Ways Trauma Survivors Manage Triggers: Info for Writers

This is the third post in my series focused on writing characters who are trauma survivors, a series written especially for erotica, erotic romance, and romance writers. I recommend you check out the first post, in which I define trauma and talk about why you might want to write it realistically, and the second post, in which I describe triggers and how they work.

This post focuses on how survivors manage triggers. It discusses this more generally, as I plan to write a couple of related posts: one on where triggers meet sex/kink, and one on how partners respond when survivors get triggered. By it’s nature it is a longer post, and I encourage you to engage with it in smaller chunks, and to take care of yourself as you read.

Basic Principles

I’m going to lay out some of the more common ways that folks manage triggers, but I want to start with some basic principles that may be helpful.

  1. There are no perfect solutions that will prevent a survivor from being triggered ever again. Getting triggered is part of life as a survivor and it will not stop happening completely.
  2. One of the harder things for trauma survivors is when the strategies they have been using stop being as effective. This is one of the things that can nudge someone to begin or return to therapy.
  3. No one strategy (or even set of strategies) is going to work each time. Many survivors have go-to strategies that they use to manage being triggered, and often have preferred ones they use for each of their more common trauma reactions (e.g. a survivor may have a preferred strategy for flashbacks, and a different preferred strategy for panic attacks).
  4. Survivors figure out ways to manage triggers from many different sources. They develop them on their own, they learn from folks in their lives, they learn tools from their spiritual and creative practices, they research different tools they can use, they learn them from media, they learn them in therapy, they experiment, they do things instinctively. Wherever a survivor is at, they have strategies. The strategies may not always be conscious or as effective as they need, but they are coping somehow. No survivor only uses things they learned in therapy. Most survivors adapt what they learn from others to fit themself and the particular situation.
  5. How often we get triggered and the range of things that trigger us varies from person to person. It also varies over time. So this means that your character may go through a phase where they don’t use a lot of strategies, and then need to use them more frequently. It also means that each survivor needs a toolbag of strategies that works specifically for them; there are no one-size-fits-all tools. So when you think about what your character needs and has developed over time, make it specific to them and their particular circumstances.

Considering Strategies for Managing Triggers:

One of the more common experiences of trauma survivors is facing judgment from others. That includes judgment about how a particular survivor is managing or has managed triggers. It is not uncommon for survivors to experience judgment from friends, family, partners, and therapists for the ways that they manage triggers. We also often judge ourselves for the ways we cope with trauma.

Because of how common this kind of judgment can be, I think it is particularly important to talk about strategies in a neutral way, and to value all strategies for helping folks survive trauma. Because I firmly believe that everything a survivor has done up to this point has helped them stay alive, and is therefore valuable. Even if we decide that we want to change strategies, I think it’s important to honor what we have done to get to this point.

In this post I am going to attempt to use neutral language in the ways that I discuss strategies, which I hope will assist you as a writer to consider these strategies in new ways. I know it is likely that I will err in this, as no one is perfect, but I did want to state that intent, up front.

It may be helpful to consider these questions as you read the strategies below, to aid in your characterization:

  1. What judgments (positive and negative) do you have about the strategy? What is that judgment rooted in? How might characters in your story share your judgments and how might that impact your character who is a survivor of trauma? What would it be like for your trauma survivor character to have internalized this kind of judgment, and direct it at themself, even as they continue to use the strategy?
  2. Many times, our judgments about survivor’s coping strategies are influenced by oppression and prejudice. How might this be impacting your judgment and the judgments of characters in your story? How are the judgments you are considering influenced by the character’s race, class, gender, sexuality, level of education, and/or immigration status?
  3. If you have personal experience related to this strategy (as a survivor or as someone close to a survivor), how might your characters have similar responses? How might it be different for your characters?
  4. How might this strategy be helpful, positive, or effective for some survivors? How might this strategy impact the survivor’s life?
  5. Does this strategy fit your character? In what circumstances might your character use this strategy?
  6. What would it be like for your character to be trying this strategy for the first time?
  7. Could your character have used this strategy in the past and be in a process of trying to use others instead? If so, what might attempting to use this strategy less feel like?

Common Strategies Survivors Use to Manage Triggers

This list is not intended to be exhaustive. It is my own way of trying to break strategies into chunks to help you think about them; these categories are not widely recognized as such in the trauma field. Also, the lines between the categories aren’t clean–there is a lot of overlap between them.

  • Avoidance/Prevention:
    • One of the more common ways survivors manage triggers is by avoiding known triggers. (This is one of the core signs of PTSD, by the way.) That can look like avoiding places, people, situations, activities, media, etc. that a survivor knows is likely to trigger them. For example, a survivor might know that they are triggered by being trapped, and avoid getting into an elevator if there are lots of people in it. Or a survivor might find it triggering to have folks moving behind them, and might automatically seek out spots where they can put their back to the wall. Or a survivor might know that they are triggered by a certain song, and might change the music if it were to come on, or leave a place if they hear it playing there.
    • Survivors might also take steps to prevent being triggered. A survivor might tell a lover or a friend about some of the triggers that are likely to come up, so that person is less likely to accidentally trigger them. A survivor might choose to live or work in a place that is less likely to be triggering, including moving away from places that are triggering. A survivor might assess the kinds of triggers that they are likely to encounter and make choices about when to take risks around getting triggered and when they don’t have the resources to spare for that kind of risk.
  • Going Deeper:
    • For folks who practice avoidance (which is most survivors with PTSD to a certain degree), it can mean that there are daily life things that they avoid doing. Sometimes very necessary ones, depending on the nature of the survivor’s triggers. (After all, survivors may be triggered by things like paying bills, taking a shower, cleaning the kitchen, driving, etc.)
    • Some folks respond to being triggered by taking the opportunity to do some things they have been avoiding that need doing. This is an in for a penny, in for a pound kind of thing, where a survivor figures that since they are triggered anyway, this may be the best time to do something they generally avoid because they find it triggering, to get it over with.
    • Some folks go deeper into triggers with a different intent. Memory loss can be a common trauma reaction that can be very difficult for survivors who may intensely want to know what happened. Some survivors choose to go deeper into the trigger in the hopes of recovering memories.
  • Planning
    • Survivors often create plans, both on their own, with other survivors, and with helping professionals. These kinds of plans can be called a number of different things: crisis plan, trigger plan, safety plan, self care plan, coping plan.
    • Most of these plans include a list (often a personalized one) of ideas of what the survivor can do when they are triggered, experiencing trauma symptoms, grappling with suicidality, or in some kind of psychological crisis. Some of these plans include phone numbers the survivor might call to reach out for help (e.g. crisis lines, friend’s phone numbers, therapist’s phone numbers). Some of them include a list of warning signs that the survivor might use to assess whether it’s a good time to implement the plan.
    • There are a few ideas behind this sort of planning. The first is that when triggered, it can be hard to think of what to do to manage it, and a list could help. The second is that the practice of making a plan can help the survivor feel more secure and less anxious or frightened of being triggered.
    • Here is an example of a plan I’ve developed to share with my classes. (Emergency Emotional Safety Plan) Here is an example of a related resource, a madness first aid kit.
  • Passing:
    • Many folks dealing with mental health problems spend a lot of energy working to not appear “crazy“, to pass as neurotypical. This includes folks with PTSD. Depending on cultural context, I’ve heard folks in mad communities call this maintaining, passing, or fronting (though I would urge you to be careful about using African American Vernacular English like “fronting” for characters that are not African American).
    • Passing is particularly common for survivors to use when they get triggered in public or feel that they are in danger. It can look like getting away from people before you let yourself react, hiding reactions, pretending everything is ok when you are triggered, lying about what’s going on, not discussing your trauma history or PTSD with others, and many other ways of behaving that are particular to the situation.
    • Investment in passing can be a driving force behind the choices of other strategies for coping with triggers. It can become a way of moving through the world that seeps into many parts of the survivor’s life, including the ways survivors behave around family, lovers, friends and mental health professionals.
  • Assessing Danger:
    • Trauma survivors might be triggered because there is actual danger, or might be triggered when there is no danger. One of the realities of being triggered is that survivors react as if they are in danger, regardless of how dangerous the situation might be.
    • Many trauma survivors have had the experience of getting triggered and assuming that it is just their trauma response and there is no danger, when danger did really exist. It can be hard for survivors to trust their sense of danger, to listen to their instincts.
    • Some survivors manage triggers by attempting to discern whether there is danger, to figure out when violence or abusive behavior is occurring. This is one of my personal go-to strategies, and I’ve written at length about how vital I believe it to be and how I personally practice this sort of discernment. Practicing this skill and feeling able to trust my own discernment helps me de-escalate my trauma responses. One of the most widely read and recommended books in the trauma field, The Gift of Fear, is based on the premise that this is a critical survival skill.
  • Taking Space/Holing Up/Getting Away:
    • Getting out of the current triggering situation is a common strategy that survivors use. This can look like a range of things that vary in intensity and permanence: taking a walk, running away, leaving the room, taking a break from a conversation/changing the subject, going home, suicidal ideation, planning or action, changing or stopping sexual activity, staying with a friend, sleeping in another room for the night, going to a shelter, ending relationships, finding a place to be alone, leaving town.
    • Changing place or finding a way to be alone can remove the source trigger and tell a survivor’s body that they are not in danger anymore. Getting away from the trigger can reduce trauma responses. Changing the scenery (including sounds, smells, visuals) can help survivors figure out how to manage being triggered.
    • Taking space from others can create a situation where the survivor is more in control and can focus on themself. They don’t have to worry as much about danger from or to others, about saying something they can’t take back or lashing out in some way they will wish they hadn’t later. They can focus on managing trauma responses and don’t have to worry about being embarrassed, ashamed or scared about being witnessed in them.
    • Holing up alone can give space to ride out whatever is going on, because sometimes that’s the best that can be done to survive this moment to the next.
  • Numbing:
    • One of the most common (and often involuntary) ways survivors cope with violence in the moment is dissociation, which is about disconnecting from their bodies and the present moment and occurs in varying degrees depending on the person.
    • Dissociation is also a very common way survivors manage being triggered, and is mostly an involuntary response. It can feel like floating above your body, seeing what’s going on from a distance, disappearing into the wall, feeling like a balloon floating over things, disconnecting from physical sensation, spacing out, imagining yourself somewhere soothing, and a range of other specific experiences that depend on the person and the trauma itself.
    • There are other forms of numbing that help survivors feel things less intensely, and they are all common coping strategies. Some common ones include: using alcohol, nicotine and other substances, depersonalization (a sense that your body is not your own), and self harm (though some folks use self harm as a way to get more connected to their bodies). Some folks find numbness through sex or eating or shopping or physical activity or cleaning or a deep intellectual focus.
  • Grounding: This word is used in so many ways that I generally try to specify what kind I mean. These techniques are often taught by helping professionals or shared between survivors.
    • There’s the energetic/spiritual kind of grounding, that’s about connecting to spirit and the earth. This can look like meditation, ritual, prayer.
    • There’s the getting into the present moment kind that’s about noticing what’s going on in the room.
    • There’s the embodiment kind, which can look like breathing, noticing the five senses, movement.
    • There’s the trauma-informed kind. (If you only click one link in this post, I encourage you to click that one. Pages 4-5 have a long list of strategies that you may find useful in writing trauma survivors.)
  • Distraction/Escape: 
    • Focusing on something else is a very common coping strategy for managing triggers. This is a particularly common way to manage being triggered while out in public. A good portion of trauma informed grounding skills are based in distraction.
    • There are also every-day common ways that folks distract themselves or escape hard things in life. Survivors use these with trauma, too. Binge watching tv or movies, reading, playing games of all sorts, watching or reading porn, knitting, coloring, listening to music, focusing on the problems of others, zoning out on the internet, having sex, partying, studying, working, reorganizing or redecorating.
  • Release: 
    • The idea behind release is that trauma is stored in us/haunting us/possessing us and that we can take action to free it and heal that way. Some folks view being triggered as an opportunity for release.
    • Some folks manage triggers through creative expression or release (e.g. writing, dance, theater, art).
    • Some folks practice a range of somatic therapy interventions that aim to release the trauma from where it is stored in their bodies. In the moment of being triggered this sometimes looks like letting yourself cry or shake or letting your legs run. Basically, letting your body do what it seems to want/need to do.
    • Some folks work on releasing trauma through re-enactment, play therapy, drama therapy or BDSM.
    • Some folks write out the story of the traumatic experience as a way to release it.
    • Some folks work on releasing trauma through spiritual practice, prayer or ritual.
  • Defending/Lashing Out/Exploding:
    • It can be common for folks to intensify their emotional armor as a way to protect themselves when they are triggered.
    • It can be common for folks who are triggered to explode in anger and lash out at others. It is also common for folks who are triggered to blame or target others and view them as abusive or threatening (whether they are or not), and fight back against them.
    • This can be a way of managing overwhelming feelings or frightening trauma responses. It can be a distraction or a release of the adreneline and tension that can come with being triggered. It can serve to get the survivor alone so that they can manage being triggered. This can also be a response to a dangerous situation and a way of managing that danger while triggered. It can be a way of taking control when a survivor feels helpless.
  • Collaborating/Seeking Support from Others:
    • This can look like seeking formal support (e.g. from counselors, doctors, support groups, or clergy) or more informal support (e.g. from family, friends, partners, other survivors). For more on this, see the next section.

A Note On Survivors Collaborating/Supporting Each Other

This is especially important for folks who write contemporary stories, but is useful for all writers to consider.

In the current context, it is incredibly common for survivors to share resources with each other and support each other. In the U.S., the reduction of widespread silence about violence and trauma over the last 30 years or so has made this kind of collaborative support more and more accessible. This kind of support has included early feminist CR groups where survivors shared resources and started some of the first sexual assault and intimate partner violence support groups in the U.S., an increase in access to books (memoir, fiction and non-fiction) about violence and trauma written by survivors, activism amongst veterans to get PTSD recognized and treated as real, wider access to more formal support groups (in both psychological and community settings), and the wide range of support currently available on the internet.

Given this context, it is likely that your character may be interacting with other survivors, reading what they have written, being connected to them on tumblr, facebook, or twitter, connecting with them in person at a support group, etc. If your character is exposed to trauma professionally, they likely have access to other survivors as part of their daily work, and also to other support resources specific to their profession.

Even if you are not writing a contemporary story, it may be useful to consider how your survivor character might find support from other survivors in the world of your story.

If your character is connected to survivor networks online, they are likely to encounter a wide range of resources. I’m going to include some links so that you get a sense of the kinds of things that your character could access online these days.

How Do I Incorporate Managing Triggers in My Story?

One of the great things about including these kinds of strategies in your story is that it can work to disrupt the image of survivors as helpless victims. Even when the character might be feeling helpless, the reader can see them taking action to manage trauma. I would encourage you to consider how you use strategies in your story with this question in mind: how can I include details that show that this character is not helpless?

I recommend mostly including strategies as matter-of-fact small details, just part of how your character moves through the world. Managing trauma is not always dramatic, it is often an everyday life thing. This means choosing some strategies for your characters that are not going to be plot points or sources of conflict. Choose some that are character details, that illuminate something about the character and their personality, the small ways that they do their life and relationships.

Of course, like any way that a character copes with what life throws at them, some strategies can be deeply influential to the direction of the plot, or a source of inner or external conflict for that character. I encourage you to be judicious in your choices here; it can be easy to overwhelm the rest of your story if too much about how a character copes is driving the story or creating conflict. It can also be easy to set up unresolvable conflicts between your love interests.

Remember: it is highly unlikely that your character will choose to or be able to change these strategies long term, especially if they have been using them since childhood. This is just as true of things like avoidance or numbing as it is of things like using substances. It is possible, with lots of work, to reduce the use of these strategies, but it is rare that a survivor would stop using them altogether.

This is the third in a series of posts that is still evolving. 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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2 thoughts on “Ways Trauma Survivors Manage Triggers: Info for Writers

  1. Pingback: Writing Characters Who Are Trauma Survivors: A Blog Series | Kink Praxis

  2. Pingback: A Roundup of Things I’ve Written About Trauma and Abuse | Kink Praxis

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