Triggers - cause and coping
What exactly do we mean by a trigger? Why does it hold so much importance when talking about a range of mental health issues?
Dictionary definition - ´A trigger is an event that is the cause of a particular action, process or situation’.
A trigger doesn’t automatically mean it is a bad thing. A trigger can be either a negative or a positive thing. The main thing to remember is that it is how we learn to cope and deal with the triggers impacts on whether we enjoy positive or negative mental health. We can’t eliminate all triggers nor would we want to as some are reminders of enjoyable experiences. What we need to do is remove the bad ones and focus on the good ones.
For instance if, like me, you love chocolate, walking past a chocolate aisle in a supermarket triggers something in my brain that says “buy me, eat me”. This can be a positive trigger if we really enjoy the moment when eating a bar, or a negative trigger if you are weight conscious and immediately have feeling of guilt afterwards. At the end of the day we are in control and we have the power to resist buying the chocolate if we recognise that we will feel guilty or bad if we succumb.
Obviously not all triggers are this black or white or as easy to control. Some are so deeply rooted in our pasts that we are not aware we even have a problem until something ‘triggers’ that memory causing panic, anxiety, guilt, repulsion, flashbacks or sudden darkness in our moods. These are usually caused by historic trauma from our childhood. Once we have uncovered this memory the likelihood of linking it to the specific trigger is something that, if allowed, can take control of our life for years to come. The triggers can be identified in many forms - for some it could be a certain smell, for others is could be a certain sound, for others being in a crowded room and for others it could be walking in the countryside. These triggers will be unique to each person according to their own experiences.
How then do we work with these triggers and take control of our emotions when faced unexpectedly with one?
Learning to take care of ourselves is paramount if we are to enjoy positive mental health. So learning to identify what is a ‘trigger’ for you and learning how to protect yourself from it is a really powerful thing that you can learn to do for yourself.
There are many ways in which you can do this, for example...
If the sound of thunder terrifies you or triggers specific memories try and remove yourself from the sound. You could play some music really loudly, or try an concentrate on something else like getting on the phone and talking to a friend, or make yourself a drink and really focus on what you are doing in the here and now rather than the past. Or you can focus on breathing exercises which help to calm and diminish panic.
At this stage of your healing journey this may all sound too simplistic or maybe you don’t feel safe enough to try on your own. There are many therapists that are experienced in working with triggers and teaching clients how to ground themselves by using different techniques so that you can learn where the triggers stem from and how take back control.
Not every technique will work for every person so if one doesn’t feel as if it is working for you don’t give up as there are plenty more. Try to remain positive and allow yourself the time and space so that you can find the one that will work for you. Give yourself permission to feel and stay with your emotions – it is okay to get upset or feel angry and remember you matter and do deserve to feel well and enjoy a positive and fulfilled life.
Please do not be afraid to ask for help – your therapist will not judge you.