When Trauma is Triggered

aces study coach complex ptsd continuing education growthmindset intergenerational trauma life coach mental health mental health matters ptsd trauma coach trauma coaching trauma triggers Nov 30, 2022


When Trauma is Triggered

 by Athena Phillips, LCSW

The word "triggered" has become synonymous with being "upset" in that the term is being used somewhat flippantly in day-to-day language. There is an upside to terms being integrated into how we talk in that it shines a light on an issue that had otherwise been less visible, however it simultaneously can water down the reality of an experience. I thought I would write something that clarifies what a trauma trigger is, how to identify, and how to respond when the present has been clouded with the past.  


So, what is a trauma trigger and when is trauma triggered?


A trauma trigger is anything in the here and now that causes an interpretation of the present as being the same as a traumatic memory. Sometimes a trigger can result in a full-blown flashback, which is essentially is a re-experiencing of past trauma. Flashbacks can include all kinds of stimuli that originated in memories and often encompass a whole-body experience. Flashbacks can be quite distressing, disorienting, and confusing. So can triggers.



Wikipedia has a nice definition of a trauma trigger as well. Here is the link:





What does a trauma trigger look like?


It can look or feel like anything. Traumatic memories live in the nervous system in different places and in different ways than other kinds of memories. Certain parts of the brain are holding memory fragments that are toxic and painful. These fragments encompass sensory information, frozen images, and body memories that typically do not have a start -to -finish type of narrative attached. These shards of memory tend to be the related sensory experiences in the present that activate the past.


If you want to know more about the brain structures involved in trauma, here is a link to an academic article released by the National Institute of Health. It talks about the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex and their roles in PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.





Examples of trauma triggers can include:


Smells, tastes, or textures

Memories of smells, tastes, or textures


Times of day, and times of year

A physical sensation of any kind


Certain kinds of interactions

Perceived abandonment

People being kind

People being unkind


Medical procedures or medical settings

Being surprised

Being forced to listen to someone

Being in a crowded place

Being in an empty place

Being alone

Being with people

Being in love

Someone else's discomfort

Being dismissed, ignored, or not listened to


I could go on and on. Because a trigger can be anything.


And, they can cause us to view the present through a distorted lens that causes us to anticipate or inaccurately perceive threat.


Triggers are not irrelevant. They are essentially a form of learning and are designed to prevent history from repeating itself. They are one way in which the body is attempting to keep us safe.


However, they can increase risk to the body, to relationships and mental health over time. They cause distress, fear, anger, interpersonal strife, isolation, and avoidance of triggers. They can contribute to the overarching social contraction that happens in response to the emotional exertion required to engage with the world after trauma. Sometimes it's just easier to stay home and be alone.


Being able to identify, manage and even use trauma triggers as an avenue towards recovery is ideal. Let's break this down.



How do I know when I or my client is triggered?


  1. Triggers tend to be patterned. Being angered when you perceive being ignored or slighted, struggling more during "traumaversary" periods, or times of year that are reminiscent of the past, or becoming agitated in busy places.  


Patterns of upset that feel confusing, bigger, or smaller emotions than the circumstances call for, certain sounds that cause distress or anger, or connection being both desired and terrifying are other examples of how triggers occur thematically.


*Note: If you believe a loved one or a client is triggered, it is not your place to identify that. Saying "you're just triggered right now" will likely escalate the situation. Take care of yourself and give them the space to come to their own conclusions.


  1. Does the response match the level of risk or safety in the situation? Are certain circumstances avoided that might be mundane to others, such as going to the grocery store, being touched on the shoulder, or driving in a car?


Do you notice that you or client angers easily or is excessively fearful of things that otherwise do not pose a threat?


Trauma can cause us to generalize threat and extend the perception of risk to situations that are, for the most part, safe.


Of equal import is when the response to actual threats or loss of some kind is met with little or no emotion. This too, can be categorized a trigger. Feeling nothing or very little is a dissociative response that allows us to separate from pain. This is a critical survival skill in the context of overwhelming events.


However, when the event does not pose catastrophic emotional or physical risk, but your client is responding with an emotional void, they could potentially be triggered.


  1. Once my client is aware of what their triggers are, what do I do?


I like to advise people to develop a "trigger list."


Write down what they are.


Write down current events that tend to activate triggers.


Describe how they are typically responded to.


Describe the preferred response.


Write down how current circumstances are distinctive from the past (without going into the trauma memories). Just the facts, ma'am. Stay in the present.


Identify strengths and capacities that already exist that can support working towards the desired response. Everybody has something unique to build on.


Have a plan for times when one is going to knowingly be exposed to a situation that may activate history.


And remember, give grace. Triggers are a normal response to trauma.


Thank you for taking the time to read! I hope the article was helpful








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