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The Complexities of “Trauma” and How to Manage Triggers

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“Trauma, trauma, trauma,” you may be thinking. Some may say that trauma is the new boy who cried wolf — essentially that the term is overused so much to the point where trauma itself is not taken seriously. I would retort with this: perhaps trauma as a topic only seems overcooked because it’s actually being discussed now. Yes, some people certainly use the term out of context. That aside, trauma is uncomfortable for people, similarly to anything that reeks of even slight vulnerability. We, meaning humans, prefer not to go there. We shove trauma and its baggage in the smallest crevices of our brain until — uh oh — the brain and body do exactly what they’re supposed to do! They process the trauma by extracting it and ultimately telling the story. We heal through telling our stories, whether it’s verbally or artistically, or visually. 

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So if more and more of us are telling our stories, being able to objectively define trauma would help create a sort of community agreement — a collective way of understanding one another. Trauma (not to be confused with post-traumatic stress disorder) is an emotional and/or psychological response to a distressing or disturbing experience. Trauma can be a response to surviving a hurricane or being a victim of gun violence, and it can also be a response to being a child of a messy divorce or losing a loved one suddenly. Trauma is a subjective experience, meaning how one interprets whether or not an event is traumatic depends on their personal views, feelings, and perspectives. In the spirit of community agreements, it is never appropriate to tell another person whether their experience was traumatic. We must respect a real, clinical experience that actually changes how the brain functions. Trauma is a term that shouldn’t be thrown around lightly, and it also should be owned and spoken without shame when real.

Trauma does not always travel alone because why make life easier, right? Its sidekicks, infamously known as triggers, like to hang around. See, triggers are like the popular kids in school who are only popular for something terrible everyone knows about them (think Regina George). What do we know about triggers? We know that triggers make people feel as though they’re reliving the traumatic event. Triggers prompt an increase or return of trauma symptoms. Triggers can be anything internal or external — a specific perfume, a type of food, a sunny day, a particular memory, an argument, a physical sensation. Anything. Trigger, like the word trauma, is not to be used casually. In the world of mental health, this signifies that someone’s emotional state has been significantly distressed. My rule of thumb is this: when in doubt, maybe don’t use the term.

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Triggers often show up inconveniently simply because of their nature — they are not planned, nor are they something that someone can necessarily “see coming.” Instead, it’s a fast-paced dance between the body and the brain. I have learned (for the most part) how to handle triggers surprisingly well due to my profession and personal experience. There were points in my life where I would have full-blown panic attacks at my jobs or places where panic attacks aren’t seen as very appropriate, to say the least.

In graduate school, I took an actual life-changing course on dialectical behavior therapy or DBT. Essentially, DBT is the dialectic, or integration and balance, of acceptance and change. DBT was initially created by someone diagnosed with borderline personality disorder who felt that her treatment was not conducive to her diagnosis. The course blew my mind, where I learned all of the skills and got to practice them. I have never stopped studying DBT, and I believe utterly that anyone willing to engage can transfer its skills to their life. I use DBT skills in my daily life. I consistently recommend them to my clients who may struggle with anxiety symptoms, emotion and affect regulation, remaining present, self-harm, etc. You’re going to learn 4 of DBT’s distress tolerance skills in this article, ones that can be used almost anywhere and are specifically for managing triggers when it is not appropriate to face and process them — when the emotion or reaction is too big for the situation at hand.

Paced breathing

Changing the body’s chemistry is the quickest way to reduce the emotional part of our brains. When we can slow our breathing down in times of distress, the oxygen we receive allows other symptoms like a racing heart and sweaty palms to relax. To practice paced breathing, breathe deeply into your belly through your nose. Slow your pace of inhaling and exhaling, ideally to about 5 to 6 breaths per minute. Breathe out more slowly than you breathe in (so maybe 5 seconds in and 7 seconds out). If you want to add a physically grounding aspect to the paced breathing, try this “take 5” exercise. Face the palm of your hands towards your face. Start from the outer base of your thumb and trace up to the tip of your thumb as you inhale. On your exhale, trace down to the inner base of your thumb. Continue this pattern on all of your fingers until you get to your pinky finger’s outer base and then reverse back to your thumb.

Self soothing feat. the 5 senses

As aforementioned, triggers tend to take the trauma survivor back to the traumatic event. That’s why self-soothing with the five senses is so great because you use your senses to observe where you are in the present moment. With your vision, you can observe the colors around you, count how many chairs are in the room, read the poster on the wall, even look up at the sky and count the stars. With your hearing, maybe you listen to a soothing music playlist, pay attention to the city’s sounds around you, or turn on the radio. With your smell, you could burn incense, light a scented candle, bake cookies or cake, or open a window to inhale fresh air. With your taste, you can treat yourself to a dessert, drink your favorite soothing drink, or suck on a peppermint candy. With your touch, take a long shower or bath, pet your fur baby, put a cold compress on your forehead, or rub lotion on your body. The more you can bring yourself to the present moment, the weaker your trauma reminders will become in activating your emotional brain.

Distracting

Sometimes, focusing on an intense or strong emotion amplifies it and makes it feel even more out of control. Distractions should not always be viewed as a negative, as they can be helpful on a biological level by assisting the emotion in decreasing intensity. Distractions are meant to be used when there could be more harm in facing a strong emotion head-on at the moment or when you cannot address the emotional trigger. Let it be known that using distractions when not in crisis-mode is not always healthy. Distractions are meant to be temporary and help to keep you mentally and emotionally safe ultimately. In DBT, distractions are classified into 7 categories based on the ACCEPTS acronym (distract with activities, contributing, comparisons, different emotions, pushing away, other thoughts, other sensations). My personal favorites are other sensations, activities, or other thoughts. If I am triggered or extremely anxious, other sensations I like to distract with are a hot or cool shower, squeezing a stress ball or theraputty, or running an ice cube down my arm. Some activities I use to distract include cleaning, exercising (this is a biggie for me), or journaling. Because my baseline is a bit anxious, my mind is steadily racing, so distracting my brain with other thoughts works well. Sometimes I recite the alphabet backward, do a word puzzle, try to learn lyrics to a new song, or count the colors in a piece of artwork. 

Willingness

Here’s a secret that most probably won’t tell you — using distress tolerance techniques or really any coping skills requires a leap of faith. In reality, changing our body’s chemistry can take a few minutes. Therefore, for these skills to be given a fair chance, faith and willingness are vital. In DBT, willingness is defined as readiness to enter and participate fully in life and living. What does this mean in the context of distress?

  1. Finding a willing response to each situation by doing just what is needed in each situation and acting with awareness
  2. Replacing willfulness with willingness. Willfulness refuses to tolerate the moment, does the opposite of doing what works, tries to fix every situation, and insists on being in control. That last part is crucial — when experiencing a trigger, admitting that we are not totally in control at that very second can absolutely be a catalyst in slowing our emotional reactions down. Without acceptance of a situation, we cannot change it. It is as simple and as difficult as that.
  3. Try half-smiling and a willing posture — accepting reality with your body. A half-smile is slightly upturned lips with a relaxed face. A willing posture includes sitting up straight with hands unclenched, outward, with palms up and fingers relaxed. Your hands and body language communicate to your brain, and in turn, your body connects to your mind.

Just because trauma is more widely discussed, doesn’t mean that the experience itself shouldn’t be respected. And because its reminders can be more than overwhelming, my hope is that this article was able to help you gain some control back. Control doesn’t have to mean total power, but rather control can be an ability to understand and accept our emotional responses before influencing change.