Trauma Triggers and Memories—Overview

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Trauma Triggers are reminders of traumatic events.  Everyone has their own unique things that trigger them.  Triggers can be people, places, or situations. Thoughts,  emotions and sensations can also trigger trauma memories.  Triggers can be something specific tied to the memory of the traumatic event (like bridges, the smell of fuel or feeling afraid) or  something general (like being in a crowd).

You can be triggered when you expect it, or a trigger can come out of the blue.

Getting triggered can set off upsetting emotions such as: Fear, Anger,  Sadness, Guilt, and Shame. 

Getting triggered can set off physical sensations such as: Racing heart,  Shortness of breath, Sweating. 

The Importance of Understanding Triggers 

The circumstances surrounding the traumatic event, including sights, sounds, smells, and thoughts, may have become connected in your day- to-day thinking with the trauma itself. During your deployment, these connections helped you survive. The sights, sounds, and smells helped you to recognize signs of danger and react more quickly. But many of the things that signaled danger in the past, which “trigger” you now, are harmless in the present.

Your body can become stressed and you can have strong emotions just by thinking that you are under attack.  Now that you are in the present, and safe, the steps below aim to “disconnect” old reminders from your brain’s  danger circuits. This can help ease the way the reminders affect your mood, relationships, health, work, concentration, or general functioning.  You can ease the impact that reminders have by retraining yourself to recognize when in fact you are safe, even if your habit has been to tell yourself that you are in danger.

Identifying Your Trauma Triggers 

Trauma triggers are highly individual. So, you will have to put some time and energy into determining what triggers you. Using a Trigger Record can help in identifying your triggers.

Coping Once You’ve Been Triggered 

The Trigger Record and the RID Tool can help reduce the negative effects that trauma triggers have on you.

Preparing for Triggers That You Expect to Face 

Sometimes you know beforehand that you are going to be in a situation that may have triggers that remind you of your traumatic experience(s). The PLAN Tool is a strategy to manage situations that you anticipate will be difficult.

Step 1: Prepare for the situation

Step 2: Let go of your worry

Step 3: Accept that you will experience distress and it is possible to manage your reaction

Step 4: Note all of your coping skills and helpful resources


Tools for Reducing the Distress that Trauma Triggers Cause for You 

If you feel ready to deal directly with a trigger, try to remain in the presence of the trigger until you feel less distressed by it. Here is the idea: don’t leave the situation until you feel that the trigger is not as powerful as it was when you first confronted it. This will retrain your brain.  Your brain will learn to tolerate the trigger. Your brain will learn that you are not in actual danger, and your response to the trigger will gradually weaken.

In order to do put these tools and recommendations into practice safely and effectively:

1. Actively talk yourself through the situation.

2. Use relaxation or breathing skills while you are dealing with the trigger.


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