Taming triggers in childhood trauma

Trigger warnings have infiltrated the cultural zeitgeist in traditional and social media. Even podcasts on TV shows discussing the Sex and the City reboot “And Just Like That…” carry a warning at the top of the show that the panelists might discuss topics sexual in nature, to no one’s surprise. The intention of the trigger warning is to signal to the audience that the person creating the material, whether it’s a TV show, radio show, news article, or social media post, is attuned to potential trauma the topic may cause. As we will see, for those suffering from trauma, whether childhood traumas or post-traumatic distress syndrome (also known as PTSD), pop psychology solutions are not helpful but there are ways to cope and heal from trauma.

Trigger Warning Origins

Conventional wisdom advises us to avoid talking about politics, religion and sex in polite company. However, this started to change with the new millennium. Trigger warnings initially started on feminist message boards in the late 1990s and early 2000s mirroring society’s growing acceptance of discussions around formerly taboo topics in everyday life. This phenomenon was helped along by popular TV shows that premiered around this time: Sex and the City in 1998 and Sopranos and Law and Order: SVU in 1999. These shows and the emergence of Twitter in 2006 exposed mainstream audiences to a wider palette of words and context to talk about sexuality, sexual assault, violence and mental health in a socially acceptable way.

The word trigger is rooted in clinical psychology, where it originated around the end of World War I. Psychologists started seeing veterans who were “shell shocked” from the trauma of war. Successive wars made it more urgent to define the effects of trauma as event-driven and not an internal weakness. In 1980, influenced by veterans, feminists and Holocaust survivors, PTSD was officially added by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to the third edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III).

Impact of Childhood Trauma

Life altering events are part of part of growing up, but some experiences like an accident, violence or natural disaster, are so profound it lingers into adulthood. Recurring reactions to childhood trauma are normal but for some include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. When these instances disrupt normal life functions like sleep, work or relationships, it may rise to the level of a PTSD diagnosis. Psychologists have various methods whether with behavioral therapy and medication that can help these individuals find constructive ways of managing their emotional response to triggers that remind them of their childhood trauma.

For survivors of combat violence, sexual abuse or other trauma, certain sights, sounds, smells, memory, physical sensation or emotion or other reminders can trigger intense emotional and even physical reactions, but they are unique to each individual. These reactions can sometimes cause feelings of distorted self-perception, shame, fear, guilt, self-blame, or humiliation, because the person is somehow not strong enough to overcome the trauma on their own. PTSD suffers will often use strategies like avoidance or social withdrawal to manage their symptoms. This is also the philosophy behind trigger warnings, to allow people to disengage when necessary. However, it has been shown that structured and supervised exposure to traumatic memories has shown to be most effective, reducing the distress the trigger can cause.

Many Options for Healing

Finding the right mental health practitioner can help teens and adults can lead to healing and emotional resilience when confronted with childhood trauma triggers. A trained therapist can help identify which treatment therapy is best suited for that individual. Examples of different treatments include: cognitive processing therapy, trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, narrative exposure therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, and prolonged exposure therapy. In a safe and supportive environment, therapists can help guide individuals to minimize the effects of childhood traumas in their everyday lives.

Despite the devasating effect of childhood trauma, there is hope. It is never too late to seek professional help to put that trauma in its context and remove its emotional power. The complexity of people’s psyches can make triggers difficult to ascertain, however, a personalized approach is most effective. A mental health practitioner can help explore the possibility of a brighter future without the burden of a childhood trauma.

Authored By 

LifeStance Health
LifeStance Health

LifeStance is a mental healthcare company focused on providing evidence-based, medically driven treatment services for children, adolescents, and adults suffering from a variety of mental health issues in an outpatient care setting, both in-person and through its digital health telemedicine offering.