Responding To Trauma Triggers

What they are and how you can help

by Melanie Ferguson

Trauma triggers are experiences that remind someone of a traumatic event. They can involve anything from sensory memories like smells or sounds to certain places, people, activities, or conversations. Triggers may be expected or unexpected, conscious or unconscious. Responses to triggers can vary greatly, but may be:

  • Physical (shortness of breath, heart racing, muscle tension, nausea)
  • Emotional (anger, irritability, fear, anxiety, shame, depression, feeling numb)
  • Hyperarousal (easily startled, insomnia, feeling on edge, trouble concentrating)
  • Avoidance, withdrawal, dissociation (“spacing out”), an urge to flee or escape

Trauma therapy often involves identifying triggers, learning to cope with them, and decreasing their intensity. Here are some ways individuals and churches can help:

  • Remember that triggers are normal responses to abnormal (traumatic) experiences.
  • Learn to be okay with anger. While certain behaviors in response to anger may be unacceptable, trauma survivors need space to feel and express intense emotions.
  • Support trauma survivors in accessing qualified, trauma-informed mental health professionals.
  • Recognize that recovery is a journey unique to each individual survivor. There is no “right” amount of time for people to “get over” their trauma triggers.
  • Consider that triggers can be sudden, intense, and unexpected for trauma survivors. Maintain a flexible and supportive attitude as someone responds to a trigger.
  • Set healthy boundaries. Sometimes trauma survivors respond to triggers in ways that may be emotionally or physically harmful to others. Adopting a compassionate and nonjudgmental response does not mean putting yourself in harm’s way.
  • Be mindful of physical boundaries—touch can be incredibly triggering for someone whose personal space has been violated as part of a trauma

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