When someone has experienced trauma, they are very often left with residual and long-lasting effects. One of these effects is what we commonly call ‘triggers.’ A trigger is essentially an instinctual response based on external stimuli that associate with the trauma a person has experienced. Any sensation (such as smell, sound, or touch), situation or reminder could bring about such a response. As you might imagine, this makes triggers very unpredictable and potentially scary for the trauma survivor. Imagine never knowing when you might be suddenly compelled to run away, cry, scream or attack. Many trauma survivors live with this uncertainty every day.
If you have a loved one, client or fellow church member who experiences being triggered, it may seem very scary for you as well. You want to be helpful, and you certainly don’t want to make things worse. Let’s explore some triggers that are common to trauma survivors in order to help you better understand and come toward someone in their moment of need.
What’s happening when a person is triggered?
When a person is triggered, an automatic bodily system kicks into gear. The body and brain communicate with each other in a split second, indicating that danger is imminent. A trauma survivor doesn’t have to be in actual danger for this system to kick in. When the brain perceives an indicator that is similar enough to the trauma itself, it will do its job to protect the body from harm.
Here’s an example: let’s say you were bit by a snake when you were young. Then as an adult you are walking through the woods with friends and spot something long and thin on the path ahead. You immediately feel a burst of adrenaline and have an instinct to run away, even before you know whether a snake is on the path. That’s a trigger. Your instinct to run supersedes your logical decision-making.
When trauma occurs, the senses pick up sharp details about the environment. Those sensations are recorded in the brain for the purpose of future protection. That’s why a survivor of combat trauma might react strongly when a car backfires, even though he knows there are no guns or bombs in his vicinity. The response is automatic.
Here are some other things to know about triggers. These experiences are highly unique to every individual. Just as we cannot predict when triggers will occur, we cannot create a list of triggers that every survivor is likely to experience. In addition, something that triggers a person at one time may never disturb her again. You can imagine how maddening this can feel to survivors – never being able to avoid the triggers completely because there is no discernable pattern.
Finally, it’s important to note that triggers often happen in public settings. This means that the survivor inadvertently draws attention to herself in the moment of disruption, which can be embarrassing and can even amplify the fight/flight response.
What are some common triggers?
Trauma survivors can be triggered by all kinds of things. Sometimes a person is triggered by being touched (especially in a way that is similar to a touch experienced during trauma), and sometimes loud noise or large crowds can trigger a fight/flight response. Many trauma survivors are triggered by specific smells, tastes or sounds, as well as situations and locations that remind them of their trauma.
Remember that a trigger is a response to something that reminds the survivor of his or her trauma, which means that the fight/flight response is activated in the same way it was activated during the trauma itself. So in any way that a person may respond to a traumatic event, they may also respond to triggers. A common response may be to withdraw or detach from people and situations, which is a ‘flight’ response. If a person’s ‘fight’ response kicks in, he may use words or actions to exert himself toward getting safe. Examples could be yelling, hitting, running, etc. If a person’s ‘freeze’ response kicks in, he may feel numb or unable to move or think.
No matter how a person is triggered, there are some specific ways you can approach them in order to support them and help slow down their body’s automatic responses. I recommend that you stay calm and seek to move and speak slowly. Do not touch them without permission, and ask them how you can serve them. Attune to their needs and remind them that you are there to provide support. I also recommend that you follow up with them after the trigger has subsided. This encourages the person that you want to continue to be a safe person and serve them in whatever way you are able.
Finally, compassion is paramount when someone is triggered. The survivor needs empathy and support above all, and any friend, neighbor, co-worker or loved one can be that supportive person.
As we think about the reality of triggers, we need to be aware that God is highly attuned to people’s fears and panic. We can point people to passages of scripture in which Jesus calms the storm (Luke 8:22-25), when Jesus comforts and encourages the disciples after he rises from the dead (John 21), and when Jesus heals the woman with a discharge of blood (Luke 8:43-48). In all these passages (and many more), Jesus shows compassion and care for people in the midst of their distress. He is the Great Shepherd, and we are meant to model our care after His own.