Trauma survivors are often surprised at how visceral their post-traumatic reactions to certain triggers can be. They might become flooded with memories of the trauma; experiencing intense physical, emotional and psychological reactions associated with the traumatic event.
What is a trauma trigger?
A trigger is sensory information that serves as a reminder of the original trauma. People often experience triggers as if they are re-living the experience all over again, even when there is no actual danger present. Being triggered can initiate the body's automatic fight, flight and freeze survival responses which can be both exhausting and debilitating for the person.
Different types of triggers?
Triggers are very personal and unique to each individual. They can be predictable such as in the instance of returning to the place where the trauma occurred. Or they might be innocuous in nature, initiated by one's own children reaching the age of when the trauma was experienced. Even an anniversary date, or time of year can elicit an unconscious fear response for the survivor.
A person’s triggers are usually activated through one or more of the five senses: sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. Common triggers include:
Seeing someone resembling an abuser or with similar characteristics (clothing, hair style or colour, mannerisms, similar walk)
A place or situation that is a reminder of the trauma (specific locations, holidays, family events, social settings)
Exposure to similar events; depicted in a news story, movie or article
Seeing an object associated with the trauma like a car, weapon, piece of clothing or household item
Hearing a sound that is reminiscent of the trauma (music, arguing, loud noises)
A sound connected to the place where the trauma occurred such as crickets, frogs, sirens, a car engine, door closing)
Yelling, arguing, banging, a car back-firing - even if these sounds are in the distance
A sound associated with the perpetrator such as an accent, tone of voice, specific words or phrases, volume of voice used
Indicative noises of fear or abuse like crying or screaming, even if these are on the TV
Actual or anticipated physical contact
People within close proximity
Even handshakes or hugs by trusted people can elicit an automatic fear response
Intimacy - even with a much loved and trusted partner
Scents associated with the assault or abuse like after-shave, body odour, alcohol, cigarette smoke, food smells
How are traumatic triggers developed?
When faced with danger or threat the brain automatically activates the body's survival modes - the flight-fight-freeze responses. When detecting danger, the brain signals the release of chemicals such as adrenaline into the bloodstream. This prepares the body for action by increasing the heart rate and diverting blood flow to the major muscle groups; increasing muscle tension to provide the body with extra speed and strength to maximise survival.
The fight-flight-freeze modes are protective in nature, inhibiting the emotions and senses, preparing the body for action and potentially leading to dissociation, numbing and memory fragmentation. When an event is overwhelming the brain is not able to process and form a coherent memory of the experience, it attaches the sensory information to the memory of the trauma. The related sights, sounds, tastes, smells and sensations then act as the body's alarm trigger buttons; alerting to the possibility of danger even when it does not currently exist. The experience of trauma can then contribute to the brain becoming hard-wired to respond more quickly when perceiving real or imagined threats within the environment; further increasing the susceptibility to triggers.
Signs that you have been triggered by #MeToo ?
A person who has been triggered by the #MeToo movement or by other means, is likely to experience a constant state of 'high alert'; anticipating danger and preparing to fight or flee. This often presents as anxiety, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorders, chronic pain or other challenges for the survivor. When feeling overwhelmed a person can also revert to the freeze response, leading to a feeling of disconnection, numbness and difficulty concentrating. This can appear in the form of depression, exhaustion, lethargy, chronic fatigue and other symptoms.
It can be a relief for survivors to learn that their trauma reactions are normal and gain an understanding as to why they experience the challenges that they do. It can be helpful to be aware of potential trigger sources and make a choice whether to avoid them or prepare coping strategies to reduce the impact. It can be re-assuring for survivors to know that with professional support people can and do recover from trauma and go on to live happy and fulfilling lives.
Related: Post-traumatic stress disorder & Symptoms
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