Triggers – Going Down To Trigger Town

The word trigger is overused these days. And because of that, most people don’t take it seriously when someone legitimately expresses that they have been triggered. Instead of its original meaning, which is being reminded of an event from the past, people now use the term to say that they are offended. That is not the same thing. Getting triggered is a terrible experience which can lead to flashbacks, to unhealthy behaviour and dangerous risk-taking.

What is a Trigger?

While a trigger can be a positive reminder of something that has happened in your past (think: the smell of fresh-baked cookies reminds you of Christmas at your grandmother’s), more often than not, the term describes being reminded of a traumatic situation. It can be a sound, a smell, a certain touch, a certain behaviour, a certain word, or a certain place. Anything can be a trigger. They are personal and linked to what you have have been through.

Everyone has things that remind them of bad events that they have been through. But for some, like me, triggers can lead to flashbacks, to suicidal behaviour, or to self-harm. Life can become a trigger-field. The most common response to that is avoidance, which is not healthy at all in the long run.

I have been through severe trauma during my childhood and as a result of that, and other traumatic events later in life, I suffer from mental illness. I also suffer from Bipolar Disorder, but that is not linked to my trauma. So as you might have guessed it. There are a lot of things that are triggers for me and that make my life pretty difficult.

My Triggers

Now, it is a bit odd, but sex is not a trigger for me. Physical pain is not a trigger for me. Although I had to endure severe sexual and physical abuse, I am fine with pain and sex. It is just sometimes, in very specific situations, that I get triggered during intimate moments. It can really go into two directions with someone who has been through sexual and physical childhood trauma: either they avoid sex and physical closeness, or they embrace it and even use their past to their advantage by being able to dissociate from or sexually enjoy physical pain. I definitely belong in the second category!

My triggers are different. I have some of the most common triggers that many people with trauma have: loud noises, darkness, being cornered. Those are pretty common triggers, But I have some triggers that are very much related to my personal trauma.

Conflict, People with Authority, Being Ignored

I can not deal with conflict. The moment someone tries to get into an argument with me or gets angry, I get extremely scared. I don’t mean uncomfortable, no, I get scared. I get afraid that I will get hurt, punished, beaten, punched and verbally abused. First I freeze and then I try to soothe whoever has started the argument (also called fawning).

While conflict sometimes can stay on a level of discomfort, expressions of anger and yelling are such huge triggers for me, that I start dissociating right away. My mind floats away and is not connected to my body anymore. I am far far away from reality, and everything around me gets blurry. It is my brain’s defense mechanism to threat. To me, anger, yelling and conflict, are threats. This trigger comes from my childhood where I lived in constant fear of my erratic, loud, yelling and violent father.

Another very specific trigger that I have are people of authority. I get absolutely anxious and scared when I am faced with someone who has authority over me, or who is in a position of power. And if they in any way question me, corner me with questions or try to make sure that I understand how little power I have in my connection with them, I panic. It is an absolute moment of terror. I feel as if they are going to hurt me, I feel unsafe, I feel like they might kill me. I can’t even accurately describe that specific feeling of dread and horror.

This kind of trigger makes me avoid doctors, for instance, It is definitely linked to the helplessness I felt as a child when being in the presence of my father, but also to doctors who have abused me, and the times I had to spend at the hospital as a child.

I also get easily triggered by being ignored when I am vulnerable. This can happen in many different ways. I could try to talk about myself and open up, and the person I am talking to, ignores me or seems distracted. It could also be in a sexual way: I am aroused and I express that state directly, but I am being ignored, laughed at, or even worse, they just walk away. When I was a teen, I was sexually abused by a bunch of jocks at my highschool. I am not going into detail, but it went on for months and part of it always included them laughing at my arousal, humiliating me when I was in a vulnerable position and ignoring my discomfort.

So while I am not triggered by pain, by sex, by reading, seeing or hearing about other people’s pain and trauma, I am triggered by specific behaviour. My triggers are personal to me and while I can ask for respect and not being ignored when being vulnerable, I can’t always avoid being triggered.

Handling my Triggers

Still, I am not one to blame others. A lot of times we can not control what triggers us, or when something triggers us. It often comes out of nowhere, and we are not prepared at all. And then we are suddenly in a flashback and re-experience a terrifying and overwhelming event. Even though it might seem impossible to control when and if I get triggered, there are some things I can do to at least decrease the possibility of a trigger causing a flashback.

I don’t engage with triggering people and I cut toxic people out of my life. As a result of that, I am not in touch with my abusers anymore and I also disengage from and cut out people from my life who are prone to sudden anger attacks, or like to threaten others. I decide who I want in my life. As much as I want to be good for others, the people in my life should be good for me too.

I avoid triggering situations. This can develop into unhealthy behaviour and I must admit that it has done that for me in certain cases, like avoiding doctors. But I can still avoid being vulnerable with unsafe people, for instance.

I am also trying to be generally less vulnerable by practicing self-care, so things don’t trigger me as much. There are safety plans for when a trigger hits me too sudden and I get dangerous urges. And I know how to handle a flashback and how to ground.

In the long run, to be able to not get bothered by a trigger anymore, I need to process the trauma that has planted that trigger inside my mind. But that seems quite impossible at this point, as I don’t have professional support. So all I can do is handle a trigger when it is happening, and hope it won’t throw me into a flashback. Such is the life of a trauma-survivor.

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4 Responses

  1. May says:

    Great post. I agree people throw in all over the place the phrase “that triggers me”- does it though? I know the definition and do get triggered – quite rare – but has happened. I am glad you are using self care to help – you are such an intelligent self aware person I feel it just has to get better for you on that front x

    • I am sorry to hear that you are also aware of that the true meaning of the term trigger entails. Thanks for your kind words, as always, May. We’ll see, hope is not the strongest of my emotions, but somehow I am always getting through the days.

  2. SB4MH says:

    This is indeed a very good post. I’m detecting a general reaction against the over broad use of the term triggering. It’s been appropriated and as a consequence I know it can be thought of as lessening the experience of those with more severe triggers.

    As you (and others) point out, we all have triggers since it’s a sensory cue for memory. For most people these are good memories, grandma’s cookies is great example. It’s the reliving of trauma memories that we really mean when using the word.

    There are plenty of common words and situations that many will describe as triggering and it’s on us to be aware and sensitive in their use, that’s not to say that with appropriate sensitivity they can’t be used and discussed. I do tend to find that those who can be triggered are the first to defend talking about them, provided they have the option to participate or not depending on how they feel.

    Then there are the seemingly innocuous everyday words, phrases and tones that will affect someone. Timing and mood are other factors, what triggers one day may be ignored most other timings. I’ve been in discussions with friends and suddenly realised something has gone wrong. Like you explain here, they tend not to blame because it’s part of understanding and coping with the traumas.

    I do love the way you write about such things. I almost always read a strain of hope in your posts about reaching your own accommodations with the traumas – and yes, I have read your response to May.

    melody x

    • Gosh, thank you so much for your really thoughtful and kind comment! I think it is the same with a lot of terms, their original meaning changes. That leaves a confusing, especially if its scope of meaning has broadened. I don’t mind when people use the word “trigger”, as long as they are aware of what they are saying with it. Oh oh, the postmodern age and the deconstruction of terms, haha.

      Whenever I think of the word trigger, I think of Marcel Proust’s “In the Search of Lost Time”, where he describes the memory of a Madeline cake!

      Oh, there are certain things that are triggering to a lot of people: talking about sexual abuse, self-harm, blood, violence, that sort of thing. And then there is also expressions of anger, and loud noises. I think all those are very common triggers, and most people are aware of that and are careful when it comes to sharing stuff about those things. It first becomes tricky when the triggers are very personal and related to one’s own trauma!

      I think there is a responsibility in all of us, to make sure that the people we are close to, are aware of hard triggers we have. it is okay to say that things like hugs or yelling are not okay for us. But we also need to learn to handle being triggered and there are so many things that can be done! You know, I still don’t think there is a lot of hope in me, I am just very self-aware, and that might trick people into thinking I can do this, and be okay. It is actually way more complicated when you are self-aware and you have the tools, and you use them, and things are still quite terrible. I am still going for moments. If I get through hard moments, then sometimes I can experience lovely moments, too!

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