How to Help a Loved One Cope with Triggers

This is an article of mine that was originally posted in Feministing’s community blog.

Triggers are a normal, common aspect of being a survivor of sexual assault and other traumas. They’re difficult to deal with and often feel entirely out of our control. Even years later, triggers can have a strong effect on survivors, but loved ones can make a huge difference. If you know someone who is a survivor, learning to help them cope with triggers is one of the most helpful things you can do.

Educate yourself
The first step is one of the most important. Without first having a strong grasp on what triggers are, you won’t be able to effectively help your loved one. Check out this article for a quick (yet thorough) rundown on triggers.

It’s hard to ask for help
Survivors often find it difficult to ask for help for many reasons. Don’t be offended if they don’t often come to you for help. It doesn’t mean they don’t trust you. Your loved one may:

  • Fear of judgement or pity
  • Believe others won’t understand
  • Want to avoid thinking about what happened
  • Be unsure how to bring it up
  • Feel weak or embarrassed
  • Don’t want to burden you

Plan ahead
In an ideal world, you’d know about your loved one’s triggers before anything happens. If you’re both comfortable with it, ask your loved one what triggers them. You can help them avoid these things in the future. From there, discuss how they react to their triggers and what strategies do and don’t help them. Finally, the two of you could come up with a game plan (bear with me. I’ll discuss what some ideas for your game plan soon). It helps to plan in advance, because triggers often make it hard to think – hard to verbalize what’s going on and what our needs are. With a plan in place, it’s less scary when your loved one is triggered. You may want to have a different game plan for different triggers or symptoms. For example, a panic attack may require a different strategy than if your loved one is just feeling uneasy.
Keep in mind that some people don’t know all of their triggers and/or how to deal with them. If this is the case, plan ahead as best you can and refine your approach as you go. Even for people who are familiar with all their triggers and have good coping strategies, it may take practice to find what works when you’re trying to help them. It’s a good idea to discuss periodically what does and doesn’t work.

Do not:

  • Tell them what to do. You can make suggestions (“Do you want to try some deep breathing?”) but do not demand (“You need to do some deep breathing.”) Let them take the lead.
  • Make them tell you anything. Your loved one is under no obligation to tell you what happened to them. At a time like this, talking about what they went through will probably only make them feel worse.
  • Tell them to go to therapy
  • Belittle them. Never tell them they’re “overreacting” or need to “get over it.”
  • Say they’re lucky it wasn’t worse
  • Talk over them about your personal feelings rather than focusing on theirs. Your needs come second
  • Stop them from talking about their experiences/feelings/fears
  • Make threats or demands
  • Call them weak

If you trigger them
If it was an accident, remember that it’s not your fault. Make sure to tell them it was an accident even if you think it’s obvious. Ask them if they need some space.
Now let’s go through what types of things you could do to help your loved one. All of these can be used even if you don’t have an established game plan.

Safety
Often triggers make people feel very unsafe even when they’re not in any type of danger. Therefore, one of the first things you can do is help them feel safe. If possible, try to bring them away from the trigger to a place where they can feel safer.
Even just saying “It’ll be okay. You’re safe with me,” can help a lot. Be careful not to belittle their feelings when doing this. Avoid saying things such as “Just get over it” “You need to calm down” “Stop overreacting.” Remember that this is a normal reaction to trauma. It’s the way the brain is wired. Most of all, just let your loved one know that you are there for them.

Talking?
For some people, talking through a trigger is very helpful. They may like having someone to listen and help them process what’s going on.
However, talking is not for everyone. I, for example, don’t want to be distracted in the first few crucial moments. I need to concentrate on calming myself down before things get too out of hand. Even if I did want to talk, I often am not able to. Ask your loved one what they prefer or play it by ear.

Touch?
Touch is much the same way. Either it helps or it makes things worse. This is not something you should play by ear. Make sure to ask before doing anything. If they are okay with touch, it may be helpful to hold their hand, sit close, put your arms around them or give them a backrub.

First Aid Kit
In this article (which you should definitely read) they briefly discuss a first aid kit. It can be filled with things that help a person when they’re feeling triggered. Examples are peppermint, pictures, quotes and a stress ball.

More strategies
There are infinite ways to help and I’ve barely scratched the surface. Check out this list of ways for people to cope with their triggers. Try going through it with your loved one and incorporating a few into your game plan.

Recuperation
Sometimes when people are feeling triggered, they can snap out of it in an instant. More commonly, the effects gradually wear off. This doesn’t always happen in the same way. It may be linear, they may feel “off” for the rest of the day. It could also be like the tide going out – it comes in waves but the intensity gradually decreases over time. It may also be like the aftershock of an earthquake, suddenly coming back without warning and then fading away again.
A person often feels both physical and emotional fatigue post-trigger. Some people prefer engaging activities like reading to get their mind off of the trigger, and others prefer something more laid back like watching a movie. For some, being somewhere quiet is very important.
Remember that healing is a process, not a destination. And the path is never straight. There will be good days and there will be bad days, but over time things can get better with hard work. Having a loved one by their side during the journey makes it a lot less daunting.

If you have any more tips, please share them in the comments!

Thank you for reading this article. You can find my backstory here.

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