If you have traumatic stress or PTSD, you have triggers. You may not know what they are, and you may not even have heard of triggers before, but you definitely have them.
Have you ever heard of Pavlov's dog? The famous scientist Ivan Pavlov paired the sound of a bell ringing with the presentation of dinner to dogs he was studying. After a few rounds of ringing the bell at the same time the dogs' dinner was presented, Pavlov rang the bell without presenting dinner and observed the response of the dogs. They salivated copiously when the bell was rung even though there was no dinner they could smell or taste. Since the sound of the bell was paired with dinner, the sound was enough to trigger the physiology of digestion to begin, even in the absence of actual food.
Likewise, when we suffer a trauma, the circumstances around the trauma get paired to our physiological reaction to the trauma itself, only instead of salivating, we get panicked, frozen, dizzy and lightheaded, headachy, filled with rage, or any of a number of other traumatic stress symptoms. If you are old enough, perhaps you remember Colonel Oliver North at trial ducking at lightning speed under the defense table when he heard the sound of a car backfiring. It's easy to imagine a soldier misinterpreting that sound as gunfire.
What Is A Trigger?
A trigger can be any stimulus that was previously paired with the trauma, whether we remember it or not. The body does not lie. Only the mind is capable of denial. The truth of what we experienced is stored in the body, which is why mapping triggers is so helpful. It helps keep us safe from re-experiencing traumas.
Since triggers often lead to the body's re-experiencing the trauma state, it is no wonder we avoid them both consciously and unconsciously!
What Are Your Triggers?
We know that the stimulus for Pavlov's dogs' salivating was a bell. But what can traumatic triggers be? Simply put, they can be anything at all. For some people they feel like everything. When the whole world feels triggering to someone, that person is often an agoraphobic recluse, or, conversely, he or she can be out in the world but dealing with daily, persistent, and severe anxiety.
If your abuse was sexual, you will have sexual triggers; that is obvious to most people. But what may be less obvious is the trigger of the scent of the cologne worn by the abuser, the feel of stubble on your face, a certain tone of voice, a word choice, or the look of a ceiling, room, or environment.
For a prisoner of war from Vietnam, triggers could be rice, bamboo, humid warmth, or the need to take a shower, among many others. Perhaps that POW's wife serves him rice one night for dinner, and he goes ballistic, tearing apart her cooking. He may not even realize that rice is a trigger for his experience.
Triggers do not excuse our abusive behaviors, but understanding triggers will certainly help us get a handle on working on them and help us feel more in control. If our friend the POW knows rice is a trigger, he begins to have choices and more control over his symptoms (and so does his spouse). He can choose to work through that aversion, or he can shape his environment to avoid having to be presented with rice.
Mapping Your Triggers
For severe traumas, there are usually multiple and unavoidable triggers. Some will fade with awareness; others we have to work on, and there are lots of ways to do that. The first step is mapping them.
I recommend writing down or drawing your triggers, getting them down on paper in some form or fashion. Some triggers you will know right away; some you will have to ferret out. Triggers fall into six categories: the five senses of taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing, plus feeling states.
Let's start with the senses, because they are the easiest. You can divide your paper into different sections reflecting each of these senses. It will help jog your memory to go through each sense modality individually.
Let's say you are working in the smell category. Ask yourself what smells really bother you. All of us have smells we do and don't like, but I am not talking about ordinary aversions here; I am talking about radical reactions. Nobody likes the smell of poop, but if that smell sends you into a panic or frozen numbness and dissociation, it's a trigger. Or maybe the scent of lavender makes you want to rip someone's head off. That's a little unusual; write it down.
Take your time working through each category. Do not attempt to do all of this work in one day!
What Feelings Set Off Your Triggers?
Feeling states are a little trickier to map. A common trigger for abuse victims is the feeling state of sexual arousal. Just getting aroused can become a trigger in and of itself if you were repeatedly violated against your will, especially if you were a child. Another triggering feeling state can be fear itself. Let's say you are watching a scary movie, and all of a sudden you go into a blind panic with your heart racing and a feeling of doom. The fear generated by the movie can activate intense feelings of fear related to suppressed memories of traumatic events. Even the feeling state of vigorous exercise can mimic a panic state and send a person into a full-blown panic attack.
The more triggers you have, the crazier you are likely to feel — especially if you cannot relate your triggers to solid memories. People with many triggers are often pathologized by their friends, families, and even their therapists. Sometimes they are called overly dramatic, hypersensitive, or wimpy. Sound familiar?
I'm here to tell you that it's not drama; it's trauma! If you acknowledge your triggers and take steps to work through them, your life (and the lives of those around you) should get a whole lot better.
This material was reproduced by permission of Quest Books,
the imprint of The Theosophical Publishing House
(www.questbooks.net) ©2012 by Susan Pease Banitt.
This article was adapted with permission from the book:
The Trauma Tool Kit: Healing PTSD from the Inside Out
by Susan Pease Banitt, L.C.S.W.
In twenty years as a therapist, Susan Pease Banitt has treated trauma in patients ranging from autistic children to women with breast cancer; from underage sex slaves to adults incapacitated by early childhood abuse. Doctors she interviewed in New York report that, even before 9/11, most of their patients had experienced such extreme stress that they had suffered physical and mental breakdowns. Those doctors agree with Pease Banitt that stress is the disease of our times. At the 2009 Evolution of Psychotherapy conference Jack Kornfield noted, “We need a trauma tool kit.” Here it is.
About the Author
Susan Pease Banitt, LCSW is a Harvard-trained psychotherapist with over thirty years experience in mental health work. She has worked in a variety of settings including: residential childcare, child abuse prevention, inpatient psychiatric hospitals, outpatient clinics, medical hospitals and private practice. She spent her late twenties studying yoga and meditation and obtained her certification as a teacher of hatha yoga in her thirties. Over the years, Susan has come to see that traumatic stress and experiences are behind the vast majority of suffering in the mind and body. Susan currently co-chairs the Mental Health Council for the National Association of Social Workers, Oregon chapter and sits on the board of Street Yoga, an organization that brings yoga techniques to disadvantaged youth in a variety of settings. Visit her website at www.suepeasebanitt.com