Handling Trigger Responses

We all have unique triggers that can make us feel uneasy. Examples may include experiencing conflict, driving on the highway, certain scents, and the list goes on. These high-alert reactions are our brain’s way of keeping us safe from danger. We need our trigger responses when we’re experiencing real threats (I.e., being chased by a wild animal will likely trigger someone to run or fight back), but in our modern society, our trigger responses are often based on perceived threats (hearing a creak in the house may trigger someone to hide or search the house). Our brains do not distinguish between real and perceived threats when it comes to our reactions. It’s like how fire alarms will go off in the same manner whether there’s an actual fire or someone just burnt some toast.  Our trigger responses will likely vary depending on the situation, though most of us tend to gravitate toward one or two of the most common ones:

  • Fight: Responding to the trigger by arguing, defending, and/or potentially physically fighting. May be used when the threat seems beatable.
  • Flight: Responding to the trigger by avoiding, leaving, and/or hiding. May be used when the threat seems escapable.
  • Freeze: Responding to the trigger by detaching, disassociating, and/or going numb. May be used when the threat seems too overwhelming or powerful.
  • Fawn: Responding to the trigger by submitting, pleasing, and/or internalizing the blame. May be used when the threat seems appeasable.

Experiencing trauma can increase the frequency and intensity of trigger responses, leaving us in a nearly constant state of hypervigilance. This can considerably impact our ability to think clearly. Due to this, it’s generally in our best interest to take a pause before engaging in conflict or making any major decisions. Sometimes I’ll say to myself, “I’ll think this through later. For now, I’m going to take a break.” The good news is that we can learn how to self-regulate, allowing us to maintain a wise mind no matter the circumstances. Here are a few steps to soothe a trigger response quickly and effectively:

  1. Observe Your Experience, Non-judgmentally: Noticing when you’re feeling triggered is the first step in self-regulation. From here, notice the sensations you’re feeling. Notice your breath. Notice your thoughts. Notice your emotions. By staying connected to and present with your experience, you’ll likely have more control over reactions.
  2. Engage in a Grounding Activity (or two… or three… however many it takes!): Grounding activities are great for activating your parasympathetic nervous system, which counteracts the trigger response. Essentially, these activities can make you feel safe and calm. The more you put these into practice, the more habitual they’re likely to become, shortening the length of time it takes to recover from a trigger. Here are some research-backed ideas:
  3. Stamp your feet on the floor
  4. Pat your legs
  5. Shake out your arms
  6. Run your hands under cold water
  7. Identify 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste
  8. Pick a color and identify everything in your environment with that color
  9. Hold onto an object that is satisfying to your senses, like a fuzzy blanket or a fidget toy
  10. Breathe in for 4 seconds and out for 6 seconds, and repeat this cycle for a few minutes
  11. Close your eyes and visualize your happy place
  12. Remind yourself that you are safe

The experience of getting triggered is an opportunity to learn more about yourself and your needs. Strengthening your ability to self-soothe after experiencing a trigger can improve various aspects of life, from your relationships to your career to your own connection with yourself. Now, do yourself a little favor and take a deep breath, squeeze your shoulders up to your ears, and let them drop with an audible sigh. Cheers to inner peace!

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