People experience a wide range of emotions, often relating to specific events. For example, they may feel frustrated in a traffic jam or happy when they see friends or family.
Triggers work in much the same way, provoking intense emotional reactions that can often remind people of past traumatic events. Understanding and identifying triggers is a big step in healing past trauma and improving emotional health.
What Are Triggers?
A trigger can be anything; a memory, person, place, or object. They can be separated into two categories:
- Internal triggers come from within a person and can be an emotion, a sensation, or a memory. Examples of internal triggers include feelings of anger, anxiety, and loneliness or physical sensations such as pain.
- External triggers come from the environment. What may be a normal situation or inconvenience for one person can be a big trigger for another. Examples of external triggers include certain sounds, movies, significant dates, and locations.
Other examples of triggers can include:
- Excessive caffeine consumption
- Relationship conflict
- Social events
Triggers act as warning signs to trauma survivors that something dangerous or upsetting may be about to happen. They may react strongly to certain stimuli even if they are completely safe.
Responses to Triggers
When people are triggered, they can react in many different ways. These reactions can be both physical and mental, such as:
- Cold sweats
- Rapid breathing
Some people may experience periods of dissociation when triggered, in which they feel disconnected from their bodies and minds. Others may become argumentative or even aggressive, which can have severe consequences in relationships or the workplace.
Triggers vs Flashbacks
Being triggered by something is not the same as experiencing a flashback to a previous traumatic event. A flashback is a way the brain remembers the event and makes it feel as though the person is experiencing it at that moment. Flashbacks may be caused by triggers, but they are not the same thing.
Flashbacks are caused because the brain does not record traumatic and regular memories in the same way. Instead of recording and filing the memory in a linear timeline, it can experience it as part of the present, and the brain cannot recognise it as something that happened in the past.
How Are Triggers Formed?
Triggers often form in response to traumatic events. For example, someone who was abused as a child may react strongly when someone raises their voice at them. The senses play a significant role in forming memories, and it is theorised that trauma-related triggers can be highly distressing because the senses are so involved.
The brain processes events differently in traumatic situations and can focus on different sensations, smells or sounds instead of forming linear memories. Many people associate sounds and smells with various memories or certain times in their lives, which may have occurred with traumatic events.
The amygdala plays a significant role in forming and reacting to triggers. In response to potentially threatening situations, the amygdala sends an alarm to the rest of the body, triggering the fight, flight, or freeze reaction. Those with a history of trauma have excessive activity in their amygdala, and people can have an extreme response to perceived threats. An overactive amygdala can also contribute to other symptoms of trauma, such as an overactive startle reflex, poor sleep, and anxiety.
How to Identify Triggers
Many things may be triggering, and everyone will react differently. Identifying triggers can help people manage them better and get to their root cause. There are many ways to help people identify their triggers:
- Listen to bodily sensations – triggers are not just mental – they can also be physical. Symptoms such as a racing heart rate, trembling hands, headaches, and stomach aches can be trigger symptoms.
- Note any potential causes – triggers can stem from several sources, and it may be difficult to identify just one. Instead, note down anything that could be a potential trigger, such as the environment at the time, the conversation, or the location. Doing this several times can help people to pick out different patterns and better identify specific triggers.
- Take a step back – if a trigger arises for no apparent reason, it can be helpful to take a step back from the situation and try and see if there could be something you are missing. For example, if someone is distressed over not being acknowledged by their partner, this could stem from having emotionally unavailable caregivers as a child.
- Identify responses – people may react in different ways when triggered. Some people may become angry, whereas others will withdraw. Identifying these responses can help people to plan how to manage triggers in the future.
- Find the root cause – most triggers are rooted in past traumatic experiences, and tracing these back can help people understand why they react the way they do in specific scenarios. However, this can be distressing, so it may help to seek professional support before doing this.
Triggers can be found everywhere in life, and if you are a trauma survivor, it can be very distressing. What may seem innocuous to one person can bring back a flood of painful memories for someone else. However, it is possible to identify and work through triggers and regain control.
If you have a client or know of someone struggling with anything you have read in this blog, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).
 Hopkin, M. Link proved between senses and memory. Nature (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/news040524-12