Triggered: What to Do When Your Loved One is Traumatized
The news is always difficult to watch. For anyone who is a trauma survivor, the news is a minefield lately. If someone you love is having a hard time handling the turmoil, they may be reacting to more than what they see on TV. They may be having a trauma reaction. Let’s cover some basic information so you feel more prepared to understand and support your loved one through the chaos.
What Does “Triggered” Look Like?
When someone is triggered it means that they are having a strong reaction to a current situation that reminds them, often unconsciously, of a painful experience from their past. There is no one reaction to look out for but here are some possibilities:
Fight or Flight – When someone is in fight or flight their central nervous system is dialed up to 100 percent. When in fight, your loved one may shake, turn red, sweat, hyperventilate, scream, or even become aggressive towards themselves or others. In flight, your loved one may seem frantic and try to run away. Fight or flight is a response that humans have had for thousands of years and we use it when we think we are in mortal danger.
Shut Down – Many traumatized people skip fight or flight and go directly to shut down. When in shut down, your loved one might look frozen or terrified, tremble, and may not be able to speak. They may seem like a “deer in headlights.” Alternatively, shut down can also look limp, sleepy, or seem vacant, like “playing opossum.”
Why Does This Happen?
Trauma is a complex experience and, sometimes, traumatized people don’t know exactly what causes their trauma reactions.
An event can cause trauma if:
· We were unprepared for the event
· The event threatened our sense of safety or made life feel unpredictable
Trauma is even more likely when experienced during childhood. For some, trauma includes sexual or physical abuse. However, many trauma survivors never experienced these acute events. Your loved one may have had an invalidating, scary, or mentally ill parent. Your loved one may have endured a toxic relationship. These experiences are sufficient to cause lasting trauma.
Trauma stays with us for a long time, often our whole lives. But here’s the really tricky part: trauma lives in non-verbal parts of the brain. This means that traumatized people often don’t have words to remember and explain their trauma. Trauma reactions can sneak up on your loved one without warning and they might have a really hard time explaining what’s happening to them.
What Should I Do?
1. Be gentle. If you feel like you can’t, it’s time to take a break and do something to take care of your own emotions. Your loved one needs you to approach them with care and empathy but remember that you are a person, too. You are allowed to feel overwhelmed and frightened. Learn to recognize those feelings and get the support that you need.
2. Learn their triggers. You might notice that your loved one has a strong reaction when someone yells, says something invalidating, makes a threat, cries, or is dismissive. Start to notice what precipitates their strong reaction and make note of it. Later, when they are calm, help them learn about their triggers. Together, you can be vigilant and understand how to soothe their trauma reaction.
3. Teach them grounding techniques. Grounding is any activity that helps us focus on the present moment so we are not so overtaken by our trauma memories. Here are some ideas: hold a plank position for as long as you can, gently submerge your face in cold water for 30 seconds, hold ice in your hand, squeeze a stress ball, roll Silly Putty in your hands, notice the weight of your feet on the floor, press your palms together gently. Try a bunch of these to determine which ones work for you and your loved one. If you run out of ideas, Google ‘grounding’ and freshen your toolbox.
4. Always validate their feelings (and your own). Trauma reactions often don’t make sense to someone on the outside. Try not to get frustrated with your loved one. Their trauma reaction helped them survive their early traumas. Help them learn to honor their brain’s wisdom. Take breaks whenever you need to.
5. Seek support. Encourage your loved one to seek support from warm, accepting people and do the same for yourself! Trauma has a way of zapping energy and patience so it’s important to be constantly refueling. Recommend that your loved one seek professional help if they haven’t already (and consider therapy for yourself, too).
6. Remember it’s not about you. Your loved one’s trauma reaction may seem like it’s a direct attack on you. It’s not. Their trauma reaction may be coming from a painful experience that happened decades earlier. Try to separate their trauma experiences from their experiences with you. That said, if your loved one hurts you physically or emotionally when they are triggered, seek help. They didn’t deserve to suffer their trauma and you don’t deserve to suffer now.
What Are Some Terms I Should Know?
Trigger – An event that brings up a trauma memory, often unconsciously
Gaslighting – When someone invalidates what we say or do with the goal of teaching us to not trust our own mind. Often, victims of gaslighting are made to feel like they are crazy.
Window of tolerance – The calm space where your loved one is okay. When they are pushed above the window of tolerance they are in fight or flight and when they are pushed below the window of tolerance they are in shut down.
PTSD – Stands for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Many traumatized people have PTSD and many don’t. PTSD is a specific cluster of symptoms that can occur for years following a discrete trauma like assault or war. Often, people who have suffered chronic, low-level trauma don’t have PTSD but still suffer immensely.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.