Trauma Triggers: When Will It Get Better?
The term “trigger’ in psychology has been around for a long time. While there has been a more popular culture explosion of the term, with both positive and negative effects on the original meaning, we still conceptualize triggers as things that can cause intense negative emotions because they remind us of a previous trauma. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is the classical and most well studied condition where triggers are prevalent. People with PTSD undergo one or multiple extreme traumas, and things that are related to that trauma can bring their brain back into states of panic or depression or even catatonia when they are exposed to them. An example many are familiar with occurs multiple times a year, usually during the 4th of July or New Years Eve. Fireworks are set off and make loud noises similar to gunshots. Veterans who were traumatized in combat can have poor reactions to those sounds as parts of their brain struggle to differentiate the traumatic situation from the current safe one. There can be triggers in everyday life that we have very little ability to avoid. There can also be triggers that are very specific and are avoidable, but avoidance is not a guarantee that it won’t happen so it may seem like a less than desirable strategy. Building resilience to triggers is a more reliable strategy, although a combination of avoidance of certain situations for a period of time while building resilience is usually best.
One aspect of trauma recovery that occurs in most other mental conditions is fatigue in dealing with how long it takes to feel “normal” again. Many people with PTSD or other trauma related conditions begin to feel impatient, angry, or even hopeless after years go by and they are still triggered by things. While most of us are accepting that recovery takes a long time when we first begin our journey to feeling better, months and years can wear on this initial acceptance. We can accept that it takes longer than a day or week to feel better but 2 years into our recovery we may start to feel that it is hopeless and we will never achieve that feeling of normalcy we expected. Many clients begin to question the entire recovery process and simply want an answer to the question, “when will it get better?”
Sources of Triggers
It would take far more than a blog to try to list even a small percentage of possible triggers for possible traumas. But there are some sources of triggers that are commonly run into that can trigger multiple types of traumatic memories. Our surroundings are often a trigger for past traumas, if we are still in the same area where a trauma occurred. It is naive to simply say that everyone who has a trauma in a place should just move, as it is often not possible nor desired, but being in the same area that you experienced a trauma will make it difficult to avoid reminders. Sensory triggers like smells, sounds, and even taste are often frequently run in to when we are living in an area where a trauma occurred. Since not everyone has the ability nor the desire to change where they live, the feelings of “when will this end” may be extremely intense.
Another major trigger is the news. Specifically, the 24/7 news channels that have become so widespread and almost unavoidable it seems. Political leanings aside, the 24/7 news channels are a conveyor belt of stressful and even frightening reports of all the negative occurrences in the world. There also tends to be an alarmist tone in the reporting of these news stories. Anyone who has been through a trauma will likely find triggers if they spend even a short amount of time watching these news channels. I recommend for people even without trauma to limit their exposure to these channels. It is important to stay informed, but there are limits we must put on ourselves regards to exposing ourselves to such intensely negative information constantly. Since the news literally never stops in the modern world, and particularly in the last few years, being triggered by the news seems like it will never end for those who struggle with it.
So…When Will It Get Better?
So, if the sources of triggers are everywhere, what is there to be hopeful about? The good news is that through proper coping skills and building resilience, even the most intense trauma triggers can be managed. It takes what seemingly is an insurmountable amount of time but if we look at it closer, we see that improvement is often consistent and incremental. We unfortunately don’t notice these changes unless we apply ourselves to do so and put trust in the process of recovery. Slipping into despair that things are not getting better can stop us from continuing to apply the new skills we have learned to deal with trauma, stress, depression, addiction, or any other condition of the mind. There is some ways we can reframe our thinking to try to combat falling into this trap.
To start, when we begin the process of healing, we may intellectually understand that it can take a long time, but we need to also commit to that emotionally. There are going to be ups and downs, fatigue, times where we may feel we are not making progress or even sliding backward. Writing out a commitment to ourselves or even with a counselor or loved one can be a good way to show this commitment. It can also be used as a reminder of our acceptance of the process. We can also look to the stories of others to see that while it may take a long time, healing does come. Support groups, online forums, or people we personally know are all sources of these stories. Remember that everyone has a different path to healing from events but the extended time it takes to get better is a shared quality of the process.
Taking a zoomed-out view of our progress of healing helps us see we are getting better when we begin to question if we ever will. I often tell clients that there is no way to know on a day to day basis how we may feel when triggered when we are recovering from a trauma, but we can expect a certain long-term progress to be obvious. Year 1 after a trauma should not be as bad as year 3, and year 3 should not be as bad as year 7, etc. There may be days where triggers are numerous on year 4 that make it worse than the average of year 3, but overall we can expect to see progress over the course of longer periods of time.
So when the question hits you of “when will it get better”, turn to these key things:
- Hopelessness can be normal at times, but it is temporary and will pass if you stick to using the skills you have learned to cope.
- Taking a commitment to the long path to healing has to be both intellectual and emotional. Use whatever method you can find that helps remind you of that.
- Look at things on a longer timeline. You will see progress there while day to day changes may be deceiving.
If you have had trauma in your life and have concerns over when you will see healing, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced mental health counselors.