Q&A with Catalina: Feeling anxious, scared or confused by triggers?

Have you felt restless, anxious or scared by triggers?

Triggers are something that we see, hear, smell, touch, or taste that remind us of a prior traumatic or stressful experience.

Maybe you’ve noticed that you feel anxious when you pass a restaurant that you used to enjoy with your ex, or hear a song on the radio that was playing when one of your loved ones passed, or going to a hospital reminds you of when you were sick. These are all examples of triggers.

Triggers are typically followed by a restless feeling, an anxious reaction, increased heart rate, sweating, feeling shaky, even re-experiencing the event.

A natural and common reaction to triggers is avoidance. Most people try to avoid triggers so as to avoid those physical and emotional reactions. Over time, this avoidance becomes a habit and it actually strengthens the triggers, and they gain more and more power. Individuals find themselves avoiding more and more situations, their distress generally increases, and they may find their world shrinking and being overly cautious of what may or may not set off a trigger.

Unfortunately, we all have triggers. But triggers are incredibly individual. Each of us are triggered by different things based on our own unique experiences. Since all our triggers are different, it can be hard for others to empathize with how you’re feeling when triggered. When you’ve been triggered or had panic attacks, perhaps your friends or loved ones have said to you, “Just calm down, relax, it’s all in your head.” Unfortunately, those statements aren’t super helpful and can often feel minimizing. If it was that easy, you would’ve actually been able to do it properly, right?

Here are some strategies that can help manage triggers:

1.Start monitoring how often, when they occur, as well as how severe your reactions are when you are triggered.

Oftentimes when we are feeling distressed, we tend to overgeneralize and just think this distress is happening all the time. By first establishing a baseline and monitoring daily how often this is happening, you will gain a very clear, specific and realistic understanding of how impactful these triggers are in your day-to-day.

2. Next, begin to heighten your awareness of your physical, behavioral and emotional reactions.

Physical reactions can include: increased heart rate, sweating, or shaking. Common behavioral reactions include avoiding people, places, events, songs, or foods that remind one of the triggered experience. Emotional reactions to triggers are varied and individualized; while some people may become incredibly scared and panicky when triggered and others may get numb.

3. Begin to look at your reactions when triggered and begin to ask yourself, “Okay, which one can you control?”

According to the cognitive behavioral model of distress, our thoughts, reactions and emotions together all influence distress. We feel what we feel, therefore our emotions are hard to control. This is why when you’re distressed and hear “just relax”- this can be a trigger. But to regulate our emotions, we can control our thoughts and our reactions. Begin to identify what you need to control more effectively.

4.Next, it’s time for you to learn new strategies to gain better control of your physical, emotional, and behavioral reactions to these triggers.

This is where mindfulness and cognitive behavioral techniques have been proven effective in managing distress associated with triggers. Mindfulness heightens your awareness in the moment and encourages you to be present and less judgmental of your thoughts, feelings and reactions. Cognitive-behavioral techniques train your brain to challenge negative thoughts to depower them while training your body to control your physical arousal and unhealthy negative behaviors. When you’re more present and less physically aroused, you can better control your thought- how you’re thinking about this trigger, or the memory you have around it, as well as your perceptions of your ability to actually control your reaction, as well as your reaction itself.

5. Implementation. Once you learn new strategies to manage your thoughts and reactions when triggered, you can begin applying these new strategies in your day-to-day. The more you practice, the sharper you’ll get at these strategies.

6. Gradual controlled exposure. Gradually expose yourself to first some of peripheral, less threatening aspects of the trigger. Be sure to start slowly and choose the least threatening aspect of the trigger to gently be reminded of the trigger to then control how you respond. This step can be extremely difficult and often where additional support is required. If you find yourself having difficulty at this step, then gently stop exposing yourself to the less threatening triggers and reach out for professional support.

Throughout these steps you’re training your body, teaching it that you do have the resources to cope with this trigger and that this trigger doesn’t have power over you. Over time, the trigger will lose its power. It’s not that you forget that it’s happened, and it’s not that it doesn’t mean anything in your life, it just doesn’t have to negatively affect you the way it did.

This all is really easy to lay out. But if it was that easy, you’d probably would’ve already fixed this, right?

This is where therapy comes in. And when I work with patients on managing these triggers, we’re going to take it step by step to figure out a way that is in line and authentic with you.

So if you’re interested in gaining better control of yourself when faced with triggers, feel free to schedule a free 30 minute consult with me, so we can explore how we might work together.


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