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Trauma Triggers

How to Cope with Trauma Triggers

Trauma triggers cause us to relive the pain of past events. However, with the right approach, you can overcome them mentally & physically.

Trauma triggers can come out of nowhere!

Two summers ago, I sat shiva for my son, Hillel, a”h. We sat a few days in the bungalow colony where he was niftar (passing away) and then we travelled to Brooklyn and sat another few days. Complete count: seven days of shiva. So far, so good. We were talking, laughing, eating, and sleeping. We got up from Shiva on Thursday and went back to the bungalow colony for Shabbos. My husband went to work, and somebody drove me and my older son back to the bungalow colony.

I’m a therapist, remember? So, I know all about trauma triggers. I went back into the bungalow where just a week before my son had been alive, and I waited for something to hit me. Maybe the trigger of the couch where I held him as he was niftar. Nope. Maybe the table where he used to eat. Nope. Maybe the porch where he used to lounge around. Nope. I walked carefully around the bungalow and looked at the books he used to read, the arts and crafts he made when he was little, the siddur with his name in it, the bathroom with his toothbrush still sitting there. Nope, nope, nope. My body is calm. Sad but calm.

I open the door to his room. The linen is still on the bed I slept in, but the linen of the other bed has disappeared with him. Nothing triggers me yet. I let my eyes roam around the room, taking in the emptiness. His pillow and cover. His alarm clock. Nothing.

I open the door to his closet and the first thing I see is his hat, still perched on the shelf.


Even a hat can be a trauma trigger.

The trauma trigger of his hat is so strong, that a wave of dizziness washes over me. I feel lightheaded and like I’m floating. I begin to violently shake like I am never going to stop. “WHAM!” Is an understatement. I have just been exposed to the King Trigger. And what was this trigger? A black hat, size 52. There was nothing inherently out of the ordinary about it, but in that moment it was the most terrifying thing I had ever seen.

Some of you, I’m sure, know what I mean. How a black hat sitting coolly on a shelf can knock my socks off. Because that black hat was a trauma trigger. Not for my husband, other son, or anyone else, but for me. Because that black hat reminded me that Hillel wasn’t here anymore to wear it. And that hat became a huge trauma trigger for me in that minute when my calm body decided to go haywire.

Some of us recognize our own triggers. Some of us have experienced triggers, but can’t quite place them. And some have no idea what a trigger is, or what a black hat has to do with any of this.

What is a trauma trigger?

It’s simple, really:

A trauma trigger is anything that causes a person to remember a traumatic incident.

This thing isn’t necessarily frightening on its own, but because it reminds a person of a terrible moment in their life, it can cause a response that’s as terrifying as anything we’ve ever experienced. It causes a trauma response, which makes our body react in ways that are usually reserved for intense fear.

In my case, the trigger was the black hat, the traumatic incident was my son’s petirah (burial), and my body responded with a fight or flight reaction that is only supposed to happen when I’m in immediate danger.

I was not in any danger from the black hat (not that I know of anyhow), but it reminded me of Hillel’s death, of his absence, of this traumatic and terribly fearful event, and my body reacted as if I was being chased by a lion. Dizziness, lightheadedness, rapidly beating heart, and the sensation of being suspended in time. No movement. All symptoms of a fight or flight response to danger.

That shaking was a part of the healing. Our body shakes to get rid of trauma and when I was finally still again, it was as if my body had rid itself of it.

Different things can trigger trauma responses:

I am sure many of you have experienced similar situations. Maybe you were on a street corner when you found out your father passed away. And now, whenever you pass that one corner, your heart starts pounding, your hands are clammy, and you have the impulse to run, run, run. That’s a trigger to a traumatic incident.

Hospitals can be triggers. The smell of blood or disinfectant. The sight of tubes or other cancer patients. Triggers can be the pizza you were eating when you found out about the accident, the song that was playing when you got the phone call, the outfit you were wearing, the color of your mother’s dress she was niftar in.

The simplest things can become triggers. Suddenly, pizza makes you nauseous. You feel lightheaded if your teacher wears the same perfume your mother did. You can’t walk by your old house without feeling anxious, or you refuse to wear the color lavender ever again in your whole entire life.

Often, you don’t even know why you are feeling this way.

Is there logic behind a trauma trigger?

There was a CD that used to be in my car, and every time it played it made me anxious and angry. It took me weeks to realize that this was the CD I had been listening to daily at a time in my life when a coworker did something very, very hurtful to me.

It doesn’t quite make sense. I had never listened to these songs with her, she had never been in my car, and yet every time I hear the CD my body reacts like she’s hurting me all over again.

That’s how trauma triggers work. They don’t make sense on the surface, but they do have a logic to them. Trauma triggers can be anything associated with the five senses: touch, taste, sound, smell, and sight. They can be external or internal.

What is an external trauma trigger?

These are things that happen to us outside of our bodies, that relate a sensory experience to a memory of a person, place or event. It could be anything: a holiday, getting into a car, watching a video, a birthday, certain smells, an argument, or even a person that reminds you of a traumatic event, like a doctor or a teacher that showed up at shiva and said the wrong things.

Sometimes, you can put two and two together and realize immediately the connection between the trigger and the traumatic event, but sometimes, the traumatic event is so buried in our brains that we don’t connect the dots.

What is an internal trauma trigger?

These happen within our body, mind, and emotions. They’re trickier to deal with. When we’re angry, frustrated, vulnerable, or anxious, it can remind us of how we felt after a traumatic event. This then makes us feel these bad feelings ten times more intensely.

There are four reactions to trauma triggers:

Let’s say your mother fainted in the back seat of a car while you were sitting next to her. After she passes away, sitting in the back seat of a car may become a trigger.

There are four standard types of reactions to traumatic triggers: Mental reactions, emotional reactions, physical reactions, and behavioral reactions.

Mental reactions:

The mental reaction to sitting in the backseat of a car would involve having intrusive thoughts of the fainting episode, feeling disoriented, or unable to concentrate on your studying the way you usually can on long drives.

Emotional reactions:

The emotional reaction may include feeling a sense of panic as you sit in the backseat and having an irrational fear that something bad will happen. You may experience feelings of guilt or depression, or even withdraw from conversation and feel disinterested in connecting to anyone during the drive.

Physical reactions:

A physical reaction to sitting in the backseat after your mother’s petirah might be a sudden onset of exhaustion, nausea, dizziness, or sweatiness. You may feel your heart pounding and be unable to sleep as you usually do on those nighttime drives to the bungalow colony every weekend—even if you are feeling simultaneously exhausted.

Behavioral reactions:

Behavioral reactions to the trigger of being in the backseat can be a change of appetite (eating more or less), insomnia, avoiding cars altogether, being irritable for no discernible reason, lashing out at others, or a jumpiness while sitting in the backseat.

Why do any of these reactions happen?

When we experience an event as traumatic, our body needs to go into fight, flight or freeze mode. It’s like the body turns to the ON mode to help you fight the danger of that trauma by pumping adrenalin so you can respond with action. The problem is, a black hat isn’t a sign of danger. Not the kind you can fight, anyway.

So instead of using this adrenaline to run through the woods, we just have to sit with it. And while the body is great at turning it on, there’s no easy way to turn it off, and the adrenaline is in our blood stream for longer than we’d like. This causes the heart to beat too quickly, insomnia to set in, and even appetites to change. It takes a while to work out of your system, because trauma is too big of an event for your body to handle at one time.

What can we do with this information?

Now you are going to relax.

Give yourself time, talk to people who understand you, journal, and know it’s normal to feel the way that you do. Remind yourself that it is getting better, little by little. Don’t avoid the triggers and limit your life.

Instead, ease your way back to normalcy at your own pace. Get into cars and trains and buses. Rest. Stick to your normal routines as much as possible. Engage in pleasurable activities. Exercise. Socialize.

Know that it may take a few months after a trauma, after a petirah, for your body to stop going into ON mode when confronted with those triggers, or for the triggers to go away altogether.

And lastly, notice if your trigger responses are getting worse instead of better over the months since your trauma. That’s all. If they’re getting worse, reach out to a therapist. And eventually, a black hat will be just a black hat, size 52.

For more on this topic:

Trauma Explains Symptoms: Here’s How and Why

Dealing with Secondary Trauma

Child Loss Tried to Destroy Me but Failed

Dealing with Secondary Trauma

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This article was originally published in the Binah Magazine.


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