Many people are familiar with the phenomenon of soldiers coming home from war with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When soldiers are triggered, they may experience flashbacks, memories, or panic attacks; this happens when something reminds them of a traumatic experience they have endured. Survivors of sexualized violence often experience PTSD symptoms and triggers in the same way, as both war and sexualized violence create similar imprints in the brain.
A trigger is something that sets off a memory tape or flashback, transporting the person back to the event of the original trauma and causing the individual to experience overwhelming emotions, physical symptoms or thoughts. The individual will react to this trigger with an emotional intensity similar to the time of the trauma.
Triggers cause survivors of sexualized violence (or any kind of trauma) to feel or behave in the same way they did during or immediately after the traumatic event because the brain does not differentiate what happened then from what is going on around them now.
To complicate matters, survivors may or may not realize that they have experienced a trigger and be confused about their feelings or behavior. Some symptoms of trauma triggers include:
- Sudden or unexplained bouts of crying
- Fear / paranoia / anxiety
- Panic attacks
- Sudden physical symptoms such as nausea or fatigue
- Irritability, intrusive thoughts, being easily startled, hyper-vigilance or other signs that your mind is on alert for trouble/danger
- Display of unhealthy coping mechanisms used during or after the attack(s)
Triggers are very personal; different things trigger different people. A person’s triggers are activated through one or more of the five senses: sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. Sensory memory can be extremely powerful, and sensory experiences associated with a traumatic event can cause an immediate emotional reaction that bypasses the reasoning part of our brain.
Although triggers are varied and diverse, they are often associated with a person’s senses. What might seem harmless to a person who is not triggered (for example, the smell of a particular flower, or seeing a certain colored car, etc.) could trigger an emotional reaction for a person whose brain has associated that thing with a traumatic experience. Some examples of ways people might experience triggers include:
- Often someone who resembles the abuser or who has similar traits or objects (i.e. clothing, hair color, distinctive walk)
- Any situation where someone else is being abused (i.e. anything from a raised eyebrow and verbal comment to actual physical abuse)
- The object that was used to abuse
- The objects that are associated with or were common in the household where the abuse took place (i.e. alcohol, piece of furniture, time of year)
- Any place or situation where the abuse took place (i.e. specific locations in a house, holidays, family events, social settings). This can sometimes even go as far as locations like the lake where the abuse or incident occurred, or entire cities or countries depending on intensity and duration of abuse (ex. experiencing childhood sexual abuse, then going to court/trial, media coverage…).
- Anything that sounds like anger (i.e. raised voices, arguments, bangs and thumps, something breaking)
- Anything that sounds like pain or fear (i.e. crying, whispering, screaming)
- Anything that might have been in the place or situation prior to, during, or after the abuse or reminds her/him of the abuse (i.e. sirens, foghorns, music, cricket chirping, car door closing)
- Anything that resembles sounds that the abuser made (i.e. whistling, footsteps, pop of can opening, tone of voice), accents or spoken language
- Words of abuse (i.e. cursing, labels, put-downs, specific words used)
- Pet names or whispered words the abuser used
- Anything that resembles the smell of the abuser (i.e. tobacco, alcohol, drugs, after shave, perfume)
- Any smells that resemble the place or situation where the abuse occurred (i.e. food cooking, wood, alcohol)
- Any type of touch or action that resembles the abuse or things that occurred prior to or after the abuse (i.e. certain physical touch, someone standing too close, petting an animal, the way someone approaches you)
- Tastes that were experienced during the abuse, prior to the abuse or after the abuse (i.e. certain foods, alcohol, tobacco)
With time, triggers become less meaningful and hold less power. The good news is that survivors can learn to identify and handle the symptoms of a trigger, perhaps eliminating them all together.
Grounding is one example of techniques used to help bring the person experiencing the symptoms of a trigger; this involves bringing the mind to focus on the present moment.
A simple way to do this is to do the 5 Senses Exercise:
- Name 5 things you can see in the room right now
- Name 4 things you can feel right now (feet on the floor, soft t-shirt)
- Name 3 things you can hear right now (TV, birds outside)
- Name 2 things you can smell now
- Name 1 good thing about yourself
If you feel that your life is being affected by triggers, feel free to contact us to set up a counselling appointment. Or, check out the “triggers” handout and “trigger log” in our Survivor’s Toolkit.