PTSD triggers can sneak up almost anywhere, even in the most benign conversations or situations. And they can wreck our mood, day, or even send us into a crisis.
Heck, cherry tomatoes have been a serious trigger for me before.
Because PTSD triggers are so common, it’s essential every survivor knows how to both handle and heal them. This, of course, is a process (and there may be certain triggers you’ll always have)—but it can be done.
It’s by, well, facing the triggers themselves.
This takes careful attention and knowledge. You have to determine, first, if a trigger is safe enough to expose yourself to. Then, you need to determine how to take care of yourself after this exposure.
This blog will help you through it. But, please note, if you’re in any risk of crisis—it’s best to do this work with a trained mental health professional. If you don’t have a support system yet, work on building that first. Here are a few other blogs to help you build supportive relationships:
How Intense are Your PTSD Triggers?
Triggers exist in every stage of recovery from abuse—everywhere from struggling to come to terms with being a survivor, all the way to living your absolute dream life.
I’m so happy with my life—engaged, working on moving to Greece, training my service dog, and running a business I love…but I still have triggers. Both big and small ones. Fortunately, I know how intense certain triggers are and how to treat each one if I am exposed to it.
The 3 Categories of Triggers:
Stressful triggers: These cause discomfort and stress, maybe a mild anxiety attack, but aren’t overwhelming. With a little self care and rest, you can usually get back to normal soon after these.
Strong triggers: These are intense triggers, where they almost always send you into some anxious or dissociated state—but it isn’t quite strong enough to cause a crisis (like self-harm, suicidal ideation, or a relapse).
Crisis triggers: These are the hardest triggers to handle. This could be witnessing an assault, running into an abuser, or attending court for your case. They can be less common too—anything can be a serious trigger if it strongly relates to your past trauma.
If you’re stressed, but can recover within a day, it’s likely category one. If it causes a lot of distress, but you are still able to get yourself back to a baseline and avoid a crisis (even if it takes a lot of work or some support), it’s the 2nd kind. The last is the most obvious, where you feel completely unsafe and may need emergency mental health help. Or something that shakes you to the bone.
Keep a journal of what your response to triggers are. This will help you figure out which category to place them in. Then, make a chart with these 3 columns, adding new triggers to the respective category.
What You Need to Keep in Mind While Healing Triggers
There is a super important concept to understand before beginning any of this work. It’s about facing several small triggers, that caused you to feel as distressed as a strong (or maybe even crisis) trigger would make you feel.
This is called “trigger stacking.” It’s basically when one mildly stressful situation has more mild stressors build up until it’s too overwhelming. Like when something is the “last straw” at the end of a bad day.
Most people have experienced this—like in a day with lots of bad luck. One situation (like stubbing a toe, not finding a close parking spot, or getting bad feedback at work) might be tolerable.
But, add them all together, and you’re a mess. That’s the result of trigger stacking.
So, when doing any of this work, pay attention to if you’ve already had smaller triggers or stress come up today. Don’t intentionally expose yourself to new triggers if you’re already stressed, just work on dealing with the ones already in your life.
What We Tend to do Wrong When Healing PTSD Triggers
Our instinct is to avoid triggers. It makes sense. If we don’t face the trigger, we won’t be anxious or stressed, right?
Unfortunately, we can’t control the world around us. So, avoiding PTSD triggers can actually be more dangerous. When one does come up unexpectedly—it hits us a lot harder. This would be like me avoiding cherry tomato dishes, but then having a panic attack when at a friend’s for dinner and they served a dish with them.
Exposing ourselves, gently and slowly, to the 1st level of PTSD triggers will actually make them safer. For some, they may eventually stop being triggers entirely.
This shows us that we can survive the trigger. When we get through it once, then twice, then a third time, our fear recedes. There’s no reason to be afraid of something we’ve survived a lot of times (that isn’t a direct trauma), and our brains know this.
But, many of us will approach a trigger, then back away before actually getting through it. A past therapist of mine made a great analogy about this healing process.
If someone is afraid of driving over bridges, like due to a car crash on one previously, they may go up to the bridge in their car. But then fear takes over and they turn around. Emotionally, their anxiety increased to the point of terror—but then they ran.
They didn’t realize they could survive that fear by facing it and doing what they were afraid of.
If the person had kept driving, acknowledging the anxiety but going through with the drive anyways, they would have realized they could survive the fear.
Avoiding the bridge is like bringing anxiety to 100% intensity, but then never letting yourself get to the other side of that emotional mountain.
Going on the bridge and making it to the other side is reaching that 100%, but then also watching it drop back down—showing you that the fear was only temporary. It was survivable. You climbed the mountain without any injury.
How to Overcome Your PTSD Triggers
It’s always best to start this process with only stressful triggers (not strong ones, and never crisis ones). These are enough to bring you to the top of that anxiety mountain, but usually weak enough that you can push through it (with a little persistence).
Obviously, sometimes life will bring us stronger triggers that we can’t avoid. Just recently, I had this with dental x-rays. Having items in my mouth was a huge physical trigger for past forced sexual acts.
In these situations, since you can’t leave them, it’s best to ride over that mountain of anxiety and realize you survived it. The situation itself is safe (a dentist isn’t actually a threat), but emotionally it doesn’t feel that way. So, I need to show my brain it is safe by surviving it. By letting the situation be experienced and end.
The key is acknowledging you survived it with some self-talk. A simple “See, I got through this—nothing bad actually happened!” can help reduce the trigger. Then, of course, lots of self care to recuperate the energy you lost while being anxious.
Be slow and deliberate when intentionally facing triggers (like me reintroducing cherry tomatoes back into my diet). Get to the place where it’s stressful, but doable. For me, this began with simply picking up cherry tomatoes up in the store and taking a few deep breaths. Then I set them down and moved on.
Doing this several times made me realize nothing bad was going to happen by touching them. I still got a little nervous around them, but I also knew cherry tomatoes themselves where safe. Picking them up hadn’t brought back the abuser I cooked for.
So, next time, I bought cherry tomatoes—cooking them in a dish where they were well disguised. Not something I’d made for my abuser. I got through it and realized this was safe too, even though it was a little more anxiety provoking. Slowly, I worked my way up to making the actual triggering meal that featured this ingredient.
After having worked with them over a hundred times since then, they officially cause no more anxiety (and haven’t for about two years)! I realized, time and time again, the tomatoes themselves weren’t going to cause trauma—so my anxiety naturally faded.
By exposing myself to the trigger, I realized there was nothing to actually be afraid of, so my mind stopped feeling terrified by it. The same principle will work for you.
What to do When You’re Hit with a Crisis Trigger
You should always try to avoid crisis triggers. These are too intense of situations to try and deliberately expose yourself to.
Eventually, as you work your way through smaller triggers, previous things that would cause a crisis may no longer be—then you can work through them. But, it’s important to acknowledge that some things may always be best to avoid.
These are often dangerous or traumatic situations. Like, it would never be smart to call up your abuser and ask to see them in an attempt to get over them being a trigger.
Let crisis triggers stay and, instead, put your energy into avoiding these. I’d suggest only working on these if a mental health professional you trust and have been working with suggests you approach them—and is there to support you through the process.
Obviously, if a crisis trigger does come, focus on handling your reaction to it. And, after its over, do acknowledge the fact you survived it. Noticing you got through it and are safely on the other side can still help heal a crisis PTSD trigger, but ideally you don’t want to be in that situation in the first place.
Watch Your Triggers Disappear
The amazing part of this process is watching your PTSD triggers literally vanish. I have maybe 10% of the triggers I had three years ago, when I began this exposure work. The world is far less threatening than it has ever felt.
This process can be intense, though. Sometimes, it’s exciting to see how something finally feels safe again—but sometimes it can be overwhelming. Use some of these anxiety lowering techniques if it ever becomes too much:
You can always turn to the Uncover Your Joy Facebook group here for a little support during this process too. Everyone is so compassionate and helpful—and I’m certain they’ll step in to support you too.
Remember, healing triggers takes time. Slow is fast with this. You’ll want to face the things that feel uncomfortable, but not unbearable. Avoid re-traumatizing yourself (whenever possible)—and you’ll be good.
So what small trigger will you start to work on? How will you begin gentle exposure?