Coping with Triggers

A “trigger” is something which reminds you of something painful, frightening, dangerous or upsetting. A trigger can also be something which causes you to react or behave in a certain way—like seeing someone else using a drug and then having a more intense craving to use too, or like encountering something which ‘sets you off’—meaning something that makes you feel explosive, panicky, or like you might want to hurt yourself or someone else.

Figuring out how to take care of and protect yourself when you get triggered is a really powerful thing to do for yourself. And you deserve to feel better!

Here are some things which may be helpful to do when you get triggered. If one of these suggestions doesn’t work for you, or makes things worse—it’s okay not to use it! The most important thing is figuring out what helps you.

  • Separate from the trigger if you need to: If it’s possible, it may be a good idea to move away from the situation, person, or thing which is triggering you, and then figure out what happened or ask yourself “how am I feeling now?” If the trigger is something which is a present danger or threat to you, it’s very important to focus on getting safe. If the trigger is upsetting because it reminds you of something, it may still be a good idea to take a break from it.
  • Get grounded in the moment: When something is triggering, often it may be because it brings us back to old feelings of danger, pain or fear. If you’re not in a safe environment when you get triggered, it may help to focus on that first—telling yourself, “Okay, I’m getting triggered because I’m not safe here, so my first step is to get to a safer place if I can, and I’m also going to pay a lot of attention to how I’m feeling as soon as I can.” If you are in a safer environment, it can help to remind myself where and when and who you are—knowing what place you’re at, what day or year it is, and some things about yourself, like “I have been sober for 90 days”, or “I am 19 years old and I have my own life”, or “I have become a very strong, good person”. Reminding yourself that you are not in an old situation may help you gain comfort and strength from who and where you are now.
  • Remember to breathe: Taking a few slow deep breaths from your stomach can help your body know it’s okay to calm down or feel safer. Often when we’re panicked we take shallow breaths in our chest, rather than breathing from our stomach or our diaphragm. Focusing on breathing more deeply may give you a lot of relief.
  • Focus on things which help you feel safer or calmer: Figuring out what soothes or reassures you may be new to you, or you may already know things which help. Carrying a familiar object or touchstone with you may be helpful. Thinking about a place or person or activity which makes you feel better and safer may also help. Telling yourself kind or soothing things like “I’m safe now”, or “I don’t deserve to be hurt”, or “I don’t have to respond to that person”, or “I have choices” may also be helpful. Some people will do things like hugging your own shoulders or resting your head on your hands for awhile, something which helps you feel, physically, that you’re taking care of yourself.
  • Give yourself permission to be upset: Although it may be very helpful to focus on calming down, it’s also important not to beat yourself up for getting triggered. Sometimes when we’ve dealt with a lot of violence we get used to feeling like we should be strong all the time to deal with it, or we learn to feel ashamed because we’re in pain or sick or scared—like we should be handling things better, or that we should recover very quickly and not have problems anymore. It can be good to remember that as a survivor, you’ve had to deal with way too much violence and danger—and that it makes a lot of sense that you’ve been affected by that. Even if the trigger seems like it shouldn’t be such a big deal, you can remind yourself that the trauma and pain and violence you’ve had to deal with are a very big deal, and that to have survived at all—you’ve had to be very strong already.
  • Ask for help: Sometimes there won’t be safe or helpful people around, or it will feel too hard to reach out, but at other times it may be very helpful to tell someone—“Something made me feel frightened” or “Something made me feel pissed off” or “Something is really making me want to use right now”, and to let that person know how they can be helpful to you. It can be really important to tell them if you know what will or what won’t help you—like saying, “I just want you to listen”, or “I don’t want to talk but I need someone to sit with me for awhile”, or “Can you help me get to a quieter place”, or “I need to be really angry right now, I don’t want to calm down yet”. When you’re triggered, it can be really upsetting if you’re asking for help and someone isn’t responding the way you need—so talking about what will or won’t work can be very important! If there isn’t a friend, loved one, or counselor you can reach out to, remember that you can also call crisis lines or emergency resources if you need to talk someone soon.
  • How is your body?: Sometimes we can be more emotional or upset because our body is having a rough time—if you haven’t eaten anything healthy, or you need some sleep, or you’re in pain, you may be able to feel a lot better emotionally by paying attention to those needs. When you’re already upset, it’s usually a good idea to stay away from sugar or caffeine or anything that’s going to make your body more agitated or hyper.
  • Think about your options: One of the tough things about getting triggered is that it often may provoke or push us to want to act out in a particular way because it’s familiar, like using when you feel pain, or lashing out when you feel scared. Sometimes we can forget that we have choices and it can seem like we either have to suppress our feelings, or do whatever we’re used to. Reminding yourself that there are lots of ways to express what you feel may help a lot. Some options might include talking, writing, art, exercise, rest, taking a bath, reading, seeing a movie, or playing with pets or friends. It can help to keep reassuring yourself that you have choices—“I am upset, and I don’t have to use”, “I am angry, and I don’t have to get into it with that person”, “I am scared, and I can do things to protect myself”, “I feel bad, and I can do things to feel better instead of hurting myself”.
  • Make a self-care plan: Once you’ve gotten some kind of grip on what you’re feeling or what happened, figuring out what you can do to help yourself in the next minutes, the next hour, the next day, the next week can all be important steps. You may want to write down your ideas, or discuss it with a friend or counselor. If you get triggered again, or if you know something may be hard to deal with, it may help you feel stronger to know that you’ve really thought through what to do if things get hard, and you aren’t totally unprepared or powerless.
  • Drink water: Panic, rage, fear and other painful emotions cause our bodies to release certain kinds of hormones and substances to deal with crisis or emergency. Drinking plenty of water will help your body clean itself out and move through the painful feelings.
  • Keep paying attention to yourself: Even after you feel calmer or better or less triggered, it can be very important to check in with yourself every now and then, to acknowledge that you had a rough time and need a little extra care and support. Sometimes doing this will let you know if you still need to look for more help or support, or do some things for yourself to recover more.

Originally published by Sanctuary for the Abused

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