Updated: Oct 16, 2021
A trauma trigger is caused by the previous experience of a traumatic event. A trigger can be just about anything. One of the types of triggers people most easily recognize is fireworks and other loud noises triggering people who have been in combat to remember combat situations and react as if they were happening in that moment. Triggers may also be other sounds, sights, smells, tastes or textures that are connected with a traumatic event – for instance, a song that was playing when the event happened, or a scent worn by an attacker. Other possibilities are a location where an event happened, or a date or time of day when it happened. Any or all of these types of triggers are valid and reasonable.
The stereotypical portrayal of a trigger is that it causes a flashback, where a person thinks they are back in the moment where the traumatic event happened. This is one possible outcome, but there are other trigger responses which, while seen by many as “less extreme,” can still be extremely difficult and distressing. Some triggers might cause anxiety or panic attacks. Others might cause emotional responses, such as sadness or anger, which might come for no apparent reason or might be a valid response to present events but at a much stronger level than would be expected. Some might cause a person to act in ways they did at a younger age. Any or all of these responses to being triggered are valid and reasonable.
If you have been through trauma, you may have triggers. Sometimes it may be easy for you to tell what triggered you and how it affected you, but at other times it may be more difficult – for instance, sometimes you only realize you have been triggered when you become aware that your emotional responses don’t seem to make sense to you. Once you realize you are being triggered and are able to figure out what is triggering you, you can consider how to deal with that information.
There are no “silly” or “stupid” triggers. Some people may think if a trigger doesn’t fit with common clichés of triggers, it’s not really valid. Some people may think if the response to a trigger isn’t a complete disconnect from reality, it isn’t a big deal. Both of these things are not true. Triggers can be anything. And they also bring forth a variety of reactions.
A personal example for me is that I used to be triggered by the colour pink. (Skip this paragraph if mentions of CSA (childhood sexual abuse) may be triggering.) That idea might sound ridiculous. While I don’t believe anyone owes anyone an explanation, I would like to share a brief explanation because I think it may help someone to understand how a colour could be a trigger (please note this is only my personal experience, and is not necessarily why someone else may have a colour trigger.) For me, the walls in the room where I was sexually abused as a child were pink. Those walls were what I focused on when I was enduring something horrific. For the longest time, seeing that shade of pink would make me feel panicked, like I couldn’t breathe and like I could feel his hands on my thighs. Seeing that colour brought my brain back to a time when I was surrounded by that colour during a traumatic experience.
When it comes to handling triggers, there are different ways to work on them. These include exposure therapy, or relaxation techniques to calm yourself when triggers happen, that allow you to cope more effectively. While exposure therapy can be beneficial, it can be a lot of work and can take an emotional toll. In some cases, it might be worth considering whether avoiding the trigger is a better response for you. While avoiding a trigger will not get rid of it, it might make more sense depending on the trigger. For example, if something is a trigger you're going to see frequently (possibly even daily), it might be worth considering something like exposure therapy (with a trained and trusted professional) because avoiding that trigger in such a circumstance seems near impossible and likely to cause you significant distress. On the other hand, if a trigger is something you are unlikely to see often, or perhaps which only comes up once a year, avoiding the trigger might be the way to go. In this case, it is still recommended to work on relaxation and grounding techniques to cope more effectively when triggers do arise. At the end of the day, you are the one who should decide how to handle your healing and triggers and only you can determine what's best for you.
I do also want to point out that pink is now my favourite colour - so you know that there is hope that triggers can be overcome. They might not necessarily become your favourite thing, but they can become manageable.
Know that your triggers are valid, and are not a sign of being weak.
Here is a worksheet on triggers if you are interested.