Recognizing Trauma Triggers and Building Power

As a therapist working with trauma, I have witnessed how powerful the process of identifying and learning one's own trauma triggers can be.  Recognizing triggers--the small, everyday details that remind me* of the trauma and throw my body into panic mode--can powerfully validate my sense of my own reality.  Before recognizing that I am being triggered, my emotional and physical responses feel irrational, random, and out of control.  This is part of what trauma destroys--my trust in my own ability to make meaning of my surroundings.  Healing from trauma is a process in which I regain my trust that my perceptions of the world are as valid as anyone else's.

If I'm not aware of the scent or phrase or other small detail that triggered me, I am only aware that I am acting weird--sweating, panicked, yelling, or frozen.  In those cases, I might worry that I'm losing my connection with reality.   It's not fun to be freaking out, scared, and completely clueless as to why this is happening.  As soon as I recognize that my intense embodied responses have been triggered by reminders of my trauma, my behavior becomes both understandable and linked to my history.  Naming the connection to my past trauma, I can feel again like I am a reasonable person in the present moment.  I gain a sense of control over my affective response--there are things that I can do to calm myself down, to move from a fight-or-flight state into a thinking space.  I feel rational again.  

For example, several years ago, I was trapped by flooded roads while driving upstate from New York City in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.  On a recent drive from New York to Buffalo, I made a wrong turn and ended up accidentally retracing my path from that day.  I found myself feeling panicked, with tears in my eyes, worrying out loud to my partner that because of my wrong turn "we'll never get home."  My behavior didn't make any sense, and it disconcerted me to be acting so irrationally.  For some reason, I started thinking of that previous drive, and I slowly recognized that I was in the same location where I had been stuck driving up and down the same patch of road, blocked at every possible turn by rising flood waters.  Even though I didn't recognize the road--I had clearly been triggered by the environment.  As soon as I knew why I felt scared, the majority of my panic symptoms subsided.  As soon as I knew the narrative--how my current response linked to my history--I could move forward.

Sometimes, critics have expressed concern that engaging with trauma encourages people to think of themselves as weak or powerless.  Being able to identify a trigger doesn't make me feel weak--it makes me feel an increased sense of power over a situation in which the aftermath of trauma is making me feel out of control.  Healing from trauma is a process through which we build  power and increase our ability to take action.  Putting my embodied experience into a historical context, I regain confidence that I can trust my own perceptions and that I can use my own voice.  

*A note about language--I speak in the first person in this post, as a way of recognizing that most people experience traumatic events over the course of their lives.  I want to re-situate "trauma survivors" as a group to which most people, mental health professionals included, belong to and can speak from, and to de-stigmatize the experience of having been through a traumatic event.