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How to use triggers as a means to recovery?


To answer this question, lets first define a psychological trigger.

A trigger is an activated traumatic memory due to your present environment via one or more of your five senses, sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. A trigger will result in a symptomatic or behavioral response.

To fully understand the difference between trigger and stressor, please read Stressor vs. Trigger (recommended reading).

Many sufferers and supporters view triggers negatively, as they provoke a negative action, so avoidance is often the solution--a natural human response. When you look closer at that natural response, what you're doing is instinctively creating a negative from a negative. It is far from healthy to avoid things that are not dangerous but which merely make us uncomfortable, psychologically or physically. Before you know it you're a recluse, avoiding people, places and life itself.

If this is you, no doubt life has gotten progressively worse; avoidance and hiding away is not living life, and most likely perpetuating depressive moods.

The answer is simpler than you think. It's called desensitization and is done via "in vivo exposure" technique. This phrase a fancy expression for "doing," literally exposing yourself to a trigger to desensitize your response from alarm to realism. Don't confuse this with realistically unsafe or dangerous situations. Another method, called "Imaginary Exposure," tackles actual unsafe situations by imagination only.

Any and every trigger you overcome reduces your symptomatic susceptibility. Put simply, you recover with every trigger you remove from your life.

Will you overcome every trigger? Not necessarily. Some may, some may not--yet every PTSD sufferer can reduce their triggers from many, to few, thus improving your overall quality of life.

Recovering triggers is an empowering process. The first trigger you tackle may be daunting, may make you extremely symptomatic with prolonged symptoms, yet as you knock away each barrier, you learn your strengths, your ability to fight fear and prove to yourself that you can overcome. This empowerment will help within other areas of your recovery.

Tackling triggers is a process that can be used prior to trauma therapy itself, building self-esteem and confidence to enter trauma therapy with significant self-skills, motivation and experience of a can-do attitude. PTSD's entire foundation is built upon fear, and demonstrating to yourself you can beat fear prior to trauma therapy is a win-win for you.

The Process​

  1. Compile a list of your triggers. What specifically triggers you?
  2. Categorize your triggers as realistic or unrealistic. You may want outside opinions on this.
  3. Devise a simple plan for exposure, starting gradually, building up to extreme.
  4. Review your cognitive biases based on your immediate thoughts and reactions to the trigger, and have counter-statements prepared to confirm the unrealistic aspect of the trigger.
  5. Put your plan into action, using your cognitive counter statements to confirm the unrealistic response to the trigger.
  6. Constantly review, measure, adjust and continue until you have desensitized yourself to the trigger and cognitively realigned your mental association from negative to neutral or positive.
Anything positive you obtain in healing trauma or learning to manage PTSD often transposes into other areas of healing and management, progressively making recovery faster and easier.

Do you do something different? If so, tell us how you've used your triggers to help your recovery.
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Great article!
I do this all the time with little things. And, if I didn’t, I’m sure I’d be trapped at home. Somethings are harder than others, and my therapist (who also likes this approach) has been a lot of help when I can’t find “a better way to think about” something on my own.
As an example, a few months ago I got lost on my way to a meeting. Lots of traffic, big city, too much to watch out for to be “effectively hypervigilent”. I called someone for directions. She gave me too many choices. More overload! I eventually said “I quit” ( the organization). She said that wasn’t an option. So I said I was skipping the meeting and going home. I did. (I’d driven over 100 miles to get there!) It was tempting to say “I’m NEVER going there again!”. But then, what’s going to be the NEXT thing “I’m never going to do again”? I talked this over with my therapist. Figured out things I “could have done better”. Studied the route online, in satellite view, so I could see it pretty realistically. Made the drive in my head. Planned every “what would I do IF….” scenario I could imagine and came up with plans on how to effectively handle them. The next meeting wasn’t exactly a relaxing drive, but I made it. I have trouble driving in heavy traffic while trying to read street signs. I probably need to practice “getting lost”!

Anyway, this isn’t easy, but it beats the heck out of agoraphobia!
I had sworn not to ever get involved with a man again. I thought that was a permanent decision of mine, but lately there has been a fellow at the Senior Center (Where I socialize) who has been making passes at me. I am going to bite the bullet and be flirtatious too. Who knows, but something positive might come from it!
I believe my worst flashback or reaction that I had last year, from October through January, has made me better emotionally than I was previous to it. That episode was one that completely took me by surprise and was the longest lasting so far. I hope that it never happens again, but I do think I have been much better since then. So I was glad to see this article since it confirms my feeling that that episode and my thought process afterwards helped me be so much better. I do believe it takes a lot of introspection to figure out where that trigger came from since it seemed to come out of nowhere and therefore the introspection became a healing process.
Great article!
I do this all the time with little things. And, if I didn’t, I’m sure I’d be trapp...
Your story sounds similar to some of my own, especially with driving. I hate driving, it causes me undue stress. I opt for public transport every chance I can — though sometimes I must drive. I hate GPS as they’re a guide, certainly not accurate, and do not account for the myriad of traffic conditions and issues (sporting events, road works, et cetera). I love to do a similar thing with Google maps in satellite mode, planning my routes in my head so I know exactly where I can opt out of the current path to another, if needed.
Isn’t all this triggering crap about dealing with emotional distress?
Jokes on me, right?
Looks like I’ve fallen victim to yet one more triggering psycho babble anti-male website.
Hi Tom,

Firstly, I’m a male… so not sure why you’re now being aggressive towards anti anything here. This is the Internet.

Triggers are not about emotional distress. You’re confusing a reaction with the issue. If you focus on the reaction (symptoms) then you will continue to get them, as you’re not removing the issue. The trigger, which comes from one of your five senses based on your traumatic memories, is the cause.

You don’t have to identify the specific memory to action and resolve a trigger. It’s called invivo exposure. You identify x triggers you, so you progressively expose yourself to x more and more, gradually building a tolerance to it. Simply called, desensitisation.
This is the survival of the fittest anti male bully internet alright. And negative commentary triggers me, as well as causing distress on every level.
Back to my original question would be how can I identify triggers or anything else for that matter if I have to live day and night guarded and continually on the defense?
I am just now returning to the Internet after over a year due to anti male cyber stalkers. Excuse me if I appear slightly turse, but one even fired a shot over my head one day.
Thanx Anthony. Now, back to the
original question.
Tom S.
yes! I understand the traffic thing and getting lost – one of my worse triggers….hysteria, etc. After molestation for years and a sucessful court case, I have had hypervigilence as well as insomnia…etc. Why does getting lost affect me so much? is it the feeling of not being able to control my circumstances?
any help to figure this out would be great….as I usually just bypass logic and head to panic….
> Back to my original question would be how can I identify triggers or anything else for that matter if I have to live day and night guarded and continually on the defense?

Tom, you’re mixing a lot of “what if” circumstances into your statement. Triggers OR anything else. There is no way I could answer that, to be honest, because I have no idea what “anything else” is for you specifically.

This is very normal for those of us with PTSD to relate though. We place ourselves into a cyclic thought process of never ending resolution. To stop it is easier than you think. You pick one thing. Just one. You start with that. When you solve that, you pick another. Progressively over time suddenly all of these singulars have compounded to significantly reduce negative aspects of your daily functioning.

Yes, you’re correct, you have to be able to identify a trigger in order to resolve it. You have to distinguish them from recollection, flashbacks, thoughts and well… other symptoms in general.

You can obviously identify what a trigger is for you, because you did it above. You stated that negative commentary triggers you. So that is the identification process, as you obviously have a negative symptomatic response, i.e. respond with aggression.

So how do you fix it? That is both a cognitive process and exposure. You have to firstly identify techniques for yourself. A process if you like, of what to do when triggered by negative commentary. This could simply be, DO NOT respond prior to 24hrs thought process. During that 24hrs you begin using common-sense to look at variations of what was written. Triggers go hand in hand with cognitive distortions – https://www.myptsd.com/threads/primary-cognitive-distortions-negative-thinking-styles.87554/

In this case, you tell yourself, maybe even convince yourself, what the other person is thinking about you. Unless you ask this question and get a response from the person online, then everything you have told yourself is a lie, all distortions, not reality.

The process continues for every trigger. You don’t have to have a list. You don’t need to identify every trigger before you begin working on them. You don’t need to know what is core and what is other for a trigger, due to personality trauma aspects. The answer is much simpler. You pick one thing, one negative aspect that you know is negative in your present and affecting you now, and you work on that. When you have solved it, you choose the next one.

Repeat the process and rinse. It takes years to get through them, but you can do it. The first few are the hardest, typically, working out the solution for you… but then they fall like dominos as you improve at it. You will find yourself working on multiple at once as you get better at it, not because you want to, but because you have the capacity to due to your prior work. That in itself will demonstrate positive success for you in your self work.

People complicate the simple. It really is that simple as a technique. Identify — plan your process — action — repeat until satisfied. Then move on to the next.
Yes! Yes! Yes! Facing one of my big triggers and conquering it has boosted my confidence in my ability to heal tremendously! There were some preliminary steps I needed to take first: learning how to ground myself, learning how to handle a flashback, learning how to gently bring myself back when I disassociate, etc. I created an elaborate plan for what to do before, during and after experiencing my trigger. I had the mantra, “This is the opportunity I’ve been looking for” when the trigger came up because I chose to use the trigger as a learning experience. I wanted to observe what happens within in me when I get triggered so that I could learn how to resolve it.