A survivor might be able to escape a violent partner. But they may experience traumatic stress afterward, including triggers, or unsettling sensory reminders of previous trauma.
“A trigger is some form of stimuli that would precipitate a recollection from a person’s past that impacted one of their senses,” explains Mark D. Lerner, Ph.D., a clinical and forensic psychologist, traumatic stress consultant and author of It’s OK Not To Be OK … Right Now: How to Live Through a Traumatic Experience.
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Triggers come in many forms, though experts categorize them as internal triggers (like a thought, feeling, memory, emotion or bodily sensation) and external triggers (like a situation, people, locations, conversations or an observation). Some triggers might be obvious, such as hearing a heated argument or seeing violence, while others may take time to identify and understand.
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Common Triggers and Reactions
Triggers are very personal and it is difficult to predict whether a person will experience them and what those triggers may be. For survivors of domestic violence, many things can be triggers, but here are a few examples:
- Certain sounds, such as yelling, glass breaking, a door slamming.
- Witnessing a couple arguing.
- Sights from locations where they were attacked—as minute as a tile or fabric pattern.
- The smell of an attacker’s cologne or perfume.
- A specific color, pattern or style of clothing that their abuser often wore.
- The taste of blood in the mouth.
- The close proximity of another person, especially a male.
- Touch from another person, such as a hug or a pat on the back. (Read here about safe ways to hug a survivor that don’t trigger fear), or even just placing a hand on someone’s arm.
- Questions or comments made innocently enough by someone else, that a survivor’s controlling abuser used to make, such as “What did you do today?” or “Who are you talking to on the phone?”
- Anniversaries of dates specific to the couple.
A survivor could also be triggered by the anniversary of a significant date, a news report about domestic violence or seeing someone who reminds them of their attacker.
When a trigger happens, survivors shouldn’t be surprised if a memory replays in their mind and that survivor undergoes the full range of emotions or physical reactions that he or she associated with that experience, such as panic/anxiety, nausea, crying, irritability, being startled, fear and paranoia. Past trauma is powerful and it is not uncommon for a survivor’s response to be equally strong.
Working Through Triggers
Some triggers might be easy to avoid, like not driving by your old home. But what can survivors do to work through triggers that aren’t so simple to avoid?
Be prepared that triggers can, and will, happen. “It’s important for people to realize that it’s OK not to be OK,” Lerner says. After enduring the trauma of domestic violence, it will take time, even years for some, to get to a point where certain sights, smells and sounds don’t trigger a stressful event. And, triggers can occur for years after the trauma, so you shouldn’t necessarily be alarmed if something triggers you after you have been free from the violence for some time.
Catch triggers early. When you learn what your triggers are, you might be able to catch your response in the moment. Lerner uses a snowball analogy: If you have a small snowball in your hand, you can crush it fairly easily. But once you roll it around for a while, it becomes too large to smash.
“Our thoughts are the same way,” he says. If you can catch yourself at the first sign of a trigger, you can better manage the situation.
Talk it out. While different strategies work for different people, Lerner says, one thing that has been shown to be helpful across the board is talking about your thoughts and feelings. That can be with a close friend or family member, a spiritual leader, mental health professional or someone else you trust.
Find a positive sensory experience. Just as certain sights or sounds might incite panic, others can calm you down. Explore positive sensory input that can help you combat the effects of a trigger. Try different inputs, like petting an animal, putting on your favorite song or inhaling a relaxing scent when you begin to feel overwhelmed, and see what works for you.
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