I led the discussion in our group Bridges yesterday, on the topic of managing triggers. I thought I’d share it here for the benefit of a wider audience. 🙂 Just brushing the surface of what can be a very big topic – What are triggers? Anything in our environment that ‘triggers’ a reaction so quick or so strong it bypasses our conscious control is a trigger. On a simple level, touching something hot and recoiling without thinking about it is an example of a trigger. When we use the term in mental health, we’re usually talking about things that trigger strong emotions, strong memories or flashbacks, dissociation, or for those with DID/DDNOS (Dissociative Identity Disorder or Dissociative Disorder not otherwise specified), perhaps alters. Really, anything can be a trigger. Some of my triggers are certain smells, such as a particular brand of cologne associated with bad memories for me, sounds such as certain songs or music, places – such as my old school ground, and situations such as encountering someone aggressive or violent.
Everyone has some things that trigger a reaction in them, and triggers are not necessarily a bad thing. It isn’t just strong bad memories or strong negative emotions that can be triggered. Positive memories and emotions can also be triggered by things in our environment. Hearing ‘our song’ on the radio, being present at a birth, smelling something that we associate with a loved one – great grandma’s perfume. All these things can trigger a strong, even overwhelming reaction in us, and this is a good thing. To be moved by things is part of what it means to be human. So for those of us who find triggers difficult to cope with, it can help to remember that the goal is bringing them back to something manageable, not getting rid of them altogether.
I’ve pulled out of my journals this poem I wrote about being triggered in a positive way. At this time in my life I was suffering from severe dissociation. Most of my senses were dulled severely, I could not taste, my sight was limited and colours were dull. My sense of touch was reduced, a hand on my arm felt faint and far away, I couldn’t feel my feet touching the ground. It was a very bad time and very distressing. On that evening I was coming back from an event, being driven through the city. As I came along King William Street, the bells of St Peter’s Cathedral rang out. And the sound triggered me, I surfaced through the dissociation and suddenly felt alive again, for a brief moment.The Fire Yesterday I woke with a fire in my chest.
All the leaves of autumn burned.
My thoughts were sharp and clear
The night was sharp and clear
From where I had been lost
In dream-haze, in exhausted slumber. I reached out
To the sound of bells that rang
Through the city.
I tasted the air and felt my mind inhabited
I turned and looked with eyes that turned and looked with me.
Like a vault opened to the light
Like a moth from a cocoon I awoke
The fire stirred me. And beneath the clarity like diamond-fire
Was the little tightness
The knowledge that fatigue, like wolves
Would return when the flame was ash.
This respite from the haze that is my life
Was brief. For a glorious moment I touched the night.
I knew myself familiar.
Stranger! I cried
I had missed you
And I know you will not stay.
- For more about sensory dissociation, please see Surfacing from dissociation.
- For more about managing dissociation with help from your senses, see Using Sensory Supports.
- For more about reducing dissociation or anxiety, see Grounding Techniques.
However, triggers can make life very difficult! If, like me, you find that you are very reactive and struggling to manage many triggers, here are some starting points on ways to try and calm things down.
One of the first options most of us try is to avoid. It’s worth mentioning because it is a legitimate option! If the trigger is something easy to avoid, like a particular location you don’t need to go near – for me, my old school, then avoid it! Easy. This option falls apart a bit if you have lots of triggers or triggers that are really common in your everyday life. Then you end up not being able to get out of bed. But there’s no prizes for stressing yourself out trying to make yourself cope with a bad trigger you don’t need to confront.
Desensitisation is another approach. This comes from treatments for anxiety and phobias. The idea is that you gradually build up your ability to cope with a trigger, until it gets to the point where it no longer affects you. For example, for awhile there the smell of rosemary was a trigger for me. It would immediately make me feel extremely nauseous. So, I used to occasionally put an oil blend containing a tiny amount of rosemary in an oil burner on days I was having a good time, friends over, feeling good. It would bother me a little bit but not much. Over time I increased the amount slowly, and kept linking the smell to good, fun experiences. Now, it doesn’t bother me at all and own a rosemary plant I cook with all the time. This concept of association is what gives triggers their power to affect us – they have been associated with a strong feeling or memory. Sometimes you can in time break down that association and create a new one.
I often cope by trying to overpower triggers. Smell is one of the most potent memory triggers for all people, and I use my perfumes to help me cope with other triggers in my environment. I find the smell of strangers upsetting, so in situations like public transport I can become very distressed. If I am wearing my own perfume, a smell that is comforting and familiar, I can breathe this in and literally overpower the other triggers. But it can also work on other levels – for example, I have a ring that reminds me of my sister, which is a comforting thing to me. I wear it to work on days I know will be stressful, and I touch it and look at it to ground myself and remind me I am safe and loved. I use it to overpower those things in my environment that are triggering fear and threat in me. Another way of putting this is that I use the strength of a positive trigger to help me deal with a negative one. I call this anchoring and I’ve explored the idea more in
If you find yourself jumping at shadows and reacting to everything, then going through each trigger one at a time is probably going to be time consuming and frustrating. In that case it may be a better idea to work on lowering your reactivity. If your baseline stress levels are really high, you are much more sensitive to triggers. What do I mean by that? Your baseline is what you return to after stress. So, in this picture, those red spikes are periods of massive stress, while the green zone done the bottom is you feeling all chilled out and okay with the world.
As you can see, for some of us, when we go through major stresses, we don’t ever quite get back to as chilled out as we used to be. Each episode leaves us more stressed and anxious and highly strung than the last. Our baseline – how we feel when nothing is actually happening to stress us out, gets so high that we feel permanently stressed out. When we’re in this space, we are highly reactive. Nearly everything is a trigger. The idea is try and recover better from stressful events, so our baseline looks more like this:
When we’re getting good time cruising along in that green space, we’re less reactive and will find triggers easier to manage. For more ideas about how to get back to the green space see:
Something else to bear in mind if you’re having troubles in this area, is that you may find taking some time to process your stuff can help. If, like me, you get through the day by burying a lot of what you’re feeling and thinking – this can come back to bite you. Sometimes triggers are the price you pay for using suppression to cope. It can be like trying to hold a beach ball under water – at some point it will get away from you and come hurtling up! If you have grief or trauma to work through, making some space for that in your life can help to reduce your reactivity to triggers. This doesn’t necessarily have to be intense, anguished and time consuming. It can be as simple as starting a journal where you write about some of those feelings, going to a counsellor to talk about grief, or putting up a photo in memory of someone you’ve lost. Sometimes very small things that signify to yourself that you are listening and paying attention to your own needs can make a big difference with how well you cope in other areas of your life. For an example of this see
And lastly, for the multiples, if the big issue you’re having is trying to prevent things that trigger alters, then you can try everything listed above – and it may indicate you have some system work to do. If you’re functioning by suppressing everyone else in your system – some of them are going to fight you. And they can gang up on you, be very persistent and wear you down. Working to make some safe time and space for everyone to get a little of what they need – which sometimes is just to be acknowledged that they exist – can make a big difference in coping with triggers. If your team are working together instead of fighting each other, then things that trigger switches aren’t such a big deal. You can also learn about how to use triggers to generate useful switching, see
I continue talking about the management of triggers and the risks and benefits of the way we think about them in Mental Health needs better PR.