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Trauma triggers, what are they, and how do you manage them

Updated: Dec 10, 2023

You have probably heard the word trigger if you are recovering from trauma or have been diagnosed with PTSD or C-PTSD, but what exactly is it? An emotional trigger, which is also called a mental health trigger or psychological trigger, is things (e.g., memories, objects, people) that spark intense negative emotions. This change in emotions can be abrupt, and in most cases, it will feel more severe than what the trigger would logically call for. Perhaps you have experienced this. Someone says something, or you smell something familiar, and suddenly you are flooded with a trauma memory, or the emotions associated with it. You find yourself reacting "over the top" with an emotional outburst, and you feel out of control. If you have experienced this, then you have experienced an emotional trigger.

Why do triggers happen? When a person experiences a trauma their brain will remember my newt details, like the sounds and smells that were happening at the time of the trauma. For your safety, this is stored in the brain as a memory. When, in your present day, you are in a similar situation, to the original trauma this triggers your fight or flight. Your brain remembers that this certain smell or sound meant danger in the past, so it triggers your survival system and you react accordingly; you prepare to fight or flee, or if it is all too much, you freeze and shut down. Your brain creates triggers to protect you. At its core, this is a good thing, but often what happens is a person overreacts. Often a person will react how they wished they could have in the original situation. For example, if you were abused as a child, at the time of the abuse you may have shut down to protect yourself because the adult was huge compared to you, in size and strength. Now, as an adult, someone says something or does something similar to your original abuser, and you become triggered, you may find yourself yelling and becoming physically violent, reacting how you wanted to as a child. This can be scary for all involved. How do you manage a trigger? Pay attention to your mind and body. Becoming mentally aware of your triggers is very important. If you are in a situation where you are triggered, you have to make a mental note of it. This first step to recognizing your triggers. You, have to listen to your mind and body when it creates intense emotional reactions. It is easy to determine if you are triggered if you feel any of these physical signs of anxiety:

  • Pounding heart

  • Disturbed stomach

  • Dizziness

  • Uncontrollable shaking

  • Cold and sweaty palms

Step back and think Suppose you, find yourself in a situation where you feel you will be emotionally triggered. Pause, think, and ask these questions: “What just happened? What do I feel? Am I angry or happy?” Determine the Cause of the Intense Emotions After asking yourself the questions above, ask yourself: “Have I been in a similar situation before? Did I react in the same way?” Childhood trauma may have shaped your triggers. Ask yourself if it’s possible that you feel this way at the present moment because of your childhood issues. Be Curious There may be times that the triggers are not that clear, or maybe your reactions are inconsistent. If this happens, you have to think harder and dig deeper. Fighting your triggers is pointless. Don’t ignore them. Instead, be more curious and think of the deeper reason why you are triggered. You should pay attention to patterns in your reactions. For instance, are you constantly envious or depressed if you are in a situation where you talk about romantic relationships? Is this because you fear being alone or abandoned? Be more curious and question yourself. Being aware of the situations that trigger you emotionally is not enough. It is not easy to escape or avoid these situations, and not all triggers are escapable. They can happen anytime and anywhere. Facing the unexpected is part of everyday life. You don’t need to hide or run away. Here are some tips on how you can survive every day by managing your triggers: Acknowledge your feelings Feelings are part of your everyday existence, so be kind to yourself when these big emotions come up. Look at them as your body and mind's way of letting you know that a part of you needs healing. Give Yourself Some Space Sometimes, when the trigger, so is overwhelming, it is better to step back and leave. It is okay to ask for a break, so you can avoid bursting with negative emotions. If you are alone, relax and take a deep breath. Breathe in, deeply through your nose, deep down into your belly then slowly exhale. Feel the air come in cold and leave your body feeling warm. Do these 3 to 4 times. You should feel your body relax with each inhale. As soon as you can control yourself, it is time to face the triggering event calmly.

If You Feel Negative Emotions Do the Opposite Often, when a person experiences negative and strong emotions, they also show negative responses. Often, people will shut themselves away from others as a way to cope. Instead, do something positive and call someone who has earned your trust. As human beings, we are built for connection for survival. Being with people you trust should help you heal. Learn to Communicate If you have done the tips mentioned above and you are feeling calmer, it is now time to open up. Talk to the person who triggered you so you can both avoid the situation from repeating. Do your best to be calm and composed. Name what you are feeling and let the person know. It is important to remember that others may not be open communicators like you. You can’t force them to open up or explain their side to you. What’s important is you can say what you want to say. The other person will have their own personal and silent moments to think about what just happened. Triggers can pop up anytime and anywhere, you don’t just need band-aid solutions to cover them up. You do need long-term strategies to cope. Listed below are long-term strategies you can use to heal: Be More Mindful Being mindful is being present. Pay close attention to your feelings and live in the present. If you are more in sync with yourself and your emotions, it is easier to understand your triggers and be able to cope with them. Understanding your emotions and self-regulation is an important skill that is learned, from childhood until adulthood. I am empathetic that for some, their parents were distracted by their own life and focused more on alcohol, drugs, or their mental health issues. These parents were unable to offer co-regulation. As a result, regulating your own emotions may feel foreign, and this can make being mindful difficult. My suggestion is to take small steps towards regulation. The first step is to practice naming your emotions. Sitting with the good and the uncomfortable emotions. Check-in with your emotions 3 or 4 times a day, or whenever you notice a shift in your feelings. Daily meditation and yoga are helpful ways to be quiet and notice your emotions. Recognize a Toxic Relationship Some people will constantly and consistently bother and annoy you. Even if you politely ask them to stop, they don’t listen. In a toxic relationship, mutual understanding, respect, and consideration are absent. These are relationships I encourage you to avoid. They will not help with your healing. Have a Mood Journal Writing can be a tedious task, but, writing in a journal can be very therapeutic and can help you recognize trigger patterns. Writing the important information down will serve as a guide for positive change and avoiding triggers. Seek Professional Help Oftentimes, triggers are intensely rooted in a person’s behavior that they are unable to recognize them. If you are having a hard time detecting your triggers, it is advisable to seek professional help. Coaching is a safe and judgment-free place where your triggers can be explored. You will be able to manage your emotions effectively. Message me here if you would like to talk further about your concerns.


Janet Rhodes BA, CCTP, NLPP, RC.t


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