941-462-4807 OR 860-501-9767 meg@megberrylcsw.com

Let’s talk about triggers. Let’s get rid any stigma that you are weak because you have PTSD. Let’s better understand what it means to be triggered. Let’s answer the questions such as: Why do triggers have so much power? And can triggers ever decrease in power/intensity? Later we will talk about how to deal with triggers when they can be in your life every day.

When you are suffering from the effects of PTSD, you have an exaggerated startle response. This means, simply, that you get jumpy much more easily than others. It can be incredibly frustrating to jump just because someone closes a book behind you, or look around terrified because you smelled something upsettingly familiar. Just to ease the moment, you might even laugh at yourself, but inside you’re dying. It can be very difficult to explain to others what you’re going through. You might even be telling yourself to stop it. An exaggerated startle response happens to mostly everybody immediately following an incident. The problem is when the brain hasn’t been able to process the incident(s), causing the startle response to happen weeks, months, and years after the incident(s). That’s when it is no longer an acute trauma response, but potentially PTSD, depending on other criteria.

Triggers are something in the environment that reminds you of the initial traumatic experience(s). This can be something you see, hear (whether caused by something – a book slamming closed behind you, or someone talking – their voice, something they say, etc), feel (physically or emotionally – even emotions can be triggers), smell, touch, or taste. It can also be completely unknown at the moment. For some reason, you end up in a panic attack, or remembering the incident(s) very clearly. It is helpful to understand that there is ALWAYS a reason. There is always something in your environment being sent to your amygdala (the brain’s alarm system) setting off the alarm, reminding you of the trauma(s). This is one of the most important things to understand about triggers. There is ALWAYS a reason, even if you do not consciously understand or know it. You are not “crazy” or “broken” and there is nothing “wrong with you” for being triggered even when you don’t understand what triggered you.

Triggers are so very powerful because the brain hasn’t made sense of the incident(s) yet, therefore the incident(s) stays raw in your brain. The brain maintains the same power of the incident(s) with each trigger as when you went through the incident(s). Until your brain is able to file the incident(s) away in the proper place, the memory stays as “fresh” and “raw” as the time it happened. How can the brain decrease the trauma’s power if the brain hasn’t made sense of it? How can it decrease the power of the incident(s) if the brain doesn’t even know what to do and how to process the incident(s)? Triggering situations will maintain their power until the brain files the incident(s) away in the right place as “just a memory.” This can and does happen with traumatic events just as it does with non-traumatic events. Even if the trauma was years ago, don’t give up hope that the brain will heal as long as you are working on healing. It does not have to stay stuck forever. There are great modalities of therapy (EMDR – Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, ART – Accelerated Resolution Therapy) that will help the brain make sense of the incident(s) and heal. I have been privileged to see the transformation from people being triggered daily for years to having them so rarely it doesn’t impact their lives anymore. I have also personally experienced the benefits of EMDR therapy in my own life.

I just mentioned EMDR and ART therapies to help the brain process the incident(s) and heal, decreasing both the intensity and frequency of triggers. But can triggers go away on their own? What about with other therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy? Although these are more complicated questions as people are complicated beings, the answer to both of these questions is yes. Triggers can go away on their own and can go away with other therapy modalities. They can also go away by use of alternative therapies such as yoga, acupuncture, acupressure, etc. The brain, like skin having a splinter, wants to heal. The body will do what it needs to in order to get rid of the splinter and heal the skin. The brain does the same. Sometimes the brain heals on its own without the need for outside assistance, just like sometimes the splinter gets pushed out on its own without the help of tweezers. Other times the brain or splinter in the skin needs additional outside assistance to heal. Who can say why sometimes the splinter forces its way out without assistance and sometimes it doesn’t. Same goes for the brain. It is unknown why some people, after weeks, months, or years of being triggered by something, just aren’t anymore. You wouldn’t think something is wrong with you at your core if you need to use tweezers to get a splinter out, right? So why would something be wrong with you at your core if something is stuck in your brain?

Triggers are so powerful and so frustrating. However, they do not have to be a life sentence. Don’t give up hope that even years after the traumatic experience(s), you can live a productive, stable life. With the right support, your brain can heal from anything. It is an amazingly resilient organ! Next week I’ll talk more about dealing with triggers when they happen. Comment below if there is anything you’d like me to talk about specifically next week. Or send me an email (megberrylcsw@fastmail.com) or call me: 860-501-9767; 941-462-4807.