Supporting through Triggers

What is the stress response?

To understand how to support a survivor who is triggered it is important to understand the stress response. The stress response is a survival response which is part of our biology. It is activated when we are threatened or feel threatened. The stress response prepares the body to fight or flee. If we can’t fight or flee, we freeze and shut down. When a child, young person or adult is in danger and feels trapped, these ‘survival’ responses are activated. They are not conscious responses; they are often triggered without the person knowing. Their role is to stop the person from being overwhelmed.

Under stress we can all lose our ability to stay calm and reflect. Adults who were traumatised as a child are often particularly sensitive to stress. That’s because trauma has repeatedly activated their fight-flight-freeze response. This can mean that their stress response stays switched on. This can happen to adults who have experienced lots of trauma too.

As a result, many survivors live on high alert. This is because their nervous system is used to anticipating danger and continues to do so. People with complex trauma experiences can be triggered by what seem like minor stressors in everyday life. They can be events, sensory cues (which trigger one of the senses) or anniversary dates.

These triggers remind the person’s system of their previous trauma. They throw the person back into a fear-based stress response, just like during the original trauma. Many people re-experience aspects of the original trauma, as if it is occurring in the present. When the triggers aren’t obvious to the person, or to others, the triggered person can seem to overreact for no apparent reason.

Beach scene

If this happens to you or someone you care about, it can help to understand that this is a ‘normal’ response to trauma. This can mean that you can start to recognise triggers and manage your response to them or support the person you care about to manage them better. The section below can help you recognise what happens in the body with triggers with ways to help manage those reactions.

What happens when a person is triggered or overwhelmed?

When a person is overwhelmed, they can become hyper-aroused. This means that their nervous system is over-activated. Often survivors stay hypervigilant a lot of the time, checking for possible threats.

The person can become anxious and agitated, and they may shake or sweat. They might raise their voice and become angry or argumentative. Alternatively, the person may become hypo-aroused or emotionally numb or “shut down” Their eyes may glaze and they might zone out and become quiet. Both hyper- and hypo-arousal are trauma responses. Adult and child survivors can move between these two extremes. They can also experience strong emotions at the same time.

Because children are often unable to fight or flee, they are more likely freeze or dissociate. The younger the child the more likely they will dissociate in response to trauma. The process of dissociation enables them to divide their experiences and separate aspects of their experience from their awareness. This is a protective ‘survival’ response to being overwhelmed.

To read more about the stress and trauma responses, as well as managing emotions and arousal including dissociation, please see our fact sheets.

If you are easily triggered or feel overwhelmed or are supporting a person who is, you will find some helpful strategies if you click the button below, to go to Grounding.

Find some helpful strategies for Grounding by clicking here

How can you support someone who have been triggered or overwhelmed?

  • Recognise that being hyper- or hypo-aroused is a fear/distress response
  • Focus on the person and be there with them
  • Try and identify that a person is becoming overwhelmed early. Notice if they go quiet, or become easily angry, agitated or argumentative
  • Validate and check in around their feelings e.g.

 “I can hear from what you are saying that calling us hasn’t been easy,”
“It sounds like what I have told you has made you angry”

  • Give the person as much control and choice in your interaction as possible
  • Be flexible in your approach. Focus on what the person needs
  • Work on your own response. Find ways to settle your nervous system if you are impacted. Stabilise you own responses. It may help you to sit with your feet on the ground. Feel your feet connect to the floor. Take some calming deep breaths. Close your eyes and focus on the other sounds around you. Take a sip of water, etc. All until you can settle your own response. If you are not calm you won’t be able to provide your best support.
Read more about stress and trauma responses in our Facts Sheets

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