Managing Triggers: Self-control for a fulfilling life

Ioana Cozma
Written by Ioana Cozma on 05 September 2023

Managing triggers involves learning how these stimuli are formed and what you can do to deprive them of power. This article discusses the nature and development process behind triggers and how you can control them with healthy daily routines.

Managing Triggers: Self-control for a fulfilling life

What are triggers?

Triggers are perceived as a stress experience that elicits painful memories of traumatic situations or activates mental health symptoms. Typically, triggers are sensory stimuli, meaning you get triggered by objects you can see, hear, smell, touch, or taste. However, certain days, times, and seasons can also become triggers.

Common triggers for people with alcohol addiction are seeing liquor bottles or hearing the clinking of glasses, but withdrawal-related anxiety is a prominent, though little-considered, trigger. For someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder, a trigger can be a disorderly item that does not fit their room environment.

In the context of trauma, the most prominent example is how veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are triggered by fireworks, which sound like battle shots. Similarly, if someone experiences child abuse, certain smells from their childhood may constitute triggers.

Where do triggers come from?

Triggers come from a combination of traumatic events, sensory stimuli connected to those events, and personal traits.

Unresolved trauma or a mental health condition may birth certain triggers that seem innocuous, so people around you may not appreciate their gravity.

For example, most people don’t understand why loud, booming noises trigger veterans. Someone with a strong sense of attachment doesn’t understand why a person whom the bartender overlooks could experience acute insecurity.

While triggers come from your memories, memories don’t have an esoteric, metaphysical nature. Your senses participate in creating and recreating memories. That’s why, for example, the smell of a certain pie can bring back vivid memories of happy Christmases with your loved ones.

Similarly, traumatic events also involve your senses to a large degree, whether it is long-term constant trauma or one situation. For instance, a parent who receives news of their child’s death while a certain radio tune is on may be triggered by that song. That song may also trigger a person undergoing regular abuse by their partner if the abusive partner plays it repeatedly.

However, people respond differently to the same trauma and stimuli. Not all veterans involved in the same war or people in the same car accident will have the same triggers. Therefore, there are specific personal traits that elicit those triggers.

Some sources claim that beliefs play a massive role in how triggers are born. For example, a specific date in the calendar may be objectively innocent, but the parent who lost their child on that day attributes different significations to it.

These beliefs stem from people’s personal traits, individual history, sociocultural contexts, emotional development, and genetics. Even biological factors like sleep deprivation or hunger may affect how your brain interprets a specific stimulus and whether it attributes it to a high or low significance. If you are sleep-deprived or hungry, you may feel triggers more intensely.

Common triggers

Three common triggers elicit people’s memories of traumatic events.

1. Sensory triggers

Smells, sounds, tastes, or tactile sensations are powerful memory elicitors.

For instance, a perfume might remind you of a lost loved one. The sound of car brakes screeching might bring back traumatic memories of a car accident. The taste of a specific food might remind someone of a period of poverty or hunger.

2. Locations

Certain places may bring back memories of events that happened there or in a similar environment.

Returning to a childhood home might remind someone of abusive episodes that took place there. Walking past a certain landmark could remind someone where they were mugged or attacked.

Similarly, a hospital setting might trigger memories of a painful or traumatic medical procedure in another clinic.

3. Dates and anniversaries

Specific days on the calendar serve as poignant reminders of past traumatic events. For example, the anniversary of a natural disaster might stir up painful memories for survivors or those who lost loved ones.

In the same vein, birthdays, holidays, or specific days like Valentine's Day might remind someone of lost relationships or loved ones.

How to recognize triggers

Recognizing triggers involves observing patterns in emotional reactions to specific stimuli. Noticing when certain situations, places, sounds, or people consistently evoke strong negative emotions or memories will help you identify and avoid triggers.

The first step to recognizing triggers is to stay aware of your reactions. Monitor your emotional spikes and reflect on sudden mood changes, from a content state to jittery, nervous, or irate.

Keep a journal of those reactions to identify common themes. You want to track your physical symptoms, such as rapid heartbeat or increased sweating. You must also identify similar places, sounds, smells, or people involved. Note any extreme avoidance behaviors, too.

You should also do research. Ask friends or family you trust for observations, review your past traumas or emotional events, and pay attention to dreams and nightmares. Alternatively, consider seeking feedback from a therapist or counselor who can help you identify and deal with triggers healthily.

Tips for managing triggers

Managing triggers healthily allows you to make the most out of a painful situation in the present. Additionally, it helps you retrain your brain with healthy coping mechanisms to dilute that trigger’s potency in the future, breaking the associations your brain has created with a particular stimulus.

1. Self-awareness

Being self-aware implies a non-judgmental outlook on your life and past trauma. Understanding your vulnerabilities will help you recognize and address your triggers.

Self-awareness activities like journaling allow you to predict a new trigger and prepare a plan to face or avoid that trigger. That’s why journaling is such a valuable weapon in relapse prevention. In the long term, you will be able to identify your strengths to turn those vulnerabilities into opportunities for growth.

2. Breathing

Breathing is a practical technique that helps you respond differently to the same trigger. Refocusing on correct breathing calms your nervous system and gives you a respite, so you can prevent a reactionary response and instead give a more thoughtful one.

However, taking deep breaths in has been shown to accelerate heart rate, which your brain can perceive as a stress response. The Physiological Sigh, consisting of two or three shallow breaths in followed by a profound exhale that reduces your heart rate, is one of the best breathing patterns to promote calmness.

3. Distraction techniques

Activities that redirect your mind from the trigger are helpful if you don’t use them to bury your emotions. For example, counting to ten, going for a walk, or simply going to another room may help you address your feelings more productively.

Distraction provides a temporary break, allowing you to regroup and approach the situation more calmly later.

4. Grounding exercises

Grounding exercises and certain forms of meditation help you reconnect with the present moment, pulling you out of a distressing memory or feeling.

The 5-4-3-2-1 technique is a good example, asking you to identify five things you can see, four you can touch, three you can hear, two you can smell, and one you can taste.

5. Professional therapy

Therapists know many strategies and have a wide experience that helps you navigate triggers in a personalized way. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy may desensitize you to triggers and help you develop resilience against them.

6. Equine therapy

Equine therapy involves interacting with horses, promoting emotional growth, trust, and communication skills. This therapeutic technique is often used to heal trauma and manage mental health symptoms during the addiction recovery process.

Resources:

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  6. Vohs, K. D., Glass, B. D., Maddox, W. T., & Markman, A. B. (2011). Ego Depletion Is Not Just Fatigue: Evidence From a Total Sleep Deprivation Experiment. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2(2), 166–173.
  7. University of Rochester Medical Center (n.d.). Journaling for Emotional Wellness. Health Encyclopedia.
  8. Arabi, J. (2021, November 26). Is a Sigh Just a Sigh? Blog Government Science and Engineering.
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Activity History - Last updated: 05 September 2023, Published date:

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