“Triggered” may be used in conversation liberally and casually, but if you’ve ever experienced trauma, or been around someone who has, then you likely know the true mental health application of the word: how a person responds to a catalyst that negatively recalls a trauma they have experienced, including (but not limited to) abuse, rape, self-harm, bullying, military service, and loss.
Triggers can occur from both internal and external causes. They can range from person to person, and can even have different impacts on a person situationally. Emotional and physical reactions can vary, as well. So, how can you help a friend or loved one when a trigger has been activated, either by you, another person, or another source?
First and foremost, it’s important that you are patient with the person experiencing the trigger. They cannot control when these triggers happen, or even what their instinctual response may be. Give them the time they need to identify what is happening within themselves; your impatience is only going to reinforce a negative experience for them when they are already dealing with the fallout from previous trauma.
Showing your frustration or being unkind in any way is only going to make things worse. Remember that the person is already in emotional or even physical distress, and is enjoying the experience even less than you are. It’s not about YOUR discomfort at that moment: it is about theirs. Be kind and conscientious in your approach. If someone’s serious physical injury reopened, would you tell them to get over it and neglect it? The same rules apply here.
Learn Their Needs
What is right for one person, or even one specific trigger, may not be right for all. If you know a person has struggled in the past, you can ask (politely and with care) what things to avoid for their comfort as well as what kind of support they need when experiencing a trigger. It may vary, but having a good baseline so that you can do what you can to help them in their time of distress can go a long way. It may look like physical comfort, or it may be giving them their space. Whatever their needs are, it’s important that you honor them.
Respect Their Boundaries
Now that you know their needs and have identified what causes them discomfort, it is absolutely imperative that you respect those boundaries and do what you can to mitigate their distress. There may be things that can’t be helped, but what CAN be is your response to them. By recognizing the wishes of the person and adhering to them as best you can, you will show that you do care about them as a person and are compassionate about their trauma recovery.
Be A Friend
What it all boils down to: be a friend to that person. Their trigger is not an “inconvenience”; it’s a symptom of an uncontrollable pain that they experience probably more often than you even are made aware of. If they are being triggered by someone else, do what you can to interfere. If they need help, help them. If they need a shoulder to cry on, be there. If they need someone to lighten their own workload so that they can take some time to regain their composure, do it. Kindness matters.
(Please note that this guide is written from the perspective of a person who experiences these moments, not by a mental health professional. The needs of the individual at time of trigger may vary from person to person and situation to situation; this is just a good place to start and initiate a conversation with your friends, loved ones, and coworkers!)