How to Cope With Triggers

Sometimes something simple--words, an image, a smell or sound--can take you back to a traumatic experience.

Tom Andriola January 19, 2016
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Triggers can be stifling. Everybody has them, but not everybody knows they have them. A trigger is essentially a flashback that takes a person back to his or her original trauma. An individual who experiences a trigger may react with old defenses or survival strategies that were helpful during the original traumatic event, but could be harmful at the present time. For example, if someone was sexually abused as a child and zoned out during the abuse, the survival mechanism of zoning out helped the individual to get through that horrific experience at that particular point in time.

Perhaps that same person is an adult now with a professional career. If a coworker comes into the office wearing a cologne that smells like that of the abuser, that person might experience a trigger that causes him or her to zone out. Of course, zoning out in a professional setting when you are supposed to be performing your job duties is no longer a healthy response.

Similarly, an adoptee may hear certain phrases or be subject to certain lines of questioning that remind them of the pain of their circumstance. For example, someone might say to them, “You should be grateful you were adopted into a good family,” or “You look just like your (adoptive) father.”

I don’t know many adoptees who are happy to hear people say things like that. In fact, these and similar comments are triggers for many of the adoptees I know. When they hear them, they get angry, or they shut down, or maybe they smile and nod and get a pit in their stomach instead.

For me, the most effective way to deal with triggers is to first identify them and think about what it is that causes them. Personally, I have been going to therapy for several years in an attempt to resolve the pain not only from my adoption experience, but also from being sexually abused as a child. The exercise of identifying my triggers and their causes, as well as some healthy responses that I can use to cope with them, has really been a lifesaver for me. I no longer feel like my triggers control me or stifle me. They will always be there, I know that, but I am acutely aware of them and I am able to deal with them effectively, for the most part.

For others, dealing with triggers in another way may be more effective. Some may feel uncomfortable going to a therapist. And that’s okay. As long as each individual chooses some way to help them identify their triggers and their corresponding unhealthy coping mechanisms, healthy and effective responses can begin to be developed and practiced so that the impact of the trigger is nullified, or at least muffled to a certain degree.

At the same time, just because a healthy response is identified and developed, it doesn’t mean that the impacted individual needs to remain silent about it. It’s okay to speak up. It’s okay to tell someone that you would prefer not to be told that you should be grateful for having been adopted or that you look like your father. Although in all likelihood they didn’t mean anything harmful by their words, most people who are inadvertently making statements that are hurtful would want to know so they can make some adjustments in the future.

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Tom Andriola

Tom Andriola advocates for adoptee rights and shares his personal experiences about being adopted and his successful, independent search for both biological parents. To see more of his writing, visit Tom's Facebook page.


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