A trigger is basically what it sounds like: a person, speech, sound, smell, sight or thing that creates a disruptive, emotional response. Survivors have to learn how to actually talk about what happened to them and understand the events that may come up in their lives that could make them feel afraid, upset, or bring them back to that moment in time that changed their lives forever. As a friend, lover, or family of a survivor, by understanding triggers, you could help someone who has suffered an atrocious event like rape or sexual assault.
In the strictest sense of the term, trigger is used to refer to experiences that “re-trigger” trauma in the form of flashbacks or overwhelming feelings of sadness, anxiety, or panic. The brain forms a connection between a trigger and the feelings with which it is associated, and some triggers are quite innocuous. For example, a person who smelled incense while being raped might have a panic attack when he or she smells incense in a store.
Recognizing and acknowledging a trigger validates the emotions and experience connected to it. But here’s something to note about triggers and thus, trigger warnings: While common, they are inherently personal. What triggers you or your best friend might not mean anything for someone else. Sometimes it takes time to figure out what might be triggering you. Triggers come from all of the senses, touch, smell, taste, sight, and sound, and often it can be difficult or impossible to pinpoint the exact cause. Work on grounding yourself when you are able to process what happened and see what feelings come up. It is okay if you do not identify the exact trigger, the important part is working through the emotions.
A trigger warning is a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc. alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material.
Trigger warnings should be issued with great care and concern—not in an effort to stop conversation. When you are triggered you are responding as if the abuse or rape is occurring in the present moment, rather than in the past. When triggered the tendency is to want to avoid the trigger, but triggers can be a very useful healing tool. They can show you emotions and areas that need to be attended to. You can learn to console yourself, and be consoled by others, and to express feelings and pain that may have not been expressed before. By identifying triggers and working through them you can reach a place where they do not send you into a flashback. Some may continue to remind you of the incident but they won’t have the same emotional impact, while some may stop bothering you completely; but being honest and open about triggers will help you start exploring and talking about your trauma. Ideally, it will have a positive effect in that it will spur a conversation.
One of the most important parts about dealing with triggers is understanding why you are being triggered (through educating yourself) and also by allowing yourself the feelings. Be gentle with yourself and understand why the event, smell, scenery or feel of an individual disturbs and scares you. You do not have to push yourself or make yourself do anything that makes you uncomfortable, it is okay to decide not to go to a certain place or side of town, participate in a certain activity, etc. until you have worked through the trigger. Once you discover what your trigger is, you need to give yourself permission to have your feelings. Prepare yourself as much as you can, speak up about it with people who care about you, the more you acknowledge and work through the trigger, the more in control you will feel.