All posts by ILF Team

Recognizing Triggers and Learning How to Manage Them

Removing yourself from a violent relationship doesn’t mean you’re suddenly better.

The road to recovery is long, and along the way survivors often experience what experts call “triggers.” These triggers can cause anxiety, depression, sadness, and panic.

Learn to cope with your emotional triggers

What are Triggers?

A trigger is anything that consciously or subconsciously reminds you of your past abuse. It’s almost like a sudden flashback, or a recording playing in a survivor’s head. These traumatic triggers put a survivor right back in the middle of terror. Triggers are terrifying, and survivors are unable to control their emotional and physical responses in the midst of such fear.

Triggers can be internal or external. Internal triggers occur in our minds and promote the urge to relive a particular moment. External triggers are environmental factors that accost us suddenly and often without warning.

 

What Causes Triggers?

Triggers can be caused by a multitude of sounds, smells, sensations, and environments. As each abuse situation is different, so is a survivor’s particular traumatic triggers. Below are a few more common triggers:

  • Seeing a fabric pattern, familiar shirt, or passing a familiar location
  • Hearing the sound of breaking glass, revving of a car engine, a balloon pop, or particular quality of voice
  • Smelling a particular cologne or food
  • Experiencing a particular holiday event or celebration
  • Feeling a hug, a friendly pat on the back, or a gentle hand on the arm

As you can see, triggers can come as the result of good things, not just scary things. In all these instances, a survivor may be physically safe, but mentally and emotionally returns to a moment of danger. It may take some time for survivors to identify their triggers. And it may take even longer for them to confide in those around them. The sooner these two things happen, the sooner a survivor and all supporters can learn to cope with these triggers in a healthy manner.

 

Coping with Triggers

Domestic violence survivors are strong individuals. Many go on to advocate for those still trapped in abusive situations. Even in the midst of helping others, these survivors are in the healing process themselves. Many find themselves working in domestic violence shelters. Whatever path they choose, chances are they’re still dealing with triggers.

Sometimes we can avoid triggers. We can choose to refrain from driving by a particular location. We can remove items from our homes that remind us abusive situations. Here are a few tips to help cope with the traumatic triggers we can’t control:

Learn to Recognize Your Triggers

When you can learn to identify your triggers, you’ll be able to start working towards a means to cope with them. In the process, don’t disparage yourself for them. They’re aren’t foolish, dumb, or inconsequential. If seeing your abuser at your children’s school events causes you to freeze inside, have friends save a seat for you. Tell them what’s going on so they can help you through it.

Catch Triggers Early

The more you know what your triggers are, the better chance you have of catching yourself early in your response to them. When you’re able to catch your response early, before your emotions snowball into a big scary manner, you can manage it more easily.

Don’t Run Away

The natural instinct when we’re experiencing a traumatic memory is to run. To get away from what’s causing the pain. When we do this in the middle of a traumatic trigger, we don’t learn to make it through. We don’t learn to overcome. When we choose to stand with ourselves in the middle of the panic, we can begin to assure ourselves that we can make it through. That we aren’t in danger like we were before. That we are built to be survivors.

Talk It Out

Find a trusted friend to talk through your triggers. When you talk about your thoughts and feelings, you can actually gain more mastery over them. Additionally, you can develop a mantra or two to help you with your particular triggers. That way, when you’re at the beginning of a traumatic trigger episode, you can talk yourself back down onto solid footing.

Find a Positive Sensory Experience

Finally, consider a comforting smell or texture that you can keep in your purse or pocket. One that makes you feel like you’re wrapped in safety. It may be an essential oil (smell), a smooth stone (touch), or a favorite song (sound). Any of these can serve as a grounding for you when you feel your panic start to rise.

However you choose to cope, be gentle with yourself. Seek support from trusted people around you.

Leaving an Abuser: What You Need to Know

Abuse, by its very nature, is all-consuming, confusing, and messy.

One in four women will experience intimate partner abuse in her lifetime. One moment things are golden and the next she finds herself a crumpled mess on the floor, wondering what went wrong. Abusers work in a cyclical nature: they’re charming and delightful, then they isolate, and finally they harm. Then they start the cycle all over again. Abusers try to minimize his actions or the harm done, and typically promise that it will never happen again.

Make a plan before leaving an abuser

But before we talk about what it takes to leave an abuser, we need to talk about the type of women that abusers target. Because yes, abusers definitely target a particular type. A targeted woman is kind, conscientious, and generous. She is intuitive, readily picks up on body language, and is quick to take personal responsibility for her actions. In short, this type of woman is targeted because of her strengths, not her weaknesses.

An abuser’s goal is to control his targets. He blames her for his problems because he knows she’ll take responsibility. (She thinks something must be broken in herself to cause such a poor relationship.) He rewards her efforts for a while by lavishing her with praise or gifts, then isolates and harms her. This cycle can take months, but always repeats itself.

Without intervention, this cycle will continue, each downward spiral becoming more and more violent or controlling. The cycle is often physical, but can also involve emotional, sexual, or financial abuse.

 

Whether you’re leaving an abuser or helping someone else who is being abused, there are important things to consider in order that you remain as safe as possible.

If you are in danger now, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1.800.787.3224.

 

Make a Plan Before You Leave

An abused woman is in the most danger when she leaves her abuser. (But leaving further solidifies that she isn’t a victim at all — rather, she’s a survivor!) Because of the risk involved in leaving an abuser, it’s imperative to plan carefully and to involve a few trusted people in the process. There are many things to consider as you prepare to leave. We list 3 below:

Know Your Abuser’s Red Flags

Each abuser can have different triggers. Know the cues and be on high alert if your abuser is getting upset. These instances can quickly escalate to violence. Consider some believable reasons to leave the house immediately and be willing to use them when necessary.

When leaving an abuser know your safe places

Know Your Immediate Safe Places

Know the areas in your home that are safest for you. Avoid small, enclosed places that have only one exit, or that have any type of weapons. If you need to retreat, choose a room that has an exterior window or door, or at least one that has access to a phone. Establish a code word with trusted friends or your children that will notify them that you need them to call the police.

Be Ready at a Moment’s Notice

If you’re making plans to leave your abuser, be ready to drop everything and leave at a moment’s notice. Have a bag packed. If possible, include an emergency stash of cash, a change of clothing, important documents (driver’s license, medication, credit cards, pay stubs, etc.), and phone numbers of your trusted circle. These may be best stored at a friend’s home so they won’t be discovered by your abuser. Know your escape plan and practice it.

 

Protect Yourself After You Leave

Leaving takes an incredible amount of courage. If you’re helping a friend leave an abuser, realize that there is a difficult road ahead. Always consider the following:

If Your Abuser is Forced to Leave Your Home

Sometimes, your abuser is forced to leave your home. An abuser may return to exert control either by apologies or threats. He knows your routine and knows your triggers as well. To keep yourself safe, consider the following:

  • Change your locks
  • Rent a post office box to protect your mail
  • Change your routine
  • Alter your typical routes
  • Reschedule any known appointments

If You’re Relocating to a New Residence

Be aware that any court order will include the address of your new residence. An abuser will stalk and terrorize in attempt to regain control.

Loop in neighbors and friends when leaving an abuser

Loop in Neighbors and Friends

No matter where you live, make your neighbors and friends aware of the potential danger you face. Encourage them to call the police if they feel you are in danger.

Inform Your Children’s School and Caregivers

Let your children’s school know of the situation you’re in and any restraining orders you may have in place. Let them know specifically who is allowed to pick your children and who is not.

 

If you’ve been thinking about leaving your abuser, or in the process of creating a plan, we applaud your courage. The road ahead is not easy, but it is worth the effort. If you’re supporting a woman who is in an abusive relationship or has left one, know that your encouragement and assistance is highly valued.

What the Research Tells Us About Trauma Recovery

Any Type of Recovery Takes Time

We’ve all dealt with illness before and spent a day or two in bed with a fever. It might take a week or two to finally get our feet back under us and feel like we can function at 100%. Some of us have had minor surgery and realize it takes a few weeks to feel like ourselves again. Recovery just takes time.

Similarly, when a natural disaster (ie, trauma) occurs in a community, everyone in that community is affected by it. Most experts will agree that the emotional recovery period typically takes far longer than a year. The map below outlines what this recovery process can look like on an emotional level.

Timeline for trauma recovery

Figure 1 Adapted from Zunin & Myers as cited in DeWolfe, D. J., 2000

When we consider the ongoing nature of many types of trauma or abuse that women in particular experience (physical, psychological, sexual, financial, and emotional), it becomes easier to understand that this type of trauma recovery takes time as well. In fact, the recovery period is often far more difficult and takes longer than most would imagine.

 

Who Trauma Touches

Statistics tell us that at least 50% of us will experience some sort of trauma in our lifetime. Of those who experience trauma, 8% of survivors will experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms include insomnia, nightmares, anxiety, anger, shame, suicidal behavior, depression, and isolation. Women are twice as likely to develop PTSD, mostly due to long-term exposure to trauma.

Trauma touches more than half the population

The Effects of Trauma

Scientists have discovered that these traumatic experiences actually rewire the brain. Not only does this create a long-lasting recovery period, it makes potential relapse into fear and anxiety much more likely. Trauma can make empathy more difficult. It reduces our capacity to cope with life on a daily basis. Trauma’s fight or flight response is real, and affects body organs, not just the mind. Long-term exposure to trauma can push survivors into a state of constant of hyper arousal (overreaction), which throws cortisol (the stress hormone) output into overdrive. Consequently, trauma is exhausting and makes decision-making difficult. Over time, chronic stress from trauma can have dire physical consequences:

  • Addictive behaviors (alcohol, smoking, etc.)
  • Chronic pain
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Gastrointestinal illness
  • Cancer

 

Trauma Recovery Is Possible

The good news is that recovery is possible. When treatment that engages the brain’s neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to adapt and change)), survivors can experience trauma recovery. Even better, increasing the brain’s neuroplasticity doesn’t involves a doctor’s office and lots of wires. The following approaches can aid in trauma recovery and build neuroplasticity:

Be Willing to Heal

Recovery takes time and a lot of work. Be willing to commit to the process, and to hang on through the ups and downs. Understand that what you’ve experienced doesn’t make you a victim — it makes you a survivor. Just as leaning into physical therapy with willingness and enthusiasm can help you recover from physical trauma more readily, showing up for your own emotional healing will help you along your trauma journey as well.

Accept Support From Others

Trauma makes it difficult to trust others. It’s much easier to isolate yourself and try to go through the healing process alone. Be willing to connect with others. Join a support group. Pursue therapy. Educate yourself along with a group of people who love, value, and encourage you. Healthy relationships can help you heal more quickly.

Trauma Recovery is Possible

Practice Mindfulness

The daily, consistent practice of mindfulness can help rewire your brain in powerful ways. Not only does it help quiet the internal noise, it helps develop an internal locus of control. In fact, John Kabat-Zinn discovered that mindfulness reduces chronic pain, one of the symptoms of PTSD. In time, you’ll become a thoughtful responder rather than an emotional reactor.

Get Moving

Get your body moving. Physical exercise forces the body to release endorphins, which increase happiness and reduce pain. When you’re down or in pain, there might be a temptation to curl up and sleep, but there’s no better natural way to raise your emotional state than to get the blood pumping. Take a walk. Swing your arms. Do anything you can to move, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the result.

Odds are, we’re all going to deal with trauma at some point in our lives. Starting a healthy practice now will ensure you find your way through the trauma rather than succumb to it. Trauma recovery takes work, but recovery is possible! Be intentional, show up for yourself, gather a group of supporters around you, and celebrate the wins along the way.