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by the Crisses

What is a Trigger?

A trigger is anything (an event, object, smell, food, etc.) that sets off an autonomic nervous system reaction of some type, because the trigger can be anything the body (yes body) takes as a signal that is a precursor to trouble and sets off an automatic autonomic (metabolic/nervous system) reaction.

Usually what TYPE of trigger is implied by context but can be specified (examples: allergy trigger, anxiety trigger, panic trigger…), and is dependent on the type of nervous system reaction the trigger causes.

How do multiples react to (PTSD) triggers?

Trigger events can cause symptoms such as sensory or emotional flashback reactions in someone who has (C-)PTSD, DID, or other similar conditions. Triggers are entirely subjective, often centered around something seemingly innocuous, and usually dependent on what the trauma in question is/was (see below), although they can become "generalized" -- i.e. a trigger for a wartime veteran can be from gunfire or a mine or grenade exploding but can generalize to any loud noise and cause an automatic nervous system reaction. It doesn't have to be exactly the same (no matter what anyone THINKS — this is a nervous system reaction, not a thought issue).

Important enough to repeat: There's a pervasive myth that triggers are in the brain-mind but, no, they're in the brain-body-nervous system connection — deep in our basic-survival-brain, not our thought-brain.

How are triggers formed? Why do they sometimes seem so disconnected from trauma?

Usually a trigger is something generally “innocent” but the nervous system has tagged as “Oh crap! What comes next is bad so quick harden our defenses!” We have an anxiety trigger from the smell of coffee — it raises our anxiety level because our emotionally manipulative egg donor used to brew a full 10-12 cup pot every day.

Unfortunately triggers can be cumulative. Just like immune reactions to allergy triggers, etc. — anxiety triggers can build up to an anxiety attack, etc. So every day if we smell coffee, our anxiety level starts to go up cumulatively every day. Our nervous system thinks something bad will happen eventually, so every day that passes we get more hypervigilant, more activated, more "Ready", more defensive, more on-edge. Eventually we're just having anxiety attacks and a hair-trigger away from panic attacks.

Note that some people tend towards panic attacks. We tend towards anxiety attacks. And we're certain different systems, and different headmates, can have different reactions to panic (see Panic Reactions New).

The chart above shows how our nervous system, as part of PTSD, reacts after trauma to try to find a predictor of trauma to look for in the future. It wants to protect us — that's our amygdala's job (the panic regulation portion of our brain). It will try to find something — sometimes several things — in the minutes before the more dramatic traumatic impacts to focus on.

This goes way back to the animal brain. When the leaves rustle in the bushes, freeze! Because it might be a tiger.

It’s really that simple. Whatever might be a precursor for danger is catalogued not in the mind, but in the brain stem and in the spinal cord.

Our egg donor was emotionally manipulative, every day she’d make a pot of coffee (and have however many cigarettes). Our brain asssociates coffee with emotional crap, so coffee is an anxiety trigger and leaves us hyper vigilant. Because when she was crappy, there was always coffee around. Our nervous system picked up “coffee” smell as a predictor of emotional abuse. It was always there when she was.

But it wasn't "that bad"…

Trauma is trauma. Our brain/amygdala doesn’t make a distinction between emotional, mental, physical etc. trauma — ego death or loss of innocence is as violative and traumatizing as far as the brain cares.

And also there's the issues of intermittent conditioning. Even though we might be in another house and smell coffee without follow-up trauma, the fact that it happened intermittently our body chose to prep for pain regardless because of intermittent reinforcement. Just in case. And if it had stopped completely it might have eventually unlearned it. Intermittent issues make it harder to get rid of the trigger.

Somatic Processing Issues

It is very difficult to "deprogram" triggers with “just talk” therapy. So cognitive-behavioral therapy and other talk therapies tend to be the least effective, where other more visceral and somatic or brain-oriented therapies (polyvagal, EMDR, ART - accelerated resolution therapy, Revisioning - which targets the mirror neuron network in the brain, somatic experiencing, etc. are more effective with triggers in general — for those doing self-help work try EFT - emotional freedom technique) are more effective for deprogramming triggers.

How can we discover triggers?

In multiples, decyphering triggers so that they can be diffused can be tricky business because of such generalizations. It can help to actually catalogue when you get activated — just like you might look for food allergies with a food diary — and try to figure out what in the environment may have prompted the reaction.

Then to figure out the trauma associated with the trigger — you play Sherlock Holmes and look at all the evidence (the reactions the trigger caused, any sensory or emotional flashbacks, etc.) and try to figure out what triggered y'all and what trauma it came from so the trigger & trauma can be processed (generally in therapy though there are some other potential methods).

How to avoid triggers?

Tricky, sometime you can — sometimes you can't. Usually what folk end up doing is eliminating the triggers as much as possible until they're able to process the trauma.

Does exposure therapy work?

Exposure therapy is great for phobias. Trauma triggers are not phobias. Please do not allow your therapist to use exposure therapy for trauma — stop them and ask them to please research using exposure therapy with C-PTSD & DID before they proceed.

Exposure therapy works well when a phobia trigger is "irrational" — i.e. the person is afraid of a critter even though they have never met that critter before in their life (to their knowledge). Then it may help a lot. But with trauma — it really happened. Your brain and body KNOWS it's a problem. Exposing you repeatedly to a trigger (or the trauma) is not helpful and can cause other trauma reenactments, flooding of flashbacks, and devolving into panic and crisis.

How are triggers (& trauma) processed?

That said there are methods that involve processing traumas and/or triggers that you may carefully and slowly visualize the trigger or the trauma while processing it with the trained professional in order to deprogram the trigger & work on the trauma. So long as they know how these methods work for DID or C-PTSD rather than one-incident PTSD you should be good. Please double-check that they are aware of any changes in their methods needed to compensate for intertwined layers of trauma, and make sure that trauma-processing appointments are alternated with stabilization appointments.

There are other methods of working on trauma: Revisioning, Somatic Experiencing, Polyvagal therapy, Soul Retrieval (shamanism), etc. And one method we know of that y'all can learn and use on your own — but requires modifications as mentioned above for C-PTSD & DID — called EFT or emotional freedom technique. Make sure to practice on other things than trauma until you learn the modifications needed for working with chronic trauma.

Unrelated Innocuous Triggers vs. Retraumatization

Ok, we realize we haven't addressed the difference between these triggers which seem innocent vs. actually re-experiencing a traumatic event and it does bear saying. So -- for us coffee smell is an innocuous trigger. The coffee did not harm us, it was just omnipresent when our abuser was present.

However, being emotionally blackmailed again would be another issue. Whether or not coffee (or the egg donor) is present, someone attempting to be manipulative in this way is actually re-experiencing a trauma event again. And as such, it's going to throw our nervous system into an immediate panic or anxiety attack, not just hypervigilance or a slow escalation pattern awaiting a possible future trauma. It's happening, it's real, it's in now-time, so it's going to arm all defenses immediately and come entirely online all at once.

Some may say they were triggered, we prefer the term "activated" for when there's an active reexperiencing event going on. There's some wiggly grey areas in between where enough triggers may cause a panic reaction activation, or where you may be threatened with reexperiencing trauma that immediately activates your system into full (or more full) defenses.

This is not a 'trigger' just becoming active — this is 'retraumatization' and a full panic reaction. You can usually debrief after the fact and come to describe your experiences (after time) with any needed nuances and these are all just words for experiences that aren't strictly defined. But it's important to notice that there is a difference in an escalation of hypervigilance, versus an actual system panic/emergency lockdown. The real important thing is being able to recover and being able to put some type of words to what happened so you can get help, and so that you can process the new experiences and put them away — even if you can't process and put away the original experiences in long-term memory storage yet.


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