Triggers are tricky. The word trigger is being used more and more frequently in relation to one’s mental health or emotional process, but what is it, really?
Trigger is used to describe the catalyst for the physical and emotional process a trauma survivor experiences when their brain fires all the same chemicals into the body as it did during the trauma. Those chemicals are there to set off the sympathetic nervous system and help the victim fight or run like hell, and survive whatever threat is present. If your trauma was time limited, like a dog attack or a car accident, your triggers will be somewhat limited. If your trauma was compounded, systematic or prolonged like surviving Hurricane Katrina, a childhood of incest, or active military duty, your triggers will be more expansive. Either way, it can be tricky to figure out on your own without professional help. And for the record, there is no shame in seeking help.
The trauma response is not dysfunctional in any way and you are not dysfunctional. The trauma was dysfunctional and your traumatic response was normal. Synonyms for the verb trigger help us understand it: cause, generate, produce, prompt, provoke, set off, bring about, spark, start, activate, elicit, set in motion, give rise to. The trigger sparks the trauma response, long after the trauma is in the past or over.
It’s easy to become mad or resentful at the triggers and response. Being constantly triggered as we try to live life is exhausting and begins to feel like a self-betrayal. The trauma was bad enough, and now it feels like the brain-body gets triggered and upsets itself. Survivors need help getting out of this depressing and exhausting cycle.
Your body is not trying to torture you, I swear. Your body simply learned bad things happen and is trying, through triggers, to protect and keep you alert so a trauma doesn’t reoccur. This is a very smart system! The system just gets out of whack sometimes and develops into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD.
Healing from trauma is often paradoxical and confusing. Survivors can develop maladaptive fears and avoidance strategies, which we can all empathize with. It’s reasonable to want to avoid anything that creates stress, tension, increased heart rate, anxiety, panic, a desire to run or fight. Of course survivors want to avoid all triggers! This logical and reasonable desire to control and avoid the trauma response is an unfortunate trap. It takes more energy trying to hide from triggers over a lifetime than learning how to deal with them and move through and past. Exhaustion is the most common complaint I hear from a survivor and this is why.
A skilled professional can teach how to move through and past triggers until they are no longer triggers. Only at this point do the triggers cease being triggers, and life ceases being minefields—and that is a goal of any trauma recovery. Having a safe relationship with a trusted healer is very very important, especially if your trauma was at the hands of another human being(because ‘vulnerability’ can be a trigger if yours was violated-see how complex this can get?).
Trying to avoid the triggers is a losing strategy. It’s how people’s world’s get very very small, some developing social anxieties and an inability to leave the house or risk new relationships. With support and help, you can take the power of your life back and do the important work of learning to live again. Surviving is not living.
If you are in a constant or exhausting cycle of avoiding triggers/getting triggered, seek help. Healing is not just possible, it is your responsibility. Time won’t heal it. Work will, and you can do it.
For more information about PSTD, read PTSD And Complex PTSD: What Happens When You’ve Lived In A Psychological War Zone.