch or physical contact.
- Seek immediate help if necessary. Contact a therapist or call a helpline, such as the RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) hotline at 800-656-HOPE (800-656-4673) at any time if you are in crisis.1-3
- Coping with Triggers-Chat Transcript. Pandora’s Project. https://www.pandys.org/copingwithtriggers.htm. Accessed December 27, 2017.
- RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). https://rainn.org/articles/flashbacks. Accessed December 27, 2017.
- How to Handle Triggers and Prevent Relapse. The Recovery Village. https://www.therecoveryvillage.com/treatment-program/aftercare/coping-triggers-relapse/#gref. Accessed December 27, 2017.