Trauma triggers in a relationship can feel like unpredictable landmines that hold the power to rupture the connection.
While painful, with understanding and proper communication, trauma survivors and their partners can collaboratively find ways to healthily navigate triggers when they arise. This allows for deeper intimacy based on mutual care, trust, and support.
Read on for guidance on identifying your trauma triggers, speaking with your partner, and utilizing coping techniques to remain grounded when difficult memories surface.
What Are Trauma Triggers?
Trauma triggers refer to stimuli that spark difficult emotions, memories, and physical reactions related to past traumatic experiences. In essence, they trigger the body and mind to react as if a prior trauma is happening again in the present moment.
Triggers can vary widely between individuals but often involve sensory elements like sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or touches that remind someone of a traumatic event.
For example, the smell of a certain cologne may trigger memories of an abusive ex-partner. Hearing loud crashing noises may trigger panic and fear reactions in a combat veteran.
When triggered, people often experience surges in anxiety, heart rate, muscle tension, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, or overwhelming emotions like anger, sadness, or fear.
It feels like being suddenly emotionally transported back to the original trauma. Triggers can come from obvious sources like directly discussing a trauma, or from more subtle everyday stimuli in the environment.
The key is that the triggering stimulus provokes an involuntary fight, flight, or freeze reaction linked to past trauma. For those living with post-traumatic stress disorder, managing emotional triggers becomes an ongoing necessity to cope with everyday life.
Does Your Partner Mean to Trigger Your Trauma?
In most cases, a partner will not intentionally trigger past trauma in their loved one. More often than not, triggers arise accidentally from otherwise benign words, actions, or situations that hold some meaning or memory for the trauma survivor.
For example, a seemingly harmless joke may call up memories of bullying for someone abused as a child. Or a certain tone of voice could trigger panic linked to an emotionally volatile parent.
Romantic partners cannot be expected to read minds and anticipate everything that may or may not set off a trigger. Triggers can be highly unpredictable. The most effective approach is open and compassionate communication about potential triggers both before and after they happen. Blaming isn’t healthy.
If necessary, explain sensitively to your partner how certain smells, sounds, phrases, behaviors, or situations can act as trauma triggers. This gives them the context to understand your reactions and be more conscious about avoiding potential triggers.
Understanding Your Trauma Triggers
The first step in both understanding and managing trauma triggers is simply acknowledging that you have them. Engage in self-reflection to identify what they are.
You cannot address something you deny or ignore. Be honest about what types of situations commonly trigger difficult memories, emotions, and trauma responses. Write them down if needed to gain clarity.
Being Rejected or Having a Request Refused
Feeling rejected in relationships often stems from early childhood attachment wounds and can be a powerful trigger.
Something as minor as a partner saying no to a request could spark feelings of shame, anger, or abandonment. Identifying rejection sensitivity as a trigger can help you better respond when it arises.
Being Blamed or Shamed
Blame and shame often go hand-in-hand with emotional abuse. Having past mistakes thrown in your face or being made to feel guilty for things outside your control can quickly trigger traumatic memories.
Losing autonomy can be hugely triggering for trauma survivors, especially those who experienced abusive situations where power and control were used against them.
Something as simple as a partner making decisions without consulting you could spark panic and anger linked to past events. Identifying control issues allows you to advocate for your needs.
THREATS OF ABANDONMENT
Fear of abandonment is common among survivors of childhood emotional neglect and broken attachments. Threats to leave, no matter how seemingly benign, can instantly trigger profound feelings of unworthiness and fear of being left alone or unloved. Understanding this trigger helps you communicate the need for reassurance.
Feeling Alone or Ignored
Similarly, feeling neglected, overlooked, or believing your thoughts/feelings don’t matter to someone can be triggering. It may connect to emotional isolation or lack of parental attunement in childhood that made you feel invisible. Whether intentional or not, identify situations where you felt unseen so you can address them before they become more triggering.
Many people-pleasers (particularly Nice Guys) struggle with the constant perception of disapproval from others. This can stem from having to meet unrealistic expectations to receive parental love and attention growing up.
As a result, any perceived judgment by a partner becomes a painful trigger. Recognizing this allows you to detach from expectations, be yourself, and set healthy boundaries.
The goal of mapping your triggers is not to avoid life or relationships. It is to gain enough self-awareness to handle triggers thoughtfully when they occur, rather than reflexively overreacting.
Once you know your common triggers, you can also compassionately educate your partner on how to support you through them when they arise.
How to Deal With Trauma Triggers iN A RELATIONSHIP
When triggers arise, having healthy coping strategies and support in place is key to managing them effectively so they do not control your life.
Here are some techniques and practices that can help trauma survivors mitigate the intensity of triggers when they occur:
Communicate Openly About Triggers
Speaking candidly with your partner about your trauma history and triggers can seem scary or vulnerable, but open communication and honesty provide them with vital context.
Have conversations outside the bedroom when you are both relaxed. Explaining sensitively what types of situations tend to trigger you allows your partner to understand, adjust their behavior accordingly, and offer support in managing triggers as a team.
Practice Empathy With Your Partner
Just as you want your partner to be empathetic about your triggers, you must also show them empathy in return. Recognize that they may feel afraid of “walking on eggshells” or unintentionally hurting you.
Make it clear you do not blame them for triggering you, and that you appreciate their efforts to understand. Choose words carefully when feeling triggered to avoid lashing out, blaming, or shaming your partner, as this will only alienate them.
Self-Reflection and Mindfulness
Learning to step back and become an observer of your thoughts and feelings takes practice but allows you to respond more skillfully to triggers. Notice that although thoughts/emotions feel overwhelming at the moment, with time and reflection they often pass.
Mindfulness practices like meditation help trauma survivors tolerate distress without becoming completely overwhelmed. Remind yourself that you are not solely defined by your past or your triggers.
Carrying anger about past injustices or trauma rarely serves the present. While painful memories cannot be erased, part of healing involves letting go of bitterness and expectations that others will “make it right.”
Accept that the past is done, focus on the now, and do not allow difficult memories to rob you of enjoying life presently. Letting go may not happen all at once – it is a practice that builds over time.
Relaxation and Breathing Techniques
When intense emotions hit, quick relaxation exercises can help de-escalate your stress response. Practice deep belly breathing, visualize a peaceful place, or repeat a calming mantra like “This too shall pass.”
Stepping outside, going for a walk, taking a shower, or writing in a journal can also help you physically and emotionally recenter yourself when feeling triggered. Make self-care a priority.
Understanding that Time Heals
In the thick of painful memories, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and controlled by the past. But developing perspective helps. Recognize that trauma triggers in a relationship often become less intense over time as the emotional charge behind the memories fades.
Distance and life experience create wisdom and resilience. Let this give you hope during difficult times.
Seeking Professional Help
Getting professional support from a trauma-informed therapist can be invaluable when trying to manage triggers on your journey to healing.
They provide tools to process trauma healthily, manage symptoms, communicate effectively, set boundaries, and build skills for relating to others and feeling emotionally safe. You do not have to face triggers alone.
By better understanding your own triggers, communicating with your partner, and having go-to coping strategies in place, you can greatly mitigate the intensity and frequency of being triggered. Be compassionate with yourself. Healing from trauma takes time but it is very possible to enjoy healthy relationships again.
Living with trauma triggers requires courage, compassion, and taking things slowly – both with yourself and your partner. But with time, intention, and the right help, it is possible to experience healthy relationships again.
Focus on the progress made, not perfection. Keep communicating, even when it feels vulnerable. You are resilient. With each trigger that is faced and managed, you build self-confidence and grow. Soon you will be able to reflect on how far you’ve come. The past will no longer define you.
Tony Endelman is an author, blogger, entrepreneur, certified transformational life coach, certified No More Mr. Nice Guy Coach and the founder of The Integrated Man Cave.