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What is a trigger?

There is lots of talk about triggers recently. A trigger in and of itself is just an unconscious response to something in the environment. We spoke with our Clinical Director Angela Knieriem and one of our therapists, Maryana Kleyn, to better understand triggers and how to respond. We also talked with a few survivors to hear their thoughts.

While most people paint triggers as a bad thing, they can also be good. A good trigger can be the smell of something cooking that takes your mind back to a positive time. It can be the feel of a material that reminds you of a blanket that comforted you as a child. These triggers elicit pleasant memories and often result in positive responses from your body like your muscles relaxing, your heart rate slowing and the thoughts in your brain calming down.

Something can also trigger you and elicit a negative response in your body. This could be hearing a song that reminds you of someone who caused you distress or a smell that reminds you of a traumatic event. These triggers can lead to a negative response in your body – like your heart beating faster, your thoughts racing, your skin becoming unusually hot or cold or your mind disassociating. When your body responds this way, it is trying to keep you safe. The trigger reminded you of something that was harmful to you, so your body goes on higher alert to prepare you for possible danger. This is really helpful when you are in a situation that is actually harmful, but it can start to interfere with your daily way of life if you are being negatively triggered on a regular basis.

We spoke with a few survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault to get their personal perspective on triggers.

“A trigger that many DV survivors have that they don’t discuss is when a child has behaviors that remind us of our abuser. My son looks a lot like his father and when he gets mad, he can have the same look in his eyes as his dad. Although he has never behaved like his dad, when I see the look it triggers me. With that trigger I shut down to the point where I cannot think and I cannot hear what my son is saying,” said one survivor.

She has used breathing practices and grounding practices to help.

“I’ve also had to remind myself that he is not his father. When this first started happening, I had a lot of shame that went with my response. I knew mentally that my son was not his dad, but my body was telling me something different.”

“Another trigger for me is raised voices. If someone is yelling to get a point across, I shut down. I cannot have a conversation if there are raised voices. The way I get around this trigger is by telling people that I will not have a discussion unless they can keep a calm and steady voice. I also have to walk away from the situation for a little bit to calm down,” she said.

Physical spaces can also be a trigger.

“I get triggered by enclosed spaces that I cannot get out of. I used to get locked in the bathroom (which was very small) for hours so now I prefer for all doors to be open (inside the house). I also scan areas I go into and usually position myself so that I can get out if I need to,” said one survivor.

We recently spoke with Jane Carson Sandler, a survivor of the Golden State Killer/East Bay Rapist. She talked with us about her triggers, which are somewhat different due to the public nature of her assault and the assault and murder of so many others. For Jane, the sound of helicopters is a trigger. At the time of the assault in the 1970s, helicopters flew over at night and that sound still haunts her.

She can no longer ski because of the sight of a ski mask, which her assailant wore. Hearing someone say “shut up” also triggers her because of the assailant. She has to turn off the TV, focus on coping skills and distract herself.

What coping skills can help with triggers?

When you are negatively triggered, your brain usually goes into fight, flight or freeze mode. This is the part of the brain that keeps you safe, but it makes it hard to really think through what is happening. It is the part of the brain that automatically reacts. If you can recognize when you are negatively triggered, you can often find a way to calm your body and your brain down by using coping skills.

If you experience triggers – no matter how often – coping skills will help you calm your body and mind. The first thing you want to do is figure out what works for you. Breathing exercises are great (inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds and exhale for 6 seconds) and the internet is now filled with guided meditations. A personal favorite of Hopeful Horizons therapist Maryana Kleyn is the Headspace app.

Another technique is using your five senses and try to identify something you can smell, see, touch, hear and taste. Or, point out five things you can see in front of you. All of these strategies help your mind focus on something else, while lowering your heart rate. Try practicing your coping skills when you feel calm and relaxed, so it becomes a habit. The more you practice, the easier it gets.

When is it time to seek help from a therapist?

If you have tried everything you know to help feel better and it isn’t working, it is probably a good time to reach out for help. Some people need a trained therapist, but others may just need to reach out to their social supports. In the end, the decision is always up to you. Hopeful Horizons is always here if you want to reach out.

If I call Hopeful Horizons, what do I say and how do I ask for help?

Hopeful Horizons has staff trained and ready to take your call. All you have to do is dial our support line number and we will take it from there.

Triggers from Social Media, TV and Movies

If you are finding yourself reacting to social media or things you watch, it’s time to reduce screen time. We realize that we all want to feel connected (especially during these unpredictable times) but sometimes less is more. At the end of the day, do what feels good to you – maybe that’s carving out a few minutes in the morning and night to get on social media or taking a social media break during the weekend. As far as TV and movies go, there are so many TV show/movies that either normalize violence or romanticize it – most of which don’t come with “trigger warnings;” so, if you are watching something that triggers you, incorporate your coping skills.

How do I explain my reactions to friends and family?

Remember it isn’t your job to educate your friends and family. Start with your own healing first. Your therapist can help you navigate your relationships with friends and family, but your healing is the priority.

How do I help my child when she/he feels triggered?

Understanding your child’s triggers is the best first step. Each child is going to respond to triggers differently so working with your child’s therapist to pair coping skills with triggers will help to increase your understanding of what is happening and will give you tools on how to help your kid. Also, remember to stay calm and use a quiet and soothing tone while you are talking.


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