Hair-trigger reactions
November 9, 2011 2:59 AM   Subscribe

What does it mean to be "triggered"?

Having read the range of responses to the harrowing video in this MeFi thread, and having become increasingly accustomed in the past few years to seeing "trigger warnings" on more sensitive websites, I'm curious to hear from those who are vulnerable to being triggered: what does this experience consist of? What are your physical or emotional symptoms? PTSD is associated with flashbacks, for instance, but what are flashbacks actually like? Are they as definite as auditory/visual hallucinations, or something subtler?
posted by stuck on an island to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Depends on my emotional state at the time and the nature of the trigger. It can be as subtle as freezing, blanking out and being overwhelmed by a memory or a fragment of it - this is usually momentary and I can sometimes pull it together enough to not have it be noticed as anything other than usual lapses in attention. Afterwards I will feel shaky, upset and I will be very emotionally volatile. I may become uncharacteristically silent. I will almost always start in with one of my obsessive physical things (picking at my skin, rocking, rubbing my nails).

Bad triggers will generally completely overwhelm me physically - not in an acting out the trauma but I will be unable to respond effectively or appropriately to outside stimuli. I often cry. I always begin to rock and usually start pulling on my hair. I will always have a panic attack and find it difficult to breathe. I will be nauseous but I haven't throw up from it. I will often begin to pace back and forth or bounce in place. I will twitch and move in a really disjointed way. I will respond with terror and/or violence to unexpected contact. Afterwards I am shaky, upset, volatile and filled with self loathing. I become almost mute, suffer from alogia and occasionally make weird moaning/grunting sounds.

I also hold my breath a lot of the time during the trigger and during the flashback. If you've ever held your breath to try and stop crying, that's similar to what I go repeatedly.
posted by geek anachronism at 3:20 AM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

When it's happened to me, it's been a totally overwhelming plunge back into the emotions I felt at the time of the traumatic event(s). So, a really, really strong and sudden feeling of worry/panic, sickness, and being unsafe, to a degree where I can't think about or focus on anything else. I've never had visual or auditory flashbacks, but the memory of the past becomes front and centre in my mind to the point where whatever's actually going on is more of a backdrop - it feels like my brain has gone into hyper-alert "DANGER DANGER DANGER" mode, not letting me shift my attention away from the memory, which itself feels very, very immediate and current.

One slightly strange thing I've noticed is that the fear I've experienced at these moments feels greater than the fear I experienced at the time the events in question were actually happening. Possibly some kind of over-compensatory reaction after the fact once I could properly process what was going on?

I also don't find trigger warnings particularly useful, although I am fortunate in that being triggered as such never happened to me all that frequently and happens almost never these days. Trigger warnings are all too often unspecific and ("warning for triggery content!") - and people tend to be triggered by quite specific things it would be helpful to know about in advance ("warning for triggery content about domestic abuse!").
posted by Catseye at 3:44 AM on November 9, 2011

Depending on the trigger I'll do one of many things. The worse is a full multisensory flashback. It's like reliving everything again through every sense that was stimulated.

Less severe reactions only involve one sense. I'll tend to have pain.

I can also dissociate right off planet earth. Weird thing is I look and interact normally with people, but I will have no awareness of it.
posted by kathrynm at 3:44 AM on November 9, 2011

I hate to be all "it depends", but it depends. At this point for me, being triggered usually either results in a low-level depression and dissociation (nobody else can tell anything is wrong but I don't feel present) or anxiety and nightmares. The experience of being triggered has changed for me with time and therapy, but that experience certainly isn't universal.

And then some of it is the...presentation...of the trigger. I can usually read things that have trigger warnings without being triggered, but I will rarely watch a video clip that has one. I can't even watch certain tv shows or movies in the evening because I'll start feeling hyper-vigilant (jumping at every sound, etc.; also a PTSD thing) and sleep poorly.
posted by camyram at 4:05 AM on November 9, 2011

When I get triggered I get a really tight feeling around my chest, like I'm getting squeezed, and it feels difficult to breathe. I will feel sad, scared, and start shaking. The shaking is the worst, because I can't hide that very well.

Emotionally, I can be all over the map, but it mostly feels like fear, like what had happened is about to happen again, and I should brace myself for it. Even though intellectually I know I'm safe, my fear tells me to get ready for something bad to happen.

The flashback, for me, really is just a flash of a memory..but it's not like a soft memory, it's like a memory that kicks you in the gut. Usually, for me, this is not a subtle thing, except in the sense that it will persist for awhile afterwards, right on the edge of my brain.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 4:43 AM on November 9, 2011

For some people in some situations, being asked to describe the anxious, panicked, irrational and unstoppable reaction to external stimuli that recall previous trauma in that person's life can bring on a triggered state. Here is one person's lucid description of living with PTSD.

Anything from low-level anxiety that may grind on for months to a full fledged panic attack can be the result of triggering. The common thread in experiences I'm familiar with is an external stimulus that may not necessarily be disturbing to a typical person evoking a lived traumatic experience.

"Caution: triggers" is about as useful as "Danger: bears". "Trigger warning: [situation without graphic detail]" is generally very helpful.
posted by thatdawnperson at 4:53 AM on November 9, 2011

Usually for me I end up with panic attacks. Sometimes minor ones, sometimes debilitating ones.

My abuse was relatively minor comparatively. In an everyday situation I can push it to the back of my mind and once it's there it's easier to keep it in check. When I get triggered it's instantly brought to the front and I have to deal with the emotions all over again, as well as trying to push it to the back again. When I'm triggered once it's much easier for me to be triggered again by more innocent things until I've successfully gotten the memory back in its place.
posted by TooFewShoes at 6:22 AM on November 9, 2011

As above, depends on my emotional state and the triggering event. For the less-severe kind, I feel tightness in my chest and have difficulty breathing, and I get lightheaded and my hands start to shake, and I get spaced out from whatever is happening in front of me. Usually I cry a little bit. If this happens somewhere public I can retreat to the bathroom and do some breathing exercises to recenter myself and return to whatever I was supposed to be doing in a few minutes, although some of the spaciness remains and my productivity is gonna be off for the rest of the day until I can sleep it off.

Sometimes I have a disproportionate emotional response to the situation—like, last week I was at a seminar where a few people said some really ignorant thoughtless things with horrible implications, and it was triggering, and I was CAPS LOCK FURIOUS for an entire week. It was totally exhausting! This has gotten better with therapy; now I have strategies for coping with my emotional responses to stuff that I didn't used to have. It is still disruptive though.

The more-severe kind gives me a flashback or a debilitating panic attack, no chance of shaking it off or pretending that nothing is happening. Like Catseye, the only things I can think about are being panicked and sick and feeling unsafe. Apparently I cringe and cower away from anyone who reaches for me. It's completely overwhelming. For me, a flashback feels like the traumatic events are happening over again. Sometimes it's incorporated into whatever is happening to me in the present, like lying in bed with my sleeping SO's arm draped across me, being too terrified to move in case I wake him up because I feel like I am in immediate danger of harm—even though that's not the case anymore. Other times it doesn't have anything to do with what's happening to me in the present, like I am overwhelmed by the sensation of being smothered and pressed down in my bed even though there's nothing really happening to my body. So it's a combination of physical sensations and the emotional reactions I have to them.

I experience some hypervigilance in general (I hate not having my back to a wall in a room with lots of people in it, for instance, and I hate not being able to keep an eye on the door; parties are very taxing for me because that's a lot of people to keep track of). After something triggering has happened, the hypervigilance is amped up so high I can barely concentrate on anything other than all the stuff that is happening around me and how it might be dangerous.
posted by bewilderbeast at 7:07 AM on November 9, 2011

I'm just answering based on my own experiences and haven't read the answers above. When I was 22, someone broke into my apartment while I was asleep and then woke me up with a butcher knife to the throat. He raped me.

For the first 6 months, being triggered meant basically becoming hysterical with fear. Anything could do it: a painting falling off the wall, seeing a similar butcher knife, hearing about a friend's house getting broken into, a weird guy at the grocery store. I've had panic attacks before, but this was different: more just like hysterical, uncontrollable fear that is deep and primal. I guess if a bear broke into your kitchen while you were cooking dinner, you would probably feel this same sort of fear. I didn't have flashbacks per se, just fear.

Now (8 years later), when I get triggered it takes a different form. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night because I hear a noise and I get afraid and panicky. My heart races and I become hyper-vigilant in listening to my surroundings. I usually end up making my husband check the house - sometimes several times - while I lie in bed afraid, planning escape routes and making sure my phone is ready to call 911. Even after he makes sure the house is okay, I usually stay awake for several hours listening to the sounds just to make sure it's okay.

That is the more extreme end of my triggering at this point. Sometimes I'll see a rape on TV or hear about a friend's house being broken into and the rest of the day will be spent in a kind of detached haze. I usually zone out at work and feel exhausted. My body gets achey and I just feel stressed out and may or may not develop a migraine (most often I do). I don't relive the traumatic event anymore, but may have some detached memories of it. It'll just be like a low level anxiety and exhaustion all day. I usually feel very alone when it happens and get depressed by these feelings.
posted by corn_bread at 4:40 PM on November 9, 2011

Spontaneous emesis. The benefit is that I feel much better afterwards.

I've heard there are animals that do this as well (vomit when they're scared or threatened). I just don't want to look it up cause (HA) it's a trigger.
posted by kinsey at 6:13 PM on November 9, 2011

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