When we endure traumatic events, the experience may stay with us in various ways – even in ways we may not recognize. Good trauma treatment helps us grow awareness of trauma triggers and to reduce the impact of those triggers on our daily life.
From lingering emotions to disruptions in our daily routine, coping with trauma takes work, especially in situations of complex trauma. This is even more true when it comes to navigating trauma triggers. What are triggers? Well, in short, they are body, behavior, and emotional reactions to trauma-related stimuli. Triggers can be sights, smells, sounds, or even written/visual content. They can be any sensory stimuli that stir an internal trauma response. Learn more about trauma triggers and recognizing them in my detailed article about trauma triggers.
Navigating and coping with trauma triggers can be tricky, but therapy can help.
Trauma Triggers and Avoidance
Before treatment many trauma survivors avoid people, places, or experiences that might be triggering
Later in recovery many trauma survivors are able to live without avoiding potentially triggering situations.
Trauma can make our worlds very small, and one way that this occurs is through avoidance.
Because trauma triggers can be so overwhelming, it’s not unusual for people who have experienced trauma to avoid situations that could trigger flashbacks, panic, dissociation, or other PTSD symptoms.
Unfortunately, the nature of avoidance means that it tends to become increasingly restrictive. For example, if someone experienced a trauma while eating blue M&Ms, after the trauma they might avoid blue M&Ms- but over time also avoid all chocolate or even the color blue, resulting in a world that shrinks smaller and smaller as we lose the freedom to live the life we choose.
Good trauma therapy provides a safe space to engage and defuse triggers. Over time and with really good care, people who have experienced trauma can find the freedom to move on with the life that they choose, even if that may take them through potentially triggering situations because they know that they have the tools to survive through the impact of the now-mostly-diffused trigger.
Trauma Triggers and Self-Contempt
Before treatment many trauma survivors experience self-contempt or general unkindness to themselves when they get triggered.
After good therapy people with trauma triggers develop the capacity to give themselves good, compassionate self-care when they need it most.
Because of the way that trauma affects the brain, it’s not unusual for someone who has experienced trauma to struggle with self-contempt. (Although some studies seem to suggest that those with good self-esteem prior to trauma tend to be able to process traumatic experiences with less self contempt and PTSD symptoms – Source.)
A reactionary self-contempt-fueled internal response to triggers actually prevents recovery, because what we really need is kind, compassionate care.
Good therapy can help us access that compassionate care and to begin to learn, as it is modeled for us, how to give ourselves self kindness. Through learning how to support ourselves with kindness, we can develop the confidence needed to engaging trauma triggers and defuse their power to restrict our lives.
Trauma Triggers and Coping
Before treatment, most trauma survivors don’t have the skills to ground themselves and recover when triggered,
After good trauma therapy survivors have a toolbox of skills and strategies they can use to cope.
Most of us use the tools to cope that we learned in childhood. The same coping mechanisms that our parents modeled for us (or that we figured out on our own were ways to help us survive) become our default method for coping with difficult emotions as an adult.
For many individuals, these coping mechanisms are more than enough to survive and thrive, but if we experience trauma, those of us with a toolbox of coping strategies that don’t work very well may experience more triggers. For folks who didn’t have the opportunity to develop healthy coping strategies- or people who need some extraordinary skills to manage trauma- therapy can often help.
Good trauma therapy helps clients build a toolbox of ways to handle triggers (and how to cope when our support systems may shift for short times). Learning how to foster relationships that provide emotional support, learning how to ask for help, learning how to ground ourselves, and learning how to set boundaries can all add up to less intense triggers and an increased capacity to “bounce back” after getting triggered.
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Trauma Triggers and Therapy
Before treatment triggers often feel like a black hole or deep sea trench filled with scary unknowns,
After good trauma therapy people often feel less blindsided by their triggers- because they’ve worked to understand the trigger, its effects, and its context.
As depicted in this illustration, even after really good trauma therapy and successful recovery, triggers still remain a part of a survivor’s life.
In this image, the enduring presence of triggers is represented through the two puddles. In the “before therapy” puddle, the puddle is a deep trench that contains a skeleton, angler fish, and shadows indicating the presence of perhaps even more terrifying creatures. The character standing nearby doesn’t have the equipment to navigate this murky water.
Triggers never go away, but they change as we heal- eventually transitionng from ferocious predators to a mild, familiar irritant.
In the “after therapy” side of the image, though, you see how the puddle that represents triggers has changed. Gone are the monsters, and the depth is manageable with the protection that the woman now has. The puddle is shallow, with light able to penetrate the depths. Stepping stones (representing strategies for self-care) offer a navigable path to use to march right through the puddle in any direction she chooses.
While trauma triggers are often complex and persistent, good trauma therapy can give us insight into triggers and triggering situations. With treatment and recovery, avoidance can transform into engagement, self-contempt into self-compassion, and coping skills can be enhanced in ways that help us better navigate a triggering experience.
In short, good therapy can help us move towards living a more full life that is not limited by trauma triggers.
Image Description for Screen Readers:
There are two images as the key images and printable PDFs for this post.
The first image has a background that is a light blue sky with green hills in the background, with grey ground underneath. The title of the image is written in black text and reads “Coping with trauma triggers.” The image has two components: The left side says “before treatment,” and those words are written on top of a gold banner. There is a person drawn underneath the title who has dark blonde hair, light skin, and glasses, wearing a grey sweater, black pants, and brown shoes. There is a look of fear on their face, as their arms are crossed across their chest and they’re looking at the water hole. The hole is labeled “triggers” and has skull and crossbones in the bottom of it, as well as an anglerfish. There are labels on the image that read, “Avoids,” “Self-contempt,” “No protection,” and “Unknown depth.” The person has not participated in trauma therapy and, when faced with a trigger (the unknown depth), they feel unprotected, avoidant, and filled with self-contempt. The right side of the image has a gold banner that reads “after treatment.” Underneath the title is a drawing of a person with dark blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail, light skin, and glasses, wearing a gold-colored rain jacket, a white shirt, jeans, and rainboots. Their arms are crossed and they have a look of determination on their face. Their foot is raised as though they are about to step into a puddle on the ground that has an overturned bucket on top of it and grey stones and brick laying around it. There are labels on the image that read, “Engages,” “Self-Compassion,” “Strategies to cope,” and “Not as deep.” The person has undergone trauma therapy and can face a trigger with engagement, self-compassion, coping strategies and can see the reality of the situation.
The second image is of the same drawing with different labels. The person on the left has a title above them that reads, “Encountering trauma triggers before good trauma therapy.” The person, whose arms are crossed across their chest and who has a fearful look on their face, has three labels written inside white bubbles pointing at her: “Spends a lot of energy avoiding triggers,” which is pointing to their face, “Very little protection or tools to cope,” pointing to the pants and flat shoes, and “Self-contempt,” which is pointing at the crossed arms. There is a fourth label that is pointing to the deep, water-filled hole that reads: “Deep dark triggers with unknown depths,” which is pointing to the anglerfish and skull. The person on the right has a title above them that reads “Encountering trauma triggers after good trauma therapy.” The person wearing a rain jacket and boots, with arms crossed and a determined look on their face, has three labels pointing to them: “Confidence that you are more than your trauma,” which is pointing to the determined look on their face, “Self-Compassion,” which is pointing to the arms crossed, and “Tools and strategies that manage exposure,” which is pointing to the jacket and boots. Pointing to the puddle are two labels: “Ways to defuse the intensity of the triggers,” which is pointing to the bucket and brick, and “Still there, but not as deep.”