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I'm Triggered. Now What?

Statements about being triggered have seemed to enter our conversations with ease. Our friends, family, and favorite TV characters lament may that some person, event, or situation has done it and has led to such high levels of distress that a removal or exit becomes necessary. Usually, when people report bring triggered, they mean that they were ambushed by the person or situation and were not adequately prepared to handle it. The ambush leads to some kind of negative emotion, usually anxiety.

Maybe it feels like this term gets thrown around too loosely or that the now-ubiquitous ‘trigger warnings’ are too coddling, too infantilizing. But the truth is that being triggered is, in fact, a real thing. Those who have been through a trauma may experience symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder in response to events that remind them of the initial event. These symptoms can include any of the symptoms of PTSD, including intrusive memories, feelings of hyperarousal, irritability, emotional isolation, and others. For example, if a man was mugged when alone in an alley at 15, he may find himself sweating and breathing quickly every time he is alone in an alley. For him, being alone in an alley is, in fact, triggering.

Say this man wants to be able to walk alone in alleys – perhaps he lives in Chicago, where there are many of them. There are several ways to work towards meeting this goal. He can work on gradually exposing himself to these kinds of situations in an intentional way (perhaps in consultation with a trained professional) in order to un-learn the association between alleys and danger. He can also work on re-examining the assumptions he has about alleys and their risk level, based on the trauma he experienced. Relatedly, he can ‘process’ the mugging, working through what the event meant and how it altered his ideas about his level of safety in his environment.

Addressing the trauma in these ways, outside of triggering situations, can be immensely helpful. These approaches help to lessen the impact of the trauma on everyday life. Then, even if there is a triggering situation, its bite is not as sharp and it is easier to get through the trigger without all of the negative feelings and experiences. That is not to say that nothing will be a trigger any longer. But the goal is to be able to live a life in line with our goals, not one dictated by avoidance of things we are afraid of because of past, unprocessed experiences.

The above example does not address those triggers that are unexpected or uninvited. Take an accountant who was sexually assaulted in her early 20s. About ten years later, she attends an accounting conference where an executive gives a talk about how she became CEO of her company. In the course of the lecture, the CEO gives a brief but graphic description of a sexual assault she experienced in childhood, and how this, in some way, was formative. The attendee finds that she is triggered. She had no idea that this was going to be mentioned and has not prepared herself in any way. She is suddenly flooded with memories of her own assault. Her eyes well with tears and she feels distant from this room and her current situation.

Many of us experience these kinds of triggering moments, some being more intense than others. How can we cope when these triggers arise? As described above, it is important to process the traumas we have experienced in a safe, non-arousing environment such as in therapy or with a trusted loved one. This helps the trauma to become integrated into our experience so that we are aware of its impact and place in our life.

There are also some tools we can use in the moment in order to deal with these unexpected triggers. The first is to remind ourselves that it is okay to walk away, if only for a brief time, to calm down and get collected. We might start with some deep breaths to slow the heartbeat and general state of stress/arousal. Next, we can ask (out loud or otherwise): what memory is being triggered? What specific aspect of the memory is being triggered? We can take the time to accept feelings of sadness, anger, or loss associated with the trauma, and remind ourselves that these feelings are okay, they are natural, and they are not dangerous. We might take the time to re-examine feelings of guilt or shame, or generalized ideas about the world (e.g. “You see! The world really is not a safe place! And this proves it”). We can ask ourselves questions such as, Is that really true? Why do I believe that? What in my lived experience has led to me form that belief?

These are merely starting points for a process that can take a long time and can be very emotionally charged. But these basic ideas might just help you get through that next movie that comes without a trigger warning.

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