When Trauma Survivors Get Triggered: Writing Characters Who Are Trauma Survivors, Part 2

My blog series, Writing Characters Who Are Trauma Survivors, contains writing advice for folks who write erotica and erotic romance and who want to include realistic depictions of trauma in their stories. In my first post in this series, I discuss the reasons why erotica and erotic romance writers might include characters who experience trauma and who have PTSD in our stories, and give some (hopefully) clear and concise definitions of trauma and PTSD.

In this post, I want to talk about what happens when trauma survivors get triggered. I want to talk about getting triggered because it is one of the most misunderstood aspects of PTSD and is often left out or misrepresented in erotica and erotic romance. I also think this is an important subject to discuss early on, because getting triggered is such an incredibly common experience for trauma survivors that I do not believe that you can create a realistic depiction of a character with PTSD without referring to or showing them getting triggered.

So, in this post, I’m going to describe what it’s like to get triggered, in the next post, I am going to talk about common ways survivors cope with triggers, and in the fourth post I plan to talk about what happens when sex and kink meet up with triggers.

What is getting triggered?

One of the most common experiences folks with PTSD have is what is often referred to as getting triggered, when something specific sets off an increase or flare up of trauma symptoms, particularly trauma intrusion. Trauma intrusion (one of the core symptoms listed in the prior post) is when aspects of the traumatic experience (sensations, sounds, emotions, memories) intrude on the current day. When getting triggered results in trauma intrusion, survivors often feel like they can’t escape the trauma, which can be very upsetting.

Folks with PTSD can experience trauma intrusion and other trauma symptoms without a particular trigger, but often, trauma intrusion is triggered by something. (Sometimes the survivor can’t easily identify what that is, but likely a savvy reader will want to be able to.) Triggers are sometimes sensory, sometimes anniversary related, sometimes emotional.

Common sensory triggers include:

  • sounds that occurred during the trauma (loud noises are a common one; particular spoken phrases can be a common trigger too)
  • sensations that are similar to the trauma or that occur in the areas of the body impacted by the trauma (this is likely to come up during sex and kink, even for survivors of non-sexual trauma)
  • tastes and smells that are associated with the trauma (the smell of adrenaline or alcohol in sweat is a common one)
  • visuals that remind people of the trauma (which is one of the reasons why people often avoid places that trauma occurred, and frequently move away–to avoid reminders of the trauma that trigger them)

People sometimes get what are sometimes called anniversary reactions, where they experience things like trauma intrusion, heightened hyperarousal, physical symptoms, strong emotions, dissociation, or panic attacks on or close to an anniversary related to the trauma (common anniversaries include a particular day trauma occurred, the day their abusive parent died, the day they left their abusive partner).

In addition to sensory and anniversary triggers, trauma survivors often experience emotional triggers. Feeling helpless, out of control, frightened, trapped, being in no-win emotional situations, unexpected changes, and strong emotions are all common emotional triggers. Emotional intimacy, love, marriage, sex, having children—these things are also all common triggers, especially for survivors of intimate violence.

You can probably see some implications for writing erotica and erotic romance about characters with PTSD. Survivors are likely to be triggered by things that happen in most of our stories: sex, kink, love, and intimacy. They are also likely to get triggered by other everyday things that they often encounter in our books, including feeling helpless, scared, things changing unexpectedly, loud noises, the smell of alcohol, etc. These are things you can’t go through life without encountering, so in a full length novel, it is highly likely that your character will get triggered at least once, and likely more than once. Even for folks who have been managing PTSD for many years.

So what happens when a survivor gets triggered?

Unless a trauma is fresh, they are dealing with a new trauma on top of the old, or circumstances have substantially changed, your character probably already knows what it’s like to be triggered, and has ways they cope. (They might not always be effective coping strategies, but they likely exist.) If your character has had any kind of counseling or therapy, they likely have language to describe being triggered and are not afraid they are hallucinating if they have a flashback. They may be surprised by getting triggered in a new way or by a new thing, but this is a reality they have been living with, and are somewhat used to. (It can happen that folks can go for a while without getting triggered in a way they recognize, and then have something happen that brings on an intense level of trauma symptoms, but it’s not that common.)

So in general, your character knows the experience of being triggered, but you may not know what it’s like. So I’m going to give you some specifics.

Trauma intrusion (including flashbacks and nightmares) is not usually an exact match for the real events. The perspective can change, where you see things from above, or as a witness (whether or not there was actually a witness to the events). You could experience the event from another person’s point of view; your character could experience it from a perpetrator’s point of view or another victim’s. Also, it can be common for survivors to replace perpetrator or victim’s identities with the identity of someone currently close to them. Trauma intrusion is rarely a memory of the whole event, but instead is likely to be partial. For example, they may experience the same ten seconds on repeated loop, or they might just hear the sounds or feel the sensations related to a particular moment of the traumatic experience.

Trauma intrusion is not a good way to tell the readers the story of the trauma. I’m going to discuss this at length in a later post, but here is the short explanation why I do not recommend this:

Given what I’ve described about how trauma intrusion is likely to be partial and not an exact match for the real events, if you want to include a linear narrative of the trauma itself, don’t use a flashback or a nightmare to do so. It is not a realistic way to engage with trauma intrusion in your story.

So, let’s go through a common example. Your character, who survived trauma in childhood, falls in love. That alone could trigger them. That experience, maybe in combination with something that makes them feel helpless or out of control (a fight, sex, being trapped in an elevator, speaking to their family, their love interest getting sick, etc.) might really set them off. So now they are triggered. What could that look like?

  • Maybe they have a flashback, where they hear their own scream over and over, or have the sensation of a hand over their mouth.
  • Or they can’t stop thinking over and over that they’re trapped and can’t do anything about it until maybe they have a panic attack.
  • Maybe they have a nightmare where they relive the trauma but this time they watch their love interest experience the trauma and are helpless to stop it.
  • They could also be triggered and it might not manifest in trauma intrusion but in intensification of hyperarousal, where they can’t sleep.
  • Or in hypervigilance, where they gets obsessed with their love interest’s safety and protecting that person from getting hurt.
  • Or they could dissociate and check out of their body in the middle of sex.
  • They could have a rage reaction.
  • They could get a stomach ache or a headache.
  • They could also get triggered and be stuck in trauma intrusion or rage, and then freak out about it, deciding they’re too fucked up or out of control and need to leave their love interest. Trauma survivors often push people away, especially when they are triggered. (As someone who’s dated quite a few trauma survivors, I can attest to this personally. I can think of more than one time I got dumped by someone who was clearly intensely triggered.)

You can probably see how a character getting triggered might have a big impact on your plot! It’s really up to you to determine what kind of response makes sense for your particular character inside your story, and to think through how that would ripple out. Trauma often creates pretty intense ripples in life; it makes sense that it might also do so in your story.

This is the second in a series of posts that is still evolving. (Here’s a list of my planned posts so far.) I welcome your questions, so please feel free to comment or send emails to praxisproductions at gmail dot com. Let me know what you’d like to see me write about, what kind of information would be the most helpful to you.

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6 thoughts on “When Trauma Survivors Get Triggered: Writing Characters Who Are Trauma Survivors, Part 2

    • Thanks for your comment! I’m glad you found the post useful. Please do let me know if there is anything specific you’d like to see covered in the series.

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