Triggers: Past Trauma Memories and How to Discuss Them

If a person has experienced trauma in the past, such as being the victim/survivor of sexual violence, they may have very strong emotions such as anger or fear which are associated with an element present when the initial trauma happened. This element – or trigger – can be anything from a smell to a certain word or phrase, it could be a particular sexual activity or position, or any number of other elements. After the initial trauma – it could be days, weeks, or years later – when the person experiences the trigger, they may emotionally or psychologically re-live the trauma of the initial incident. We call this ‘being triggered’.

It is not always possible to avoid being triggered, for example if the smell of beer was present when the initial traumatic incident occurred, then in the future the smell of beer might make the person have a ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response. Whether the current situation is safe or not, the person who has been ‘triggered’ might experience an elevated heart rate and physical symptoms of fear, anger, humiliation, sadness, or a number of other things. This may also mean that their reaction to another person drinking a beer is to feel distrustful, or angry, and they may not know why.

Discussing Triggers

Some people find it very helpful to work out, over time, the things that trigger past trauma for them. It can be a long process of recognising when they feel disproportionately upset, and working out why that might be. Not everything that upsets someone is a trigger – we can be upset for many reasons, including being upset because the thing which is happening right now is harming us. Or because we just don’t like something. It can be helpful to separate things out and reflect on what feelings we were having when we were upset, and whether there is a current problem happening and we are being harmed, or if we were triggered. Although the trauma we have experienced might not be our fault (and in the case of sexual violence is never the victim’s fault), it is still our responsibility to manage our triggers and behaviours. Some people find it useful to discuss triggers with partners or potential partners. It can also be useful to talk about how a person might guess that you are being triggered when it happens, what they might say to you in that situation, or how you might communicate with them.

Example: Sarah has trauma that involves sexual violence. She doesn’t like to have sex in certain positions, or when she’s very tired, or after an argument. Sometimes she doesn’t realise how tired she is, or something else can trigger her. When she’s triggered, she feels humiliated and worthless, and her response is to ‘freeze’, which for her means she thinks about other things, and tries to ‘just get through’ the sex that is happening right now. She struggles to let partners know she wants to stop having sex. Usually during sex she makes a lot of eye contact and talks or makes sounds. When she is triggered, she avoids eye contact and usually goes quiet and sometimes cries. She tells this to her partners, so that if she behaves in those ways, they know to stop and check in. She tells them that when they think she’s triggered, she doesn’t want to be asked ‘are you ok?’ because it’s hard to say ‘no’ when she feels like that. She wants her partners to ask ‘do you want to stop?’, because saying yes is easier. If she does want to stop, a good next question is ‘shall I make you some tea?’, because it gives her the chance to have space alone for a few minutes. After that, she sometimes feels fine. Other times, she wants to do something that isn’t sexual, like watch a film and cuddle. She also lets them know that her being triggered doesn’t mean they are doing something wrong.

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