Dealing with Triggers After Domestic Violence

By Jenn Rockefeller

It can happen anytime. It can happen anywhere. You see or hear something that instantly transports you back in time to your abusive relationship. You can’t control the emotional or physical reaction that you are experiencing. You don’t know how to cope or handle this feeling. You begin to panic, sending yourself into an emotional tailspin.

This is exactly what a trigger can do to a domestic abuse survivor.

What is a trigger?
A trigger is something that elicits a certain reaction from us when we emotionally (or even physically), re-experience something in our lives. It transports us back to the time we experienced the trauma and causes us to feel distress. For domestic violence survivors, this may mean that we begin to avoid people, places and things that remind us of the abuser.

How triggers affect DV survivors
Triggers are a serious issue because when something sets off a survivor’s memory, it can result in debilitating effects. It can crush the survivor emotionally, mentally and even physically. It’s an intense reaction that can hold the same exact level of intensity as the original traumatic event.

If you are a survivor reading this, please know that you are not alone. Even eight years out of my situation, I still react to certain triggers, particularly ones that exhibit a person verbally assaulting another (yelling, screaming, threatening, intimidating, etc), like in certain movies or TV shows.

Tips for identifying and dealing with triggers
Triggers (and dealing with them) are different for every survivor. The triggers can come in the form of a thing (like a car), a certain song or musical artist, a specific tone of voice or string of words, a place, or even photographs. Just about anything can cause a domestic violence survivor to experience a flashback. Dealing with these triggers can be challenging, but it can be done.

  • Identify the emotion – What exactly are you feeling when the trigger happens? When we put a name to what we’re feeling, we can better cope with what we face. When we identify the emotion, we can find ways to reduce the intensity. Try going for a walk, writing in a journal, or taking deep breaths.
  • Recognize – When you identify the emotion, pay attention to what it does to your body. It is a natural reaction to have an increased heart rate, pulse and breathing when we feel fear. Our bodies will tell us what is going on. Likewise, when we feel anger, our bodies become tense and our muscles will tighten. When we can acknowledge what emotion we are feeling and what our bodies are doing in response to that emotion, we can better learn how to change that emotion and learn from it.
  • Keep a journal – If you’re having difficulty identifying your triggers, keeping a journal might help. Write down as much as you can remember about the situation or circumstances that caused this reaction in you. Write down what you were doing at the time, who you were with, and where you were. Over time, you may see a pattern begin to emerge that can help you understand your triggers.
  • Communication – It is basic human nature to communicate with others and have a desire to be understood. That is partly what emotions are for – to help us communicate with others what we want and need. When those needs are not met, we can feel misunderstood and neglected. In the aftermath of a domestic violence situation, it is difficult to truly communicate our wants and needs to others. Many times, we can bottle our emotions up until something rubs us the wrong way and we crack, letting those emotion out in unhealthy ways. Instead, we need to retrain ourselves to sit down with others and truly talk it out to communicate our emotions.
  • Turn it around – Have you ever heard of the old saying, “Turn that frown upside down?” This final “step” in dealing with triggers isn’t so much suggesting to ignore your negative emotion, but rather, it is suggesting that we need to learn how to positively approach the negative emotion. For instance, when I was in therapy, I learned about the method called Mindfulness. Acknowledging our emotions, but not dwelling on them, will have better outcomes for us as we move through our healing journey. When we acknowledge our anger, then we can figure out how to turn that anger into something more positive. The same can be said for sadness, fear or any other “negative” emotion.

As we navigate our healing journeys, we will no doubt learn new methods to help us grow and become stronger. We will begin to undo what the abusers have done to us. We will find ways to regain our strength and freedom. One way to do this is learning how to identify and deal with our triggers so that we can deal with any situation that comes our way.

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