Triggers are things that transport a survivor back to their sexual abuse, and can be activated by one or more of the senses. Even though they can catch a person off guard, survivors can learn how to anticipate and manage them, in addition to discovering how to honour where they’re at on their healing journey.

Overview

A trigger is something that sets off a memory, and transports a survivor back to their sexual abuse. Triggers can be activated through one or more of the five senses including sight, hearing, touch, smell or taste. A triggered memory can lead survivors to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) behaviors including nightmares, flashbacks, dissociation, hyper- vigilance, and others. Even though triggers can catch people off guard, with time and support, survivors can often learn to anticipate and manage them by developing a plan and creating safety when they’re feeling anxious or panicky.

    Triggers are very personal and can be anything from:

    • The time of year or holiday during which the abuse occurred
    • Any sound associated with the abuse like a song, car door closing, tone of voice
    • Being confined in dentist’s chair and having things in your mouth
    • Having a physical exam by a doctor
    • Touch that is similar to what was experienced, someone standing too close
    • The object that was used for the abuse
    • Seeing someone that resembles the abuser
    • Smell of the abuser (alcohol, tobacco, cologne) or the place where the abuse occurred (cooking smells etc.)
    • Words of abuse including swearing, put-downs, specific words used

    A survivor may have no visual or auditory memory with flashbacks. Instead, he or she might feel a sense of tremendous panic, of feeling trapped or powerless. These experiences can also be triggered through dreams. Survivors have a body memory of the abuse, and the intense feelings and sensations that occur with flashbacks can be frightening as they’re not related to the reality of the present. They can come out of nowhere, when they are least expected. This can lead people to feel as though they’re crazy or out of control. Often people are afraid to talk about their experiences for fear of being judged or seen as mentally ill. It’s often hard to remember about the safety and security of the present moment.

    But there are things that can help. If you’ve been triggered and you’re having a flashback you can:

    • Remind yourself that it’s a flashback and it will pass;
    • Ground yourself in the present moment, to remind yourself that you’re safe. Take long, cleansing breaths. Use all your five senses. Notice the paint colour on the wall, listen to the sounds on the street, feel the clothes on your body. Know that you are here now, in the present, and that you are safe;
    • Bolster your boundaries with whatever you need to feel safe. This could be wrapping your body in a blanket, holding a pillow, embracing a stuffed animal or real pet, sitting in a small closed space, lying in bed, or going to a sacred space;
    • Hold a special object to ground yourself;
    • Go for a walk or spend some time in nature;
    • Try to remember something that really makes you laugh;
    • Do an easy and repetitive activity like knitting, or practice meditation;
    • Cry if you have to, and give yourself permission to feel terrible. Don’t try to stuff your feelings down;
    • Don’t sit alone with your feelings. Share them with someone you trust, and let them help support you when you’re feeling vulnerable;
    • Take whatever time you need to recover. This could involve taking a bath, reading a book, drinking some tea, writing in a journal, or having a nap;
    • Be kind to yourself and don’t beat yourself up for having a flashback. Try not to be self-critical and think that you should be better, stronger, or farther along in your recovery. Honour your experience and where you are in the moment;
    • Be patient and loving with yourself. Healing and learning effective coping strategies takes time.

    For more information some useful resources include:

    I Can’t Get Over It: A Handbook for Trauma Survivors, Aphrodite Matsakis
    The PTSD Workbook: Simple, Effective Techniques for Overcoming Traumatic Stress Symptoms, Mary Beth Williams & Soili Poijula
    Loving Someone With PTSD: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Connecting with your Partner After Trauma, Aphrodite Matsakis
    Life After Trauma: A Workbook for Healing, Dena Rosenbloom, Mary Beth Williams & Barbara Watkins

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