If a friend has confided in you about their trauma, or mentioned that they sometimes get triggered, your first question may be: “Well how can I help if I’m around when this happens?”
We commend you for wanting to help a friend who deals with intrusive thoughts and feelings related to past negative experiences.
First, find a review of how and why triggering happens. Understanding someone else’s struggle may help you notice when they might be triggered. Then, find a simple flashback management checklist to help in the moment.
What does it mean to be triggered?
We often hear folks throw around the word “triggered,” without totally knowing what it means. Contrary to popular belief, feeling triggered does not make someone weak, overly sensitive, or invalid.
Triggering comes from trauma. When someone is in a situation where they feel completely helpless in the face of a threat, it can cause post traumatic stress reactions. This phenomenon helped evolving humans learn extremely quickly from bad situations.
The problem is, now in a modern world, our bodies may feel threatened in situations that don’t actually endanger our lives. This allows frightening situations, emotional abuse, and even social embarrassments to imprint on our minds, causing unwanted intrusive thoughts or feelings. And that’s how even emotional triggers can paralyze and disable otherwise well-functioning folks.
Why do people keep getting triggered after a trauma? It’s over.
When someone hasn’t fully processed their emotions from an intense event, their brain constantly itches to revisit that event — to process and take meaning from it. And just like your brain processes visual information before other senses, your brain is also prone to give emotions priority, over rational thought.
So with their brains just itching to revisit a traumatic memory and its associated emotions, people who have experienced trauma are more likely to have their trauma brought to the surface by things around them. This phenomenon of unprocessed emotions taking over someone’s brain is the essence of triggering.
What does triggering look like?
“Someone who’s been triggered may not act in line with the current situation.” This broad statement illustrates all forms of triggering, which happens on a spectrum.
It’s often more subtle than you’d think.
When unprocessed, trauma-related emotions take over someone’s brain in a triggering situation, they may lose sense of logical reality. They may very briefly forget where they are, who they are with, or what is actually happening.
This can also be called a process of “flashback,” or “emotional flashback.”
Because the emotions feel so intense and endangering to the brain, fight or flight reactions get triggered from within the traumatic memory, and someone who’s “flashing back” may not act in line with the current situation.
But triggering isn’t always – and is often not – like you see in movies, where a car backfires and the combat veteran thinks he’s suddenly in the middle of a bombing. Much of the time, a reaction to triggering looks much more subtle.
A triggered person often has a complete grasp on reality, but their emotions fail to reflect the current situation; they may act jumpy and anxious around friends, or have trouble focusing due to uncontrolled hypervigilance.
A trigger may cause the person’s emotional brain to flash back to a traumatic situation (aptly called an emotional flashback). The triggered person may not even realize that a shift has happened, or that they’re not 100% present.
These more subtle reactions to being triggered can be quite hard to pick up on, even for the person experiencing them. So if you’ve noticed someone has been triggered, props to you – and even bigger props for wanting to understand and help!
What are some common triggers?
Trauma is defined as any experience in which a person both perceives a threat to their wellbeing and feels out of control, helpless, and endangered. This means the range of traumatizing experiences can run as far as the imagination.
So what does this mean for triggers? Anything can cause a flashback depending on the trauma someone’s been through. But because the experience of feeling triggered revolves around a lost feeling of safety, the most commonly triggering stimuli are ones that make traumatized people feel unsafe.
When you look at it this way, you’ll start to see how people can be sent into a flashback by things other than just loud noises:
- An occurrence that reminds them of a traumatizing event
- Personality traits or behaviors that remind them of an abuser
- A favorite saying of an abuser
Emotional triggers often revolve around painful self-beliefs and beliefs around safety. Some people were told constantly by their parents that they were dumb and couldn’t do anything right. If even your parents thought you were dumb and unlovable, that makes it easy to believe that friends, coworkers, even partners would drop you in a second for the same reasons.
So if someone with this trauma believes someone thinks they’re dumb, that can bring back unprocessed beliefs about being worthless and unlovable by the people who were supposed to love them unconditionally. This can cause them to shut down in learned helplessness, even if the trigger was simply a casual, offhand comment.
How to help someone who’s been triggered
Walk them through a Flashback Management checklist.
This checklist is adapted from therapist Pete Walker’s website, and is often used as a self-help tool for grounding oneself after being triggered. When you notice someone has been triggered, try going down this list:
1. Ask: “Is it possible you might be having a flashback?” Remind them you know what they’re feeling is very real, but that these feelings can’t hurt them now in the present.
2. Remind them: “It’s ok to feel afraid, but you’re not in any danger. You’re here with me right now.”
3. Encourage them to set boundaries. They do not have to stay in triggering situations, especially not when the trigger is mistreatment from someone else. Tell them it’s ok to be upset and to bring attention to what happened.
4. Suggest they say a few words to their Inner Child. They can reassure the part of themselves that feels scared right now, and resolve to nurture those emotions when they come up. You can’t help being triggered, but you can commit to take care of yourself when it happens. These emotions are ok.
5. Reiterate that even if this person has endured what feels like endless fear and suffering, that it will not go on forever. (Sometimes introducing a distraction like a lighthearted movie can really help drive this home!)
6. State that they are a different person now than when they experienced the trauma they’re triggered back to. They have people who care about them (like you!) now, and they’re much stronger.
7. Help them get back into their physical body.
- If you notice them holding their breath, stay present with them, counting through a few deep ones.
- If they’re clenching their muscles, make sure they’re very warm, and invite them to notice and release the tension.
- If they’re forcing themselves to calm down, let them know it’s ok to cry until they can’t anymore.
- Make them as comfortable as possible, so their bodies know they’re not in danger. You want to send signals of warmth, coziness, and protection. So pillow forts, blanket burritos, and heating pads are especially helpful.
8. If the trigger caused them to become tough on themselves, remind them of their positive qualities, and encourage them to think about where all these harsh criticisms are coming from. This may help them reject the negative self beliefs their trauma gave them.
9. Indicate that the triggering and flashback might mean their bodies are asking permission to revisit painful memories. Instead of rushing them to move right past the feelings, invite them to grieve. You can help by acknowledging how much pain they’re holding, and how unfair that burden is.
And before you offer help, refresh yourself on best practices for lending a hand.