Anyone who has ever had a flashback or a dissociative episode knows what triggers are and how they can affect lives. This article will examine triggers in-depth to help you understand their definition, what causes them, and how to overcome them.
What are Triggers?
Triggers are a normal part of being human, but not all triggers are created equal. In fact, without triggers humans might have problems remembering events because they would become inaccessible to us. This is because triggers are vital as coupled with the encoding of the event, they allow us to have an “aha” moment when we pull a memory from decades ago into our lives today.
To explain further, please, consider the following scenario.
It’s Christmas time and you have just moved to a different town far from family to start a new job. You become friends with someone at work who invites you to their home for Christmas Day. You accept the invitation and arrive at your friend’s house not knowing what to expect.
Your friend greets you at the door and after allowing you inside your senses are assaulted with the warm smells of cinnamon pinecones and freshly baked bread. You have a marvelous time at your friends home that day and feel all warm and fuzzy.
Two decades later at Christmas time, you are walking down the sidewalk when you see a bakery and decide to go in to buy some donuts. After you enter the bakery, your senses are filled with the aroma of freshly baked bread. For a few moments you are transported back to the Christmas Day you spent with your friend and their family and you smile at the warm and fuzzy feelings thinking about it gives you.
You have just experienced a trigger.
When speaking of triggers involving traumatic events, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), gives a good definition of what triggers are:
“When a person is reminded of the trauma, their body acts as if the event is happening, returning to fight or flight mode. In some cases, a sensory trigger can cause an emotional reaction before a person realizes why they are upset.”
In short, the brain of one who has experienced a traumatic event, such as childhood abuse, often become triggered by the same sensory input as the baked bread scenario except without the warm fuzzies. In fact, reliving the trauma from childhood leaves survivors reliving the horrendous events that have reshaped their lives forever.
How are Triggers Formed in the Human Mind?
Forced into the fight/flight/freeze/fawn response during the original traumatic event, short-term memory formation becomes drastically altered. The brain’s of survivors can “misfile” the traumatic event in memory storage “filing” it as part of an ever-present event rather than a past one.
Thus, the person becomes thrown into a time warp into the past when a triggering sensory stimulation occurs.
To be clear, triggers are subconscious reactions to perceived danger from the past. In the here and now, they are not normally relevant, but our bodies react as if we are back in the time of the trauma we are reliving.
Compounding the problem is the hypervigilance many survivors have as part of their everyday existence. This hyperawareness leads to survivors constantly waiting for danger and then a sensory stimulation (trigger) fulfills this prophecy sending them into high alert.
When survivors become triggered by a sight, smell, sound, etc., our bodies immediately go into the fight/flight/freeze/fawn response. This means their body readies them to do what’s necessary to avoid or otherwise manage the danger they are perceiving that is not real today.
The Neuroscience of Triggers
The amygdala, one of two almond-shaped structures in the human brain, is responsible for the fight/flight/freeze/fawn responses that make humanity ready to react quickly to danger. The amygdala believed to be a primitive portion of the human brain and is the first portion of the brain to perceive danger. It is also an important structure attached to the storage of memories in “files” complete with both the event and the emotions related to it.
The powerful role of the amygdala is that it can make split-second decisions and begins the cascade of events involving other brain regions and neurotransmitters that ready us to react before the cortex (the thinking part of our brain) can override its actions with logic.
In 1995, Psychologist Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, coined a new phrase, “amygdala hijack”1. While most danger we perceive around us is immediate or not life-threatening, when the amygdala has become hijacked from past trauma, we may perceive a threat from a sensory trigger as if the trauma of the past is happening today.
How Can We Defeat Triggers?
It is impossible to avoid all the sensory experiences that may trigger one into a flashback or other physical reactions to the past. However, by utilizing the training of a therapist, we can learn to mitigate the damage our reaction to triggers cause.
First, we must take responsibility for our reactions to triggers. It can become too easy and convenient to blame the trigger or the event that formed it for misbehaviors either legal or involving other people.
As in the case of dissociation, yes, the trigger caused it event but ultimately, we are responsible for any actions done while in the dissociated state. If one breaks the law while dissociated or harms someone else no one is responsible for those actions but you. The same holds true during a flashback. If you harm someone or break the law, you are responsible for your actions.
There is power in taking responsibility for your actions when triggered and afterward. By doing so you empower yourself to move forward and leave the past in the past where it belongs.
Another way to defeat triggers is to not fear the emotions that remain raw and partially hidden within you. Instead, try to focus on accepting your emotions and recognizing them as part of who you are. It is only when we recognize and name our emotions that we can fully own and control them better.
A third way to defeat triggers is to pay close attention to the things that cause you problems. Keeping a journal of dissociative episodes, flashbacks, etc., and the triggers that precipitated them can help you recognize and desensitize yourself to them. Also, pay attention to how you were feeling emotionally and physically BEFORE the trigger. Were you extra tired or feeling physically ill? Did your physical state make you more vulnerable to the trigger? Were you depressed or overwhelmed before the trigger? Knowing how you felt before the trigger caused you problems can alert you in the future that you are vulnerable.
Managing Life After the Activation of a Trigger
In the book, Trigger Identification, and Intervention. Integrative Treatment of Complex Trauma for Adolescents Treatment Guide 2nd Edition, the authors Briere and Lanktree off some ways to help you when triggers happen.
The authors give a list of possible answers to defeating triggers including the following (I quote)2:
• Changing the scenario or using “time-outs” during especially stressful moments
• Analyzing the triggering stimulus or situation until a greater understanding changes one’s perception and thus terminates the trigger.
• Increasing support systems
• Positive self-talk
• Engaging in physical activity, such as doing exercises, dancing, or yoga
• strategic distraction, such as starting a conversation with a safe person, reading a book, or going for a walk, as a way to pulling attention away from escalating internal responses such as panic, flashbacks, or catastrophizing cognitions.
It is clear that none of the above suggestions offer a quick solution to gaining power over triggers. In fact, there is no magic incantation or pill to cure our reactions our amygdalae undergo upon receiving sensory input that reminds us of our past trauma.
However, the above suggestions can get you started thinking of ways to help yourself lessen the effects triggers have on your life.
Ending Our Time Together
Everyone is different and the brief answer to defeating triggers is to find and utilize coping skills that help you personally. Journaling, while helpful, isn’t something everyone enjoys or will do long-term. Find things that help you such as painting, writing, or even drawing with crayons to help you relax when you become triggered. It may sound ridiculous to carry a box of crayons in your purse but drawing out the fear that a trigger explodes into your consciousness can put it out where you can see it in a tangible form. Then the next time you become triggered by the same sensory assault, just the act of having drawn the fear previously will allow you to move through it quickly until finally, you do not react negatively at all.
If the cure sounds like mindfulness, that’s because mindfulness plays a vital role in overcoming the hell of emotional triggers.
The most important thought I wish to instill in you today is that triggers, in the sense we are exploring today, are only reactions to past events that are over, done, and gone. No matter how strongly our brain would like to cross over into a time warp, the past is over and only we can take back the power stolen from us by our reactions to triggers.
“It’s always hard to deal with injuries mentally, but I like to think about it as a new beginning. I can’t change what happened, so the focus needs to go toward healing and coming back stronger than before.” ~ Carli Lloyd
1. Cuncic, Arlin, (2019). Amygdala Hijack and the Fight or Flight Response. Very Well Mind. Retrieved from:
2. Briere, J., Lanktree, C. B., (2013). Trigger Identification and Intervention. Integrative Treatment of Complex Trauma for Adolescents Treatment Guide 2nd Edition. Keck School of Medicine USC. The University of Southern California. Retrieved from: https://keck.usc.edu/adolescent-trauma-training-center/treatment-guide/chapter-11-trigger-identification-and-intervention/