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Coping with triggers
by TeenHelp March 2nd 2015, 09:12 PM

Coping with triggers
By Robin (PSY)

In order to cope with triggers, it's important to understand what a "trigger" is. A "trigger" is a cue or signal for anything that 1) reminds a person of an upsetting event, and 2) leads a person to have a strong, negative, physical and/or emotional reaction in response to being reminded of that upsetting event. Everyone has different triggers, because everyone experiences different kinds of upsetting events. Triggers can come in the form of people, places, objects, sights, smells, tastes, sounds, physical sensations, words (written/typed/spoken), and so on. When someone says they are being "triggered," they are indicating that something has reminded them of an upsetting event. That person may experience physical symptoms (e.g., headache, stomachache, dizziness, nausea, rapid heart rate, etc.) and/or emotional symptoms (e.g., sadness, anger, fear, numbness, etc.) until they are able to find a way to cope with whatever triggered them.

How can a person cope with triggers? The following step-by-step process can offer physical and emotional relief when someone is triggered:
  1. Identify the Triggers
  2. Observe the Reactions
  3. Create and Use a "Safety Plan"

Step 1: Identify the Triggers
In order to cope with triggers, a person must first identify what their triggers are. Some triggers are easy to spot, while others may not be as obvious. When someone is unable to identify their triggers, it can be helpful to keep a record of times when they are triggered in a journal or diary. For example, someone may notice they're suddenly feeling light-headed and angry for no apparent reason. They may catch themselves yelling at people they care about or behaving in a way that's inappropriate. When they notice what they're doing, but they don't understand what triggered them, they can write about what happened shortly before they started to experience these physical and emotional reactions. This will help them develop self-awareness and gain insight about more subtle triggers.

Step 2: Observe the Reactions
Once a person has identified their triggers, the next step is to observe the physical and/or emotional reactions to those triggers. Someone who wants to observe their physical reactions to triggers can go somewhere that is quiet with few distractions. That person can engage in a meditative exercise or simply do their best to be "present" by focusing on what's going on in their body. How does their head feel (light, heavy, painful)? Do they feel tension in their neck, shoulders, back, hands, or elsewhere? Are they shaking, nauseous, or panicked? Emotional reactions can also be observed when a person is alone and able to reflect on what they are feeling or thinking. Are any strong emotions rising to the surface? Is that person emotionally "numb" or apathetic? Does the person have a recurring thought or image of a person/place/thing? These observations can be recorded in the same journal or diary that is used to identify triggers.

After steps 1 and 2 have been completed, a pattern should begin to emerge. For example, a person who struggles with an eating disorder may be triggered by comments about weight or images of models with "perfect" figures, which may lead to feelings of sadness, inadequacy, and the urge to alter one's eating or exercise habits. A person who struggles with the aftermath of a sexual assault may be triggered by crude jokes or scenes in TV shows/movies, which may lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, and the urge to avoid other people who are perceived as "dangerous." Whatever the pattern(s) may be, step 3 addresses how to deviate from the pattern(s) and develop healthier ways of coping with triggers.

Step 3: Create and Use a "Safety Plan"
A "safety plan" is simply a step-by-step procedure that lists what a person is willing to do in order to help themselves if they become triggered. It can be helpful to write down or type out the safety plan in order to be easily reminded of the steps that can be taken to help oneself. A thorough safety plan should include the following:
  1. A list of identified triggers and reactions to these triggers
  2. Activities that can disrupt the typical pattern(s) of behavior (many ideas are included in TeenHelp's Alternatives to Self Harm thread)
  3. Names of supportive individuals (friends, family, etc.)
  4. At least one crisis or emergency resource that can be used as a last resort

The following is an example of a safety plan:

A list of identified triggers and reactions to these triggers
When my friends talk about their grades, I start to think about my own grades and how they aren't "good enough." I start to worry because I know it's hard to get into a good university, and I don't know if I "have what it takes." As a result, I feel anxious, I think about giving up ("What's the use? I'll never pass these classes."), and because my GRADES aren't "good enough," I feel like I'M not "good enough," too.

Activities that can disrupt the typical pattern(s) of behavior
When I start to slip into this pattern, I can disrupt it by distracting myself with something fun, like reading a good book or watching my favorite TV show. When I'm feeling more relaxed, I can write in my journal/diary and challenge the thoughts I'm having ("Am I really not 'good enough' just because my grades aren't as good as everyone else's? Does that really mean I'm a 'failure' or 'unlovable'? How can I think about this situation differently?").

Names of supportive individuals (friends, family, etc.)
I don't feel comfortable talking to my friends about my grades, but I do feel like I can approach my teacher and ask for extra support. I've never talked to the school guidance counselor before, but I can go to the office and make an appointment to meet with him/her to discuss my concerns about getting into a good university. I can also ask for a referral to the school psychologist to address my concerns in therapy and learn coping skills.

At least one crisis or emergency resource that can be used as a last resort
If I ever become so anxious or hopeless that I start to think about hurting myself, I'll call the suicide hotline for my state/country and tell the person on the other end what's going on. If I end up hurting myself and need immediate assistance, I'll call emergency services or find someone I trust and ask them to take me to a hospital's emergency room. I know it'll be scary, but I ultimately want to find a way to be happy with myself and my life.

Coping with triggers will initially require a great amount of time and energy. For some people, it will be difficult to shift from a "victim" mentality to a "survivor" mentality. For other people, it will be painful to admit that, while someone or something has hurt them in the past, they are responsible for the way they choose to deal with old wounds. Developing a healthy coping strategy is similar to developing a new habit: it won't come naturally at first, and it may be easy to forget or ignore what's new and unfamiliar in favor of what's old and familiar, even though the old pattern is doing more harm than good in the long run. If a person finds themselves struggling with breaking the cycle after trying to use their safety plan, it may be in their best interests to seek support from a mental health professional such as a counselor, therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist.
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