With the anniversaries of the Grenfell Tower fire today, and the Manchester Arena bombing, the Westminster and London Bridge terrorist attacks, and attacks in South Sudan on Humanitarian Aid workers, over the last few months, this can be a traumatic time for many as memories of those events come flooding back. Anniversaries and the media coverage can often become triggers, reactivating the brains survival response and retraumatising individuals.
In this week’s blog post I talk about triggers, what they are, how they are formed and how seeking professional advice and support can help individuals recover from trauma symptoms.
What is a Trigger?
Triggers can include stimulus such as smells, sounds, or specific places that remind individuals of the traumatic event. This reminder can cause a person to feel overwhelming sadness, anxiety, or panic. It may also cause someone to have flashbacks. A flashback is a vivid, often negative memory that may appear without warning. It can cause someone to lose track of their surroundings and “relive” a traumatic event.
Babette Rothschild (psychotherapist and author of The Body Remembers) notes: Trauma continues to intrude with visual, auditory, and/or other somatic reality on the lives of its victims. Again and again, they relive the life-threatening experiences they have suffered, reacting in mind and body as though such events were still occurring. (Rothschild, 2000)
Sometimes triggers are predictable. For instance, a veteran may have flashbacks while watching a violent movie. In other cases, triggers are less intuitive. A person who smelled incense during a sexual assault may have a panic attack when they smell the same incense in a store.
The effects triggers can have on those affected by trauma include:
The exact brain functioning behind triggers is not fully understood. However, there are several theories about how triggers work.
When a person is in a threatening situation their survival response: fight, flight or freeze is activated. The body is on hyperalert, prioritising all its resources to react to the situation. Functions that aren’t necessary for survival, such as the digestive system, are put on hold.
One of the functions neglected during a fight, flight or freeze reaction is short-term memory. In some cases, a person’s brain may misfile the traumatic event in its memory storage. Therefore, rather than the memory being stored as a past event, the situation is labelled as a still-present threat. When a person is reminded of the trauma, their body acts as if the event is still happening.
In some cases, a sensory trigger can cause an emotional reaction before a person realises why they are upset.
Sensory information (sights, sounds, and especially smells) plays a large part in memory. The more sensory information that is stored the greater the risk of being triggered.
During a traumatic event, the brain often ingrains sensory stimuli into memory. Even when a person encounters the same stimuli in another context, they associate the triggers with the trauma. In some cases, a sensory trigger can cause an emotional reaction before a person realises why they are upset.
Habit formation also plays a strong role in triggering. People tend to do the same things in the same way. Following the same patterns saves the brain from having to make decisions.
For example, say a person always smokes while they are driving. When a person gets in the car, their brain expects them to follow the same routine and light a cigarette. Thus, driving could trigger the urge to smoke, even if the person wishes to quit smoking. Someone can be triggered even if they don’t make a conscious connection between their behaviour and their surroundings.
What Are Trigger Warnings?
A trigger warning is a notice of potential triggers in future discussion or content. The aim is to let people with mental health concerns avoid or prepare themselves for triggers. It is impossible to predict or avoid all triggers, since many are unique to a person’s situation. When triggers are identified, individual’s can prepare themselves, by using certain grounding techniques, carrying a small bottle of scent that helps them to relax, or learning certain breathing exercises.
Getting Help for Triggers
Trigger warnings are useful in some cases, although avoiding one’s triggers will not treat the underlying mental health concerns, and unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol and recreational drugs may be used to dull the senses. If triggers interfere with someone’s daily life, the person may wish to see a trauma specialist therapist.
In therapy, people can learn techniques to manage their panic or anxiety activated from a trigger, can process the traumatic event therefore leaving it in the past, and reduce the emotional content connected to the trauma memory.
The focus of trauma treatments is to move the processing of the traumatic material from activating the amygdala (the fire alarm system of the brain) to the hippocampus (the filing system of the brain); to make meaning, to create a narrative, to find a new perspective that is less derogatory of self, to reduce the symptoms of trauma and to find a way to regulate the body back to a relaxed state. Once the memory becomes processed and stored in the hippocampus we have more control over it, and we can choose when or if to view it. When it is stuck on replay and activating the amygdala, we feel as if we are back in the trauma memory, and it feels like it has control over us.
If you want to read more in depth information on triggers and the trauma response have a look at my new book Psychosocial Support for Humanitarian Aid Workers, available from Amazon. Even though it focuses on Humanitarian Aid Workers, it is a guide for anyone who has been impacted by trauma.
If you would like any further help or support please visit: www.fionadunkley.com and/or www.FDconsultants.net or email: firstname.lastname@example.org