In its simplest definition a "trigger" is the "cause" in a cause-and-effect reaction. In terms of PTSD, a trigger is a sensory input or situation that elicits an unwarranted autonomic PTSD reaction such as intrusive thoughts, anxiety, flashbacks, etc.
How do you know when something is a trigger for you? What types of triggers are there?
Usually you know because of how you react. But reactions to triggers vary overall and on a trigger-by-trigger basis. You can have stronger and weaker responses to triggers. For example a very strong reaction may be a full-sensory flashback, and a weaker reaction could be nausea or somewhat heightened anxiety.
Triggers are created when our brain associates what happened immediately before a traumatic episode with the trauma itself. Thus when these events happen again, the nervous system prepares for the trauma to happen by reacting with anxiety, warning flashbacks, defensiveness, or panic reactions. So while many triggers make complete sense and are directly associated with the precursors to traumatic events, some triggers are not directly associated.
One of our more absurd triggers is the smell of coffee. We don't drink coffee, and when we smell a typical Columbian brew it makes our skin tingle and heightens our anxiety. If we are subjected to the smell of coffee on a daily basis for weeks, it wears us down and we end up in a heightened state of alertness over time, ready to defend ourselves, alert for trouble. We have identified the cause because our egg donor would brew coffee daily, and her method of abuse is long-term insidious manipulation and emotional blackmailing. So the longer we're exposed to the trigger the more our system is reminded of her whittling us down, undermining our security, searching for vulnerabilities to exploit, and using us for her own aims. We were fine for decades, because no one really drank coffee around us. Even when we got a roommate who drank iced coffee daily, she almost always brewed it while we were asleep. Then our partner decided to start having coffee daily and we had to smell it every day, especially in the morning — just like our egg donor. We got more and more sensitive, ready to explode. We didn't realize it until it was too late and our other triggers were heightened, and we were having unwarranted episodes of being highly emotional, stressed, anxious, looking for trouble, etc. Once identified, our partner switched to hazelnut coffee, and the problem went away. Hazelnut coffee smells nothing like a Columbian brew. Issue solved. -- The Crisses
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For more information on working with triggers see our podcast episode Trigger Topics: Conformity (004) New.
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