How To Handle Trauma Triggers Caused By Domestic Abuse
Many people living in abuse and people who have left their abusers experience trauma triggers related to what they saw, heard, smelled, touched or tasted during abusive attacks. The trauma triggers are different for everyone, but fortunately, we can handle trauma triggers similarly.
What is a Trauma Trigger?
A trigger is any event or object that reminds you of, or subconsciously connects you to, an aspect of your abuse. Triggers cause you to behave in the same way you did during or immediately after the traumatic event because your brain does not differentiate what happened then from what is going on around you now. Or a trauma trigger can cause enough anxiety to disrupt your day from a momentary lapse to a panic attack. Typically, the symptoms you feel from a trauma trigger call up the unhealthy coping skills you used at the time of the trauma or the emotions that you had at that time.
If you have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you may experience trauma triggers to greater degrees or more often than those without PTSD. You can experience trauma triggers without having PTSD.
Symptoms of Trauma Triggers
When you experience the symptoms of a trigger, you may or may not relive an event. Not every symptom of a trigger causes you to dive under a table as the movies have shown war veterans to do; most triggers cause much less dramatic reactions.
To complicate matters, you may or may not realize that you have experienced a trigger. For example, I yelled at my friend the other day because a phrase he used triggered me. I did not realize I'd experienced a trigger until I noticed him looking at me with confusion. He did not understand my angry reaction. His reaction to my outburst caused me to retrace the conversational steps to discern why I'd exploded. Sure enough, I traced my reaction to a set of words my ex-abuser often used.
The symptoms of experiencing a trauma trigger vary, but here are some of the most common:
- Sudden or unexplained bouts of crying
- Anxiety and/or 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
- Display of unhealthy coping mechanisms you used during or after the attack(s) such as substance abuse, self-harm, or even going to bed to sleep it off.
How to Handle Trauma Trigger Symptoms
It is not possible to consistently avoid known trauma triggers, but avoidance is an option. You can try to avoid some triggers altogether, but make sure you do not diminish your quality of life by doing so. It is better to identify and handle the symptoms of a trigger than to deny yourself a full life. In that spirit, here are the steps to managing sudden trigger symptoms:
Recognize your behavior or physical symptom as the result of a trauma trigger.
Perhaps it seems simplistic to say to yourself, "Something triggered me and now I feel this way." However, your brain needs to hear it. You must remind your brain that where you are now is more important than where you were then.
Breathe deeply and slowly until your brain gets the message.
You could use a different breathing technique if it feels better to you.
Focus on the sights, sounds, smells, textures and/or tastes of the present environment.
Focusing on the here and now helps your brain react according to the present instead of the past. During this process, you might recognize the trigger. If you do, remind yourself that the trigger is only a trigger, not the real danger. Sometimes you'll readily identify the trigger and sometimes you will not. Identified triggers help you more because recognizing the trigger lessens its potency; the next time that trigger occurs you probably will not react as harshly. Identifying the trigger is not as important is coping with your symptoms. Help yourself come back to reality first -- attempt to identify the trigger later.
Do something that will make you feel more safe, calm or confident.
It is a good idea to think about what your safe thing is before experiencing a trigger so you can immediately know what will help you feel better after the stress of the trigger subsides.
The process of handling a trauma triggered symptoms works well. However, some symptoms spread more broadly and vaguely across your environments. For example, if I had not retraced the conversational path with my friend, I may have continued to damage my relationship with him with future outbursts. Likewise, if I do not recognize a bout of depression as being a trigger symptom, then I will continue to experience depressions when triggered in the future.
Dealing with those types of trigger symptoms require a larger plan. I'll talk about that plan in the next post, Uncovering Hidden Trauma Triggers Part II.
Holly, K. (2014, December 14). How To Handle Trauma Triggers Caused By Domestic Abuse, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, August 25 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/verbalabuseinrelationships/2014/12/how-to-handle-trauma-triggers-caused-by-domestic-abuse
Author: Kellie Jo Holly
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After months of counseling and years of what I thought to be healing, I began to experience flashbacks due to certain words I’d hear, places I’d go, even songs I’d hear. But what really put things in full force was when just 6 months ago, my significant other (who I am currently with) told me that he sees me fighting someone in my sleep…like I’m trying to get away from a monster. He does his best to wake me, comfort me, etc. when he sees this happening. I had no idea I was doing this. Since then, flashbacks and episodes have progressed and it has gotten to where I am exercising behaviors that I would when I was being beaten, belittled, and especially left and neglected for days at a time…isolated from everyone and everything. The man I am with now was getting so confused. He knows my past experience, but we both couldn’t comprehend what is making me take things out on him that ARE NOT real.
I started looking up PTSD and Trauma triggers and I couldn’t breathe! I feel that the reason for the issues I’m experiencing has been pinpointed.
This artical was so helpful and gives me so much hope.
For him, I recommend he contact the NDVH at http://thehotline.org so he can talk to someone who can explain what might be going on with you. Give him privacy to talk to them if he's on the phone; this is tough on him and he needs to speak freely.
And remember that the NDVH is open to you! They really are helpful there. Just because you're safe and sound doesn't mean you don't need a non-judgmental ear to listen to you. - Not that your love is judgmental, just that he may have to learn how to separate your current behavior from the relationship you have with him, and that will take practice.
Remember that no one can be the other's "everything." We need to reach out where it will do the most good so we can be closer to the ones we love. Your abuse "training" told you the opposite: that your ex was end all, be all. That's unhealthy.
In my experience, a person has to have more than average empathy skills to have any understanding of what it feels like to be you. A person who has been abused themselves can understand. Unfortunately empathy is not a promoted, educated or discussed quality so society lacks it. That being said, it is only an understanding individual that can give you the support and safety you crave. Most people will let you down. That is why it is good to use therapists and support groups and not ruining relationships and friendships by being overly reliant on them to fix problems they didn't create. Their lack of understanding doesn't really compare in fault to the cruelness of an abuser.