Understanding triggers and how to de-trigger
It is critical that we learn how to identify if we have been triggered and how to de-trigger ourselves. Workers can support clients by educating them about triggers and the fight/ flight/ freeze mechanism. Learning about triggers and how to identify them is important as clients may have adaptive behaviours that they would normally do unconsciously when triggered.
For instance, using alcohol or drugs to reduce anxiety or fear, starting a fight when triggered to anger, dissociating to escape from a situation or manipulating others to take back control.
When clients are ‘triggered’ by an experience that reminds them of their trauma, the sympathetic nervous system and the amygdala are switched to “high alert” into a fight, flight or freeze response, and they no longer can think or function rationally. At this point, the triggered client needs to be ‘de-triggered’. Once we are aware of our triggers and usual coping behaviours we can begin to identify our feelings when triggered, de-trigger ourselves and respond more appropriately without resorting to the usual, and often unhealthy, maladaptive behaviours.
Four steps to de-trigger:
1. RECOGNISE I’VE BEEN TRIGGERED
(I WAS OKAY AND NOW I’M NOT)
WHY? So than I can own my own triggers and not blame anybody else for my reactions
2. SPEAK THE FEELING/S (Feel the feeling/s)
(SAY: I FEEL…. FOR EACH FEELING, e.g. I feel scared, I feel angry, I feel sad, etc) NB: best to say to someone else or to a mirror
WHY? To discharge the energy in my body so I can respond instead of reacting
3. VALIDATE THE FEELING/S
TELL MYSELF & MY INNER CHILD/REN: “It’s okay to be feeling this way”
WHY? Because it is okay to feel my feelings!
Our welfare system is set up to “help” people, to find them jobs, to find them housing, rather than considering that each person is well able to find help themselves if they are empowered to do so. We have a rescuing mentality based on the previously correct belief that people with problems are not capable of helping themselves when in fact they are, they just don’t believe it. Workers consider they have to help their clients not to “feel so much” they try to stop they crying feeling sad, feeling angry on the basis that happiness comes for suppressing feelings when in fact for survivors of trauma the opposite is the case.
It is no help to a client to take calls from them at anytime of the day or night. What is helpful is to build up the understanding &belief that the worker will help them learn to love themselves. It’s the same principle as give a man a fish, it lasts a day whereas teach a man to fish & it lasts a lifetime.
Trauma Informed Care believes that everyone can change, they just need to know that they can & be given the tools to help them to do so.
Recognition of the importance of emotions and healthy ways to release them
- Feeling emotion is vital to recovery. The emotions associated with trauma are often locked in the amygdala and cannot be accessed through just talking about the experience. Talking about trauma without the associated feelings will not improve brain structure.
- Many survivors have repressed their feelings for years. Repressed feelings may be expressed inappropriately, for example, anger taken out on one’s loved ones or it may be turned inwards and become depression.
- Emotions are repressed in many ways including, use of alcohol or other drugs, ignoring feelings, overeating, eating foods high in sugar and fat, compulsive exercising, compulsive sex, overworking, keeping busy and being overly analytical, among other ways. Severe repression leads to increased tension and anxiety, with the body on constant high alert which can lead to episodes of self harm as a means of releasing the stress.
How to support clients in finding ways to release emotion
When clients are ‘triggered’ at a service by an experience that reminds them of their trauma, the sympathetic nervous system and the amygdala are switched to “high alert” into a fight, flight or freeze response, and they no longer can think or function rationally. At this point, the triggered client needs to be ‘de-triggered’ (see resources section for this process).
Clients will often find they have a build-up of emotion, particularly anger, that needs to be released. Services can support clients by helping them find ways they can release emotions such as anger, which helps survivors learn how to self-soothe, a vital part of recovery. Releasing anger lowers the autonomic nervous system. Clients need to be encouraged to recognise that all emotions emanate from childhood experiences and when they feel anger they need to find what it relates to in their childhood, and then let that child part of themselves release that anger.
“None of the services I attended have had any healthy ways or suggestions for clients to express anger. An expression of anger was seen by the services as dangerous, and clients were either, medicated, warned about their angry outbursts, isolated in their rooms or reported to the police.” (HFL guest, 2011)
Staff can assist clients develop self-care plans that include practical ways of releasing emotion regardless of where they are. Some examples may be: screaming into a pillow, allowing clients to cry as long as they need to, if they can’t scream or cry, ask them to imagine themselves screaming and /or crying as deeply as you can, they can take a pillow and hit a chair or a bed while saying out loud their feelings of anger or frustration, punch a punching bag, write or draw their anger, hate, fear etc.
For episodes of self-harm it is important that staff and the service respond appropriately. Self harming is a way of lowering stress in the body. No one self harms to draw attention to themselves. They can only self harm without pain and receive the relief of endogenous opiods, if they are in a highly stressed state. So if staff always recognise that and help them to identify what the tension is being caused by (it is usually anger turned on themselves because they do not dare turn it on the perpetrator) and help them to release the anger, this will naturally lower the sympathetic nervous systemand the client will not need to self harm in fact they can’t once they are de-stressed as the cutting will hurt them! Suggestions such as using coloured pens or a rubber bands on wrists will not help them lower the sympathetic nervous system. Try to get to the cause.