Supporting Trauma Survivors Through Triggers

Aug 9, 2019

When someone we love hurts, we want to help. We offer comfort, band-aids, food, words of encouragement – anything we can think of to help promote healing. We tend think of healing as a linear process: at the start is suffering and at the end is the return to a restored self – in body, mind or spirit. But for many people who have experienced trauma, healing is not linear. Rather, survivors of trauma traverse unknown terrain where the path forward isn’t always clear. Unpleasant surprises may lurk around the bend. Survivors may encounter something that puts them right back in trauma – or rather, they feel like they are living through the traumatic event all over again, even if it took place years ago, even if they are safe now. Over time, some of these triggers may be anticipated and avoided, but sometimes they just pop up, seemingly out of nowhere. Similar to the initial trauma, triggers take an emotional and physical toll on survivors. At times like these, it is imperative that survivors have a trusted companion by their side –  someone to reassure them they are not alone, that they are safe, and that even this, in all its unpleasantness, is part of their healing journey.

When we witness a loved one suffer, we suffer too. The antidote? For many of us, the impulse is to ask questions, seek information, and formulate solutions so we can fix the problem. But trauma reactions do not respond to easy fixes. And often, asking a triggered survivor to recount her trauma, justify being triggered, or formulate a plan only exacerbates the trauma response.

What can we do to support trauma survivors, especially when they’ve been triggered? We can educate ourselves about triggers and how they may affect survivors. When we notice signs that our friend or loved one has been triggered – which may include, but in are no way limited to: physical symptoms such as sweating or difficulty breathing; sudden and drastic changes in emotion, such as anger or fear; a desire to flee or hide –  we can help them leave the triggering environment as quickly as possible. We can let them know we’re there for them, that they are safe, that we will listen if they want to talk, while also assuring them that words are not necessary. When survivors have been triggered, we can be with them without touching them – and if we think physical contact might help, we can ask permission first. We must let trauma survivors know that we believe them, that their trigger responses are valid, and that none of this – neither the original trauma nor the trauma response – is their fault.

Supporting a trauma survivor may mean putting aside your own ideas about the best ways to heal. In an interview with, Michele Paolella, LMSW, director at a New York domestic violence and sexual assault organization, notes that keeping survivors’ physical and emotional safety at the forefront may mean “recognizing that some of the things you believe would be best for the survivor may not be what works for them, especially in cases where things like outing gender/sexual identity, immigration status, or trauma history would put them at increased risk of rejection by their family or community, result in unwanted state involvement (in the case of police or immigration), or other negative outcomes.” When we are supporting survivors we must remember: each individual is an expert on her or his own life.

We can help trauma survivors recognize their triggers and make conscious choices around engaging with potential triggers. For example, if we suspect a certain movie may contain triggering content, we can encourage the survivor to research the film so an informed choice about viewing it can be made. If the choice is to watch it and the survivor becomes triggered, we can walk out of the theater with her or, if at home, turn off the show. Because trauma responses take survivors into the past, transporting them into the traumatic event, we can help survivors reorient to the present through sensory experiences such as holding an ice cube or breathing exercises that help activate the parasympathetic nervous system. All of these strategies – from how to engage with triggers to how to disentangle from their effects – should be explored when survivors’ feel safe and calm. And it is the survivor’s expertise on her own life that should shape these strategies.

Our attorneys believe that trauma survivors should be able to access the resources they need to heal – whatever that healing journey may look like. If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual trauma and would like to learn how the civil justice system can support your path to healing, please contact us for a free consultation.

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