Looking at this list of trigger types, you may likely find that there is an overlap between triggers and coping strategies. One commonality is both internal and external triggers that vary depending on the individual and how their experiences are influenced by biopsychosocial factors.
Let’s look at seven different examples of triggers:
Sensory-Environmental Triggers: These are triggers within one’s environment that impact one or more of the five senses and make it more challenging to organize information and respond to the environment. Examples include:
Sights: crowded environments, fluorescent or flickering lights
Sounds: loud environments such as loud music or many people talking or clapping
Touch: uncomfortable fabrics, temperatures, or physical contact
Taste: certain foods such as spicy, sweet, salty, or bitter foods
Smell: perfumes, odors, or strong scents
Sensory triggers in the environment can be very distracting and trigger sensory overload such as feeling overwhelmed, meltdowns, or shutting down. Those who are neurodiverse such as those who are autistic, have ADHD, or have sensory-processing differences are especially prone to sensory-environmental triggers.
Trauma Triggers: After experiencing a traumatic event such as physical or sexual assault, cues that are reminders of trauma can be trauma triggers, including those with posttraumatic stress (PTSD) triggers. This includes sensory experiences such as sights, smells, and sounds in addition to other reminders such as certain people or places and body sensations. There is often a combination of both internal and external reminders.
Substance Use Triggers: Substance use triggers elicit memories of drug or alcohol use which can trigger cravings, slips, and relapse. Since there can be a lot of triggers, taking time to identify these can be helpful. In addition to people, places, cues, and specific situations that are triggered, one’s emotional state and thoughts are also important to note. For example, loneliness and boredom are common triggers for substance use.
Internal Emotional Triggers: These types of triggers are often intensified by cognitive distortions. For example, perhaps you are being really hard on yourself and ruminating about things that you “should” have done in the past or assuming the worst and “catastrophizing” about the future. Working with thoughts, feelings, and behaviors using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help change patterns.
Grief/ Loss Triggers: Triggers surrounding grief/ loss tend to come in waves but tend to be most prevalent during times such as anniversaries of the loss or event and around holidays. Examples include the death of a loved one (including pets), miscarriage or stillbirth, and holidays that honor the deceased such as Dia de los Muertos “Day of the Dead”, and Memorial Day. Specific dates can be grief/ loss triggers and elicit strong emotions such as on Dr. Martin-Luther-King-Jr Day or 9/11. Group support can be especially helpful for those experiencing grief/ loss triggers. Symbolic ways to honor the deceased through memorials, monuments, and ceremonies can be healing.
Relationship Triggers: These types of triggers often are related to challenges within significant relationships such as a primary caregiver or intimate partner that impacts other relationships. Attachment styles in early relationships and the impact of trauma can contribute to feelings and experiences of rejection, betrayal, feeling unwanted/ abandoned or not valued in the relationship, feeling exposed or vulnerable, lonely sad, frustrated, and anxious in the relationship. Attachment and trauma-related work can be helpful as well as individual and/or couple’s therapy.
Unjust Treatment Triggers: Individuals who are part of marginalized populations: groups or communities that have been historically mistreated, excluded, or have faced discrimination because of unequal power across economic, political, social, and cultural dimensions can experience multiple triggers. Populations include but are not limited to those excluded due to race (such as the BIPOC community), gender identity and sexual orientation (such as the LGBTQ community), age (such as older adults), physical ability (such as those with severe and persistent mental illness), language and/ or immigrant status (such as first-generation immigrants). Social justice and advocacy supports are so important as well as having safe places to talk about experiences.
With many triggers listed in the above categories, you may notice that your body feels anxious in certain situations but not know why, as are often subconscious. That is OK. We can start with whatever you are noticing in the present. Here are 7 strategies to cope with triggers.
- Begin to identify your triggers. Name them and write them down.
- Understand your triggers by increasing awareness of them and what is experienced in the body.
- Learn ways to cope with triggers, establish safety and stability in your environment, and regulate your body’s response.
- Focus on the present moment, including your thoughts, feelings, and body sensations and how these may relate to various experiences.
- Create a plan such as a safety plan, cope ahead plan, or relapse prevention plan.
- Connect with social supports.
- Talk to a therapist. There are a variety of approaches that are effective for certain types of triggers such as Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), Exposure therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and Cognitive Processing Therapy. CARE Counseling has therapists who are trained in these approaches. In addition, our therapists come from a variety of backgrounds, specialty areas, and training to help work with various triggers.
Written By: Charlotte Johnson, MA, LPCC
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