Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Trauma Arrow

What is a Trigger?

How Do They Work?

By Dario Martinez

When working with trauma and addiction, one of my first tasks as a therapist is to help my clients learn how to identify and manage their “triggers." To explain how triggers work, I usually share a story about a girl named Sally that was created by one of my colleagues, Karen Chadwick, LMFT.

Sally is a ten-year-old girl. One day she was walking home from school and noticed a man coming toward her wearing a red cap. She didn't really pay attention to him because she was thinking about homework. But she noticed the brightness of his cap out of the corner of her eye.

When the man got close enough, he physically assaulted Sally. She was traumatized by the experience.

Imagine now, it’s 20 years later. Sally is a grown, 30 year-old woman. She’s walking down a completely different street, but up ahead, she sees a man coming toward her wearing a red cap. What do you think Sally might feel in that moment?

When I pose this question to people who suffer from the residual effects of trauma, they’re invariably able to describe what Sally would probably experience: terror, fear, quickened heartbeat, shortness of breath, strong impulses to run away, etc.

In this story, the red cap represents a “trigger.”  Triggers can be anything:  a smell, a sound, a facial expression, an object, etc.  It’s any person, place or thing that has the power to reactivate a complex array of memories, emotions and bodily sensations associated with a past trauma.

Triggers are like time machines. Something as benign as a red cap has the power to hijack Sally’s brain and instantly transport her back to the painful experience of being assaulted. When this happens, Sally is no longer a grown, 30 year-old woman. The painful memories and emotions are so overwhelming that for all intents and purposes, Sally literally reverts back to being a helpless 10 year-old-girl again.
The trigger time machine carries us back to the age we were when the original trauma occured.

Once we enter this younger state, we lose access to:

  • Adult intellectual capabilities
  • Impulse control
  • Self defense skills that we may have developed to protect ourselves.

This loss of access to adult capacities makes people highly vulnerable to re-traumatization. I want to emphasize the importance of this point because it's a major source of confusion and shame for traumatized people.

Adult victims of childhood violence are frequently re-traumatized in ways that almost recreate their original trauma(s). When this happens, people are usually left feeling disoriented and confused -- unable to understand why they lost their capacity to protect themselves or why they were too "stupid" to notice that somebody was trying to harm them until it was too late.

An important part of working with trauma is normalizing the powerful impact that triggers have on people. By doing this, victims of re-traumatization begin to understand that they're not actually "weak" or "stupid." They're just human.   

To manage triggers, we must first identify what our triggers are. I encourage my clients to keep a journal--listing out things that trigger them over the course of the day. 

We must then develop skills and practices to help us manage our behavior and emotions before, during and after we've been triggered. For a useful trigger management tool from Sensorimotor Psychotherapy,  please see "The Window of Tolerance" by clicking here. Please also see Mindfulness and Emotion Management techniques by clicking here.

Copyright © 2020, Dario Martinez. All rights reserved.