I recently attended an online webinar led by Debbie Corso, author of ‘stronger than BPD’ and creator of the website ‘Healing from BPD’ the webinar was about triggers and how to handle them, here is some of what I learned in that webinar along with my own ideas and research, I hope you find it useful.
What are triggers?
Triggers are something that reminds you of a traumatic event from your past. Causing you to react like it is currently happening even if it’s not. You tend to hear the term commonly used with PTSD but triggers can be linked to any sort of mental illness. For example A depiction of suicide can be triggering for someone who has depression. It may not just be anything so obvious, anything could be a trigger. External triggers are things like a certain smell, something you hear or see in your environment but triggers can also be internal, a thought or feeling can trigger you. Basically anything that reminds you of your trauma can be a trigger. An example of mine is I was once grabbed by a man that had a certain pungent smell my brain remembered so, when someone walked near me with that smell, I would recall that night and feel how I did then, causing me to panic.
What happens when you are triggered?
Everyone’s experience of being triggered can be different, you can react with an extreme emotion such as panic or rage or you can completely shut down emotionally causing you to feel numb or empty. You may also have a strong urge to do something such as do drugs, drink a lot of alcohol, self harm etc.
Triggers and the brain
The amygdala is the part of the brain that is associated with memories and is connected to the nervous system, it’s function is to protect us from danger. This part of the brain is activated when we are triggered. This part can be especially heightened in those that have been traumatized or have a mental illness such as BPD. The prefrontal cortex is the rational/ logical part of the brain and balances out the emotional reactivity of the amygdala, however when we are triggered the amygdala can take complete control and make us act out in ways that seem irrational. When dealing with triggers the aim is to strengthen the pre-frontal cortex to achieve equilibrium and better manage distress.
How triggers help us.
Triggers are messages, sent by the brain, telling us that something is wrong, something in our life or ourselves needs to be addressed and dealt with so we can move on. They can also be a signal that we need to take extra care of ourselves. For example, I can be more sensitive triggers when I haven’t eaten or slept enough, if I find things that people are saying or doing more triggering than usual then that usually means I need to spend time to myself away from everyone. Triggers and how they make us feel can tell us what we need thus they can be useful when handled in healthy ways.
How to better cope with triggers
Journaling – writing down your triggers can be useful for keeping track of them. describing where it happened, when it happened and what happened to trigger you can help you predict potentially triggering situations so you know whether to avoid or, if avoiding isn’t an option, plan how you will cope in that situation. This skill called ‘cope ahead‘ and is taught in DBT, it involves describing a potentially triggering situation and planning how you will handle it effectively.
Communication- Talking to someone you trust about what has triggered you and how it made you feel can help you feel less alone and isolated. It’s best to talk to someone who knows a lot about you and your problems and doesn’t judge you, someone who could give you advice or just listen to you whether that be someone on a helpline like Samaritans, a friend/family member or your therapist, basically whoever you feel most comfortable sharing these type of things with.
Distraction- If possible, get yourself away from the situation that has triggered you to do something you enjoy or something that requires a lot more concentration such as completing puzzles or reading. If you can’t get out of the situation, try distracting yourself mentally by daydreaming of nice things for a bit or using ‘safe place visualization’ as learned in DBT.
Self care/self soothing- What I mean by this is doing anything to make yourself calmer and feel less overwhelmed. For example I have a ‘self soothe’ box which is filled with stuff to help me calm down when I’m triggered, the box has various things such as scented moisturizers, a puzzle and coloring book and a small cuddly toy but your box could be filled with anything you like. Another way of self soothing could be practicing calming mantras such as “I am safe” or “everything is going to be okay” this can be useful when you struggle with intrusive thoughts like me.
Distress Tolerance skills- In DBT the first unit you cover is ‘distress tolerance’ these are a series of skills you learn to cope effectively when you are distressed. Distraction and safe place visualization are a part of this but there is also, STOP, TIPP, ACCEPTS and more. I will leave links to videos and articles about these techniques below to explain further.
Thank you for reading, I know its been some time since I last wrote and I’m honestly not sure when the next post will be as I seem to have lost the drafts but thank you for being patient with me and hope to be back soon, until next time ❤
The C in ABC PLEASE stands for cope ahead, I couldn’t find a video with cope ahead alone but I think its useful to know the rest of the skills in the acronym 🙂