Black male adult with head in hands after experiencing a trauma trigger.

From a Therapist: How to Deal with Trauma Triggers

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If you’ve experienced trauma in your life, you may also have experienced triggers that remind you of that trauma, causing distress and other negative emotions. Learning how to deal with trauma triggers can help you improve your reactions and your overall well-being. Mariam Saibu, CDBT, LPC, CRC, LCDC, CTP, a SonderMind clinician, shares her insights on trauma triggers and how therapy from SonderMind can help. 

Understanding trauma triggers 

According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), a trigger is a stimulus (stressor, action, situation) that has the ability to cause an adverse emotional reaction.  An example of an emotional trigger could be intense sadness when observing a healthy marital relationship due to being a survivor of domestic abuse.

Not everyone with trauma will develop clinical manifestations and triggers.1  However, individuals with clinical manifestations of trauma will most likely have triggers. The amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex are three brain areas that we could use to explain why individuals with trauma react to triggers:

  • The amygdala is responsible for reacting to danger
  • The hippocampus helps with memory storage, among other functions
  • The prefrontal cortex is responsible for complex behavior and emotional functioning

Individuals who experience trauma tend to have an overactive amygdala, so they have exaggerated responses to triggers. Since their memory retrieval is disorganized, they have a problem remembering important parts of traumatic events or relive them. Because the prefrontal cortex shuts down when triggered, they have a hard time with effective responses to non-harmful triggers. 

Therefore, when a person gets triggered, a stick can look like a snake because their prefrontal cortex is shut down and is not able to identify that the stick is actually just a stick. There is a “disruption in the normal threat response.” 

Responding to triggered trauma 

According to Melanie Heard (creator of Dialectic Behavior Therapy with Prolonged Exposure), some of the emotional responses that we see in people with trauma include:

  • Emotional flooding (being overwhelmed by intense emotions)
  • Emotional numbing (not being able to feel emotions)
  • Emotional dyscontrol (poorly regulated emotion)
  • Rigid behaviors (inflexible behaviors despite consequence)
  • Desperate needs to connect with people
  • Detached dependence (difficulty connecting with people)

Physiological responses would include the Criterion D symptoms that we see in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM), which is the tool clinicians use to diagnose mental health disorders. This could include emotional outbursts, hypervigilance, feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, numbness, dissociation, sleep disturbance, and exaggerated responses to stimuli.

Coping with trauma triggers through professional help 

Therapy is a great avenue for an individual to learn about their trauma and corresponding effects to their daily lives. Individuals can use this knowledge to build a relationship with their trauma and create a life based on their respective values. 

In addition, therapeutic interventions such as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) can help an individual use healthy coping skills to respond to those triggers instead of reacting to them. Other interventions such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy can help individuals desensitize those triggers in a therapeutic environment so they no longer react to them.

If you’d like to talk to a therapist to help you better deal with trauma triggers, SonderMind can connect you to a mental health professional trained in trauma-informed care to help you identify and cope with trauma triggers, and meet your unique therapy goals. Let us know a little bit about yourself and what you’re looking for, and we’ll connect you with someone who meets your needs within 48 hours. 

Last Updated:
First Published:
July 14, 2023
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