Triggers are cues (reminders) present in a situation that can activate symptoms of trauma. These traumatic symptoms can include re-living painful experiences (also known as ‘flashbacks’). More common but less well-known trauma symptoms also include dissociation, hypervigilance, and sleeping problems.

A trigger can be anything you sense that reminds your unconscious mind of the original traumatic experience. It could be sensed via touch, smell, a sound, something you see (etc). It is possible to notice the symptoms (e.g. racing heart, feeling light-headed) without recognising a particular trigger.

Triggering can happen very fast and this makes it difficult to anticipate, even if you know that you have triggers. This means, if trauma is relevant for you, sometimes the most you can do is recognise when triggering has occurred and take steps to recover.

Symptoms of trauma

Trauma symptoms can be fleeting – to a certain extent, they are a normal response to overwhelming experiences, just as grief is a normal response to loss or major life changes. So you can have some of these without having PTSD, but if they last for more than 2 weeks and cause you distress, you might want to get an expert assessment.

  • Behavioural: agitation, irritability, hostility, hypervigilance, self-destructive behaviour, or social isolation
  • Psychological: flashback, fear, severe anxiety, or mistrust, emotional detachment or unwanted thoughts
  • Mood: loss of interest or pleasure in activities, guilt, or loneliness
  • Sleep: insomnia or nightmares

Handling triggers

  • Learn what your triggers are and what it feels like when your symptoms are activated
  • Anticipate (if possible)
  • Recognise
  • Respond with compassion
  • Recover (see next topic)
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