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Triggers and Trauma

In my practice, I have worked with many clients who have experienced trauma and are dealing with the triggers that can bring that trauma flooding back to them. But trauma on a more widespread level is something that I have also had experience dealing with in my therapeutic career. I was in graduate school, working in a mental health clinic in 2001 when 9/11 happened. That was my first experience working with clients where the trauma was experienced through the media. The news outlets replayed the planes crashing, over and over again for weeks after, and so people were being re-traumatized over and over again, adding to whatever issues they were dealing with before that tragic day. And now on top of our everyday lives, not only is there a pandemic putting everyone under additional stress, but we also are all experiencing the trauma of the devastating deaths of unarmed black people due to police brutality. It’s not easy watching videos of people being murdered and to hear stories of people being brutalized. It hurts, it’s traumatic, and it’s natural to be outraged and sad. And of course, depending on the color of your own skin, and your own life experiences, you may be feeling these tragedies on an even deeper level as it affects you on a deeper and more personal level. So today I am going to talk about what trauma and triggers are, and how we can cope and be there for each other.

An emotional trigger is any topic that makes us feel uncomfortable. And racism is certainly an uncomfortable topic for most people. Triggers are very revealing about our inner thoughts and feelings, and therefore will vary depending on each person’s life experiences and struggles. Triggers can, but don’t necessarily have to come directly from a trauma that the person experienced themselves. An emotional trauma, on the other hand, is the psychological damage that has been caused by actually living through a very scary or stressful event. That trauma can make it hard to go back to normal life and to process through the event and cope with the roller coaster of emotions it causes. Similar to the grief cycle, a person may experience a multitude of emotions such as anger, sadness, guilt, denial, confusion, withdrawal, shame, fear, helplessness, and overwhelm. In fact, trauma can actually be held inside the body at a cellular level, and manifest in physical symptoms such as shaking, crying, and chronic pain.

So how can we cope with trauma and these triggers? Well first, if you do experience physical symptoms, it’s your body’s way of trying to release the stress, so let it out. Don’t try to fight it, just let yourself shake or cry if you need to, and do what you can to help your body release that tension. Run, punch something (soft like a pillow or a punching bag, there’s no need to injure yourself!), or do some other kind of physical activity to help release that pent-up energy. Mindfulness and breathing exercises are also very helpful. Practicing self-care, reading, writing, and creating something with your hands such as some form of art, are also helpful ways to get the intense emotions, thoughts, and feelings of trauma out instead of holding them in where they can do the most damage. Right now, I am seeing many people online are sharing their stories with one another, reading to educate themselves, writing blogs and journaling. They are also getting out and doing whatever they feel they can to help such as protesting, contacting their local government, donating, and signing petitions. All of these things help not only yourself but help those around you in supporting each other through the challenging times we are currently in.

My advice to anyone who doesn’t know what to do or where to start is to be genuine and open. Listen to the people around you with an open mind. Hear their experiences, thoughts, and feelings without judgement and without taking it personally. We all have our own personal perspectives, and a need to be heard and respected. Respond with compassion and empathy instead of reacting defensively. Be open to doing your own research from diverse sources and learning from others around you, and also be open to having those tough conversations. If you don't know what to say to someone who has experienced trauma or is deeply affected by current events, simply saying, “I’m sorry that happened, it’s awful.” and letting them know that you see, hear and stand with them, is a good start. Know that they are grieving, and they’re not okay. Someone who has been through a trauma may not want to relive it and tell the story over and over again. It’s exhausting, and it’s not their job to teach, but it’s your job to learn. So wherever you are in that grief cycle, and whatever your personal life experiences with racism in our society, or any other trauma in your life, take care of yourself and take care of each other, so that we can experience the changes that are needed and we can heal together.

If you’d like to explore further what having the support of a mental wellness coach looks like, let’s talk.