What does it mean to be triggered?
Being “triggered” happens when something in your environment causes your central nervous system to go into fight or flight mode thus initiating physiological, emotional, and cognitive changes in your body. These changes cause all sorts of things to happen in your body, some of which you will notice and others which you will not. You will likely notice a change in your breathing and energy in your extremities. You might feel on edge, heightened, something close to a “hair standing on end” feeling.
For most people there is an acute part of the trigger as well as a more chronic part of the trigger. To get through (and get through is the correct terminology here! We aren’t talking about thriving, just surviving!) the acute part of the trauma, I recommend grounding. Many of our resources and tools simply won’t work well when we are too heightened, but grounding should bring you down enough for those resources to come back online later on.
What is grounding?
The best way to care for yourself during a time you are acutely triggered is to use grounding exercises.
Physical grounding: Wash your hand in hot or cold water and really feel the temperature of the water and notice the smell of the soap and the sensation of the suds. Scream into a pillow. Rip up paper. Go outside and touch any plants or trees and really notice their texture. Pick up an object in your immediate surroundings and manipulate it in your hands while noticing all the sensory information you can pull from it.
Mental grounding: Name 10 cereals, try to count backwards from 100 by 7’s, try and recall from memory your favorite recipe, Try to recipe the Pythagorean theorem or recite song lyrics.
The entire goal of grounding is to get yourself out of fight or flight (or at least less out of fight or flight) and let your frontal lobe re-engage. Grounding first, will help your other resources work better.
By engaging in some grounding you will likely be able to remove yourself from the acute part of the trigger and into a more chronic triggered phase. For most people this is less intense but still they find themselves feeling “off” or a little shaken and may have some disturbance in typical behavior and patterns such as changes in appetite or sleep. During this phase, self care will feel difficult to implement but is hugely beneficial. Think about it as if you had a big work deadline approaching or were competing in an athletic challenge- You would want to “be at your best” by eating well, getting enough water and sleep, and being engaged. When your body is undergoing a longer term state of being triggered, it is highly exhausted and expending a tremendous amount of energy. So things to do to help ongoing would be:
- Eat at least somewhat healthfully and if you cannot manage that, simply eat
- Drink water– your body is emotionally detoxing so you will likely require more water than usual
- Try to have a good sleep hygiene and sleep regimen, i.e. going to bed at about the same time, taking screens out of the bedroom, having a good routine, etc.
- Try to move your body– anywhere from intense exercise to stretching or a light walk
- Engage in nature– Plenty of research shows that even just looking at green space from indoors has positive effects on mood and staying regulated and grounded.
- Reach out to friends – even if you aren’t talking about what is bothering you
- Engage in soothing behavior– Listen to music, take a bath or shower, do a face mask, rub lotion into your skin, etc.
Titration into and out of the distress:
Most importantly, there is a time to feel and a time to put that stuff away! When it is time to work or sleep or when you are acutely triggered, try to put it all away by engaging in other thoughts and activities. Call a friend or family member, watch a show or play a video game, bake or cook, do a jigsaw puzzle, play a word game such as sudoku, read a book (if you can), do something physically challenging as to tie up concentration. You must also do the less fun part and build out time and space in your life to process your distress. Set a 20 or 30 minute timer and let yourself fully fall into the thoughts and feelings that are distressing you. Engage in the news. Process with a friend. By doing this on a regular basis, your system will be more likely to learn that there is a time and place for feeling your feelings as well as a time to completely disengage from them.
Some ideas for building healthy distractions:
It can be a great idea to build out distractions so that when you need them, they’re easily accessible. Ask friends to have a meme text chain or send funny videos back and forth with you. It can feel great to know you at least have a 2-minute laugh coming your way each day. Take up the art of the jigsaw puzzle. It is hard to think about much else. Enter into a “wildlife spotting challenge” or a “song of the day” challenge. Make a fitness plan or a goal for a certain number of minutes spent in nature for the year.
It can be very challenging to push through when you are feeling triggered but as you practice more and more, find grounding techniques that work for you, and make an effort to make self care a priority (even for 5 minutes a day) you will start to learn how to better soothe your central nervous system. Working with a trauma informed therapist can also help lessen those triggers by helping you identify them and providing individualized resources and tools for you to combat them and even thrive.