Let’s suffice it to say that 2020 has been a crappy year. I know many of you have experienced tragedy of one sort of another. Trauma and stress in our lives often create emotional triggers or ignite mental scars from the past. With COVID-19, the death of my dad, the fires that devastated my community and family health challenges at the forefront this year, my “triggers” feel like they’re firing off on all cylinders.
So, what exactly are “triggers”? In this article’s reference, triggers are external events or circumstances that may produce very uncomfortable emotional or psychological symptoms such as anxiety, panic, discouragement, despair or negative self-talk. Reacting to triggers is normal but recognizing, responding and managing them appropriately will help maintain balance and peace of mind.
Examples of triggers can include anniversary dates of losses or trauma; frightening news events; too much to do and feeling overwhelmed; family friction; the end of a relationship; spending too much time alone; being judged or criticized; financial problems; physical illness; sexual harassment; being exposed to someone who has treated you badly; aggressive noises, certain smells or tastes.
According to the American Psychological Association, triggers are typically more distressing when they come as a surprise. If we can anticipate a stressor, our brains can prepare, and we can talk to ourselves rationally. When we experience a trigger, the brain kicks off a complex process of self-protection that readies us for either fight, flight or freeze. Our adrenaline spikes and stress hormones course throughout the body. And once these stress hormones are released, we often lose touch with our healthy coping skills.
So what can we do when we experience a “trigger”?
- First, learn your primary stress marker. Experts say each of us has unique stress marker, in which one of three things jolts us into the fight, flight or freeze response:
- Increased heart rate
- Muscle tension
- Next, calm your body by trying one or a few of these strategies:
- Go somewhere quiet
- Clear your schedule
- Put your phone on airplane mode
- Write in a journal
- Do something active with your hands (baking, drawing, playing cards)
- Then, label your emotions without judgment. For most of us, your trigger is usually a reaction related to the themes of safety and security tied to another time in our lives where we felt similarly threatened and powerless.
- Do not give into avoidance. Psychologists say trying not to think about our traumatic events is very common but actually sets the stage for being triggered. Remember, what you resist persists. The more we push something down, the more force it has when it inevitably pops back up. The best course of action is to process those feelings with a trusted professional in a safe environment.
- Finally, correct your thinking about trauma. The long-term psychological impact of trauma lies in how it shapes our beliefs about other people, the world and ourselves. Our brain has a strong need to understand threat and often provides us “short-cuts” that allow us to push the pain down and out of awareness, like “No one can be trusted” or “I make bad decisions.” As a consequence, we become untrusting of others and ourselves. When we hold onto beliefs without processing past emotions, our nervous system can get stuck on high alert and can lead to an inability to relax, social isolation, fitful sleep and strained relationships.
With the upcoming elections and holidays, there may be more triggers still to come in 2020. By listening to our bodies and recognizing our primary stress marker, we can make strides to better cope with triggers.