A trigger is typically an event that enters your present mind, stimulates your adrenal glands, reminds you of what happened in the past, and activates traumatic memories along with a storm of emotions associated with them. This is typically not a pleasant experience and can be rather frightening. You may experience flashbacks, anxiety, panic, fear, anger, rage, confusion, or dissociation. When working with my clients, I find that journaling in itself is very helpful and healing for many. Understanding your triggers by identifying and listing them in your journal, is a first step to help you get some sense of control over them and manage your reactions to them.
This exercise is adapted from the PTSD workbook by Mary Beth Williams, PhD. and Soili Poijula, PhD. I have adapted this version based on feedback from my own clients.
MY TRIGGER LIST
This journal exercise consists of three parts:
- Write about or list your triggers associated with:
- what you saw
- what you heard
- what you smelled
- what you touched or what touched you
- what you tasted
- any tensions or feelings in your body
- certain places
- mature or time (seasons, weather, time of the day)
- certain people – be specific here – list their behaviors, characteristics, attitudes, etc.
2. Write each category you listed above on a separate page of your journal. Write about your specific reaction to this particular trigger. What happens, how do you feel, what do you think, what are your thoughts, behaviors, and actions? Write both positive and negative. Have your reactions changed over time? How intense are they?
3. Think and write about what you can do in the future to make these triggers less powerful.
“The goal is to manage the trigger event, not … have no negative feelings or sensations about it.” Matsakis
It is your choice how you deal with each of these triggers. You can’t avoid everything that triggers you. However, you can learn to disarm triggers and gain power over them. Managing triggers is typically stressful and thus, it is very helpful to enlist help from an experienced therapist. You should also have some repertoire of calming exercises to help you stabilize if you get overwhelmed.
To start with, you can follow your Trigger List journaling with the following exercise:
In your journal, complete the following statement:
- When in contact with my trigger of___________(list your trigger), I will distract myself with_________________.
(there are many coping mechanisms you can use here: music, exercise, walking, singing, drawing, reading, taking a shower, calling a friend, etc.)
2. Every time, you manage and get on top of your trigger by using one of your coping skills, journal about it.
I was at ____________, when ___________(list your trigger) occurred. I began to ____________(list your reaction), but I chose to distract myself by ________________(list your coping strategy). When my trigger began to lose its power over me, I felt _____________.
Remember, applying these techniques will not help you get rid of your triggers overnight. However, you can learn how to significantly reduce their power over you and control your reactions to them.