Being “triggered” is a very real, very natural, and very agonizing aspect of overcoming trauma, including betrayal trauma. The term refers to the moments when we are very suddenly and unexpectedly reminded of our pain and upheaval in a way that propels us back into the crippling state of shock experienced at the onset of the traumatic experience. Most of us didn’t expect the triggers, so as we’re completely unequipped to deal with and move past them.
And because they come on in such an abrupt manner and in the most inconvenient times and locations, isolating often seems like our only option.
IT. IS. A. LIE!
Isolation is not the answer! It is a tactic of the enemy, and is in fact the response most likely to keep us from ever overcoming trauma and moving past this miserable stage of recovery into a place in which we have peace.
2 Corinthians 10: 3-5 (ESV) – For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.
As terrifying as it is, we have to face our triggers head on, and find a way to capture our thoughts and make them obedient to Christ. If you’re in a place in which you are regularly being triggered, I know that feels like an impossibility. But I promise you, it is not.
There are relatively simple, practical things we can do to claim victory over our minds. Let’s open our Bibles together, come boldly before the throne of our gracious God, and allow Him to heal what sin has broken.
STEP ONE – Take Away the Element of Surprise
Very often it is the element of surprise that so quickly renders us incapacitated when we find ourselves being triggered. We’re just going about our business, and something we didn’t see coming smacks us across the face with a reminder of the worst parts of our trauma.
Our ears start to ring, and the world goes into slow motion. We can feel every beat of our heart as it threatens to pound right out of our chest and has somehow both slowed to a rate certain to kill us and is racing out of control at the same time. The air is taken from our lungs and no matter how many breaths we take, it seems none of the oxygen is getting in. Reality seems to swirl in and out around us, and we feel certain we’re going to collapse where we stand.
All the while, the only thing we can think about is that one thing that sent us here in the first place. That terrible thought consumes us. It devours our hold on reality and takes us deeper and deeper into fear and anxiety.
1 Corinthians 16:13 – Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong. And do everything with love.
But what if we COULD anticipate some of those triggers and prepare ourselves for them? What if we could begin to walk into our day-to-day lives on guard and prepared for those moments when we will inevitably find ourselves being triggered? What if we could respond in courage and strength and render those triggers powerless?
I found this process to be much easier than I ever would have guessed, once I had made my mind up to do it. Here’s how:
- Make a list of the times you’ve been triggered recently, and add to it as new triggers occur. Note where you were, what you were doing, and as specifically as possible what caused the trigger.
- Figure out what is at the root of each trigger.
- Prepare responses for the attacks you know are coming:
– Bible verses that speak truth into a lie (memorize them and have them ready to go)
– Physical actions that will help you feel safe (take deep breathes, look away, walk away, turn it off)
-Prayers you can pray, or songs you can sing to replace obsessive thoughts.
– Actions that will help break a destructive cycle. (Bring a friend, take a different route, listen to a different station)
- As soon as you are triggered, or even better, if you sense a trigger coming, respond immediately with your prepared response, and take the power away from the enemy!
I often felt triggered in the grocery store. I would see other women who somehow reminded me of our situation (and it didn’t take much), and would begin to obsessively think about that woman with my husband. I would feel so helpless and out of control. My thoughts would spiral and I’d wonder about what he was doing right then. The what ifs consumed me.
Once I was able to isolate the trigger, and chose to go on the offensive, I decided to reminded myself that every woman is precious to God, and to stop participating in their objectification. I decided the second I started to feel triggered I would immediately say a prayer for the woman causing it in order to re-humanize her, and put God in the driver’s seat of my perception of the world instead of my husband’s sin.
I was also fortunate enough to have people who were willing to stand in the gap for me. They offered to go with me so I didn’t have to walk through the doors of a grocery store alone until I was able to break the cycle of anxiety. They would talk to me and joke with me as we shopped to keep me distracted, and when an attack inevitably came, they would wait quietly and patiently with me without judgement until it passed.
Not very far into recovery, my husband decided he wanted to be the one to fill that role. With each trip the triggers lessened, and within a few months I was able to go to the grocery store alone again without incident. You can do it too!
2 Corinthians 10:3-5 – For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.
STEP TWO – Gently Communicate when Triggered with Honesty and Transparency
So often we are triggered by situations involving the people we love. They don’t mean to do it, and truly don’t even realize what they’re doing could be a problem. They say triggering things, talk about sensitive subjects, watch difficult things on television when we’re around, participate in activities that have great potential to bring up triggers and want us to join them, etc…
The fact is, we’re just all really bad at putting ourselves in other people’s shoes, and we don’t give a lot of thought to how what we say or do might hurt someone else.
Proverbs 18:1 (ESV) – Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgement.
Matthew 18:15 – If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense…
Isolating is our natural response in these situations, but again, it is not the answer. Honesty and transparency is!
Sit down with the people who are most important in your life and as simply as possible explain your situation. They don’t need details, just the basics. Explain how triggers work. Gently explain how the things they talk about or do can exacerbate these dreadful moments (give a few examples), and simply ask for some understanding.
Make it clear that you know they’re not doing it on purpose. Explain that sometimes you may need to just leave for a bit because things have gotten to be too much. Ask them for grace.
You may be surprise by their response! These people do love you, after all! They almost certainly want to do whatever they can to help, and simply need to be given some help in understanding how best to do that.
STEP THREE – Guard Your Heart when Overcoming Trauma
1 Corinthians 10:13 – The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, He will show you a way out so that you can endure.
Isolation is not the answer, but sometimes there are things we do need to avoid for a time, and there are other things we’re just going to have to do away with for good. The key is that we’re not pulling away from all human interaction, but instead, finding the situations that are both unnecessary and harmful, and using the wisdom we receive from God to discern which ones need to go.
For us, that looked like turning the TV off for a little while, and avoiding places like the pool or the beach or even the mall for an even longer while. It meant giving up movies or television programs that contained any nudity or explicit sexual content for good, and being quick to walk away from situations or conversations that would do us harm. That part was easy to figure out.
However, a few weeks into our recovery, during the time we were going through our Therapeutic Separation, a situation arose that was not so easy to discern. Our Pastor was preaching through the book of Ephesians, and looking ahead I realized we would be going over the section that talks about marriage (and the roles of each spouse) in the weeks to come.
I knew the subject matter, at this particular time, would be very triggering. I knew I would be tempted to respond in bitterness as I listened to all the ways a husband is called to sacrificially love his wife, not because I had a problem with the Scriptures, nor with the way my Pastor would handle the text. I simply knew my heart was too raw to listen to those sermons right then. So, I asked God what I should do and He gave me Proverbs 4:23.
Proverbs 4:23 – Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.
I discussed the issue with my pastor and with my husband. Then, with complete peace, I did not attend church for those few weeks. God provided a way out, and I took it!
As soon as the text moved past the triggering part I returned. Several months later, when another text came up that was along the same lines, I was in a much healthier place and was able to attend without incident.
They key is to be careful that we’re not using our triggers as an excuse to be dramatic or seek attention, but also to be obedient to God when He stirs our hearts to action.
STEP FOUR – When Overcoming Trauma, Take Care of Your Body
Being triggered can cause our bodies to respond with very physical symptoms, so it should come as no surprise that they in turn take a very serious toll on our physical well-being.
There are some very simple things we can do to combat this, though. Eating well to keep our blood sugar stable, getting enough sleep, and finding time to rest (different from sleep) are all important practices to minimize our triggers, and the toll they take on our bodies.
There are also times when medication can really help, or even be necessary. You can read much more about that in my book review of The Anxiety Cure here.
Finally, there are some really cool, very helpful relaxation exercises we can do both while we are being triggered, and at other times throughout our day to minimize the negative effects of the triggers and to lessen their occurrences.
During a trigger
- Close your eyes and take very slow and deep breaths.
- Place your hands over your stomach and concentrate on the rise and fall.
- With each breath in try to expand your stomach as far as it can, and with each breath out contract it as far as possible.
- With each breath count very slowly and try to breath in for at least 5 slow seconds, then hold it for 5, breathe out for 5, and hold again for 5.
- Repeat these 5 times.
- Now continue to breathe deeply and slowly, but switch from counting to one of your prepared verses or statements. Concentrate on repeating your verse or truth slowly as you breathe deeply. Do this until your heart has slowed, your mind has cleared, and you can resume normal activity.
- Lay down on your back on the floor with lots of space around you.
- Close your eyes, and lay your arms on the ground above your head in a relaxed manner.
- Begin the deep breathing exercise from above – concentrating on the rise and fall of your stomach as you slowly do the 5-second breathing cycle five times, just as above.
- Now, stretch your arms and hands as far out above you as you can reach, and do the same with your legs. Reach hard, and stretch as far as you can.
- Hold that stretch and slow count to 10.
- Release the stretch and return your hands to the relaxed position above your head
- Do a single 5-count cycle breathing sequence.
- Repeat the stretch for 10, relax for a 5-count cycle two more times.
- Once you’ve done this a total of three times, lower your arms to your sides, and continue to lay as still as you possibly can (resist the urge to move any part of your body as stubbornly as you can) and breathe deep as you count slowly to 100 three times.
These two techniques helped me SO much as I dealt with triggers, as well as with horrible anxiety that kept me from sleeping. I would do the bottom exercise during the night any time I was restless (actually, I still do it from time to time when I can’t sleep.) and more times than not, I would fall soundly to sleep during the final phase of counting to 100 three times. If not, I would play my night-time game with God, which you can read about here.
STEP FIVE – Flood Your Mind with Truth (when Triggered and Always)
Isaiah 26: 3 – You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in You, all whose thoughts are fixed on You!
Philippians 4:8 – And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.
This final step is the most effective tool we have when overcoming trauma against the thoughts and lies that threaten to keep us triggered at every turn. We have to learn how to renew our mind. How to fix our thoughts on our Lord.
We have to learn to stop fixating on the trauma, and replace that junk with what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. We have to fill our minds with thoughts that are excellent and worthy of praise.
Back when I was still stuck in the phase in which this was a constant struggle for me, I wrote a piece about this very thing. So if you’d like to read more about how to take control of your mind and make it obedient to Christ, check out Winning the Victory Over the Mind: Is it Possible?