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When a trigger warning is no longer helpful

Updated: Dec 17, 2022

We live in a world focused on minimising harm and reducing the possibility of being triggered or overwhelmed. There are trigger warnings on most forms of media including articles, podcasts, social media posts, videos etc. The purpose of these is to give the viewer a heads up to decide if they wish to go further with the content or if it may be too close to home. It can be extremely helpful to read a trigger warning before unexpectedly lunging into an article that catapults you back to your deepest most vulnerable trauma- right in the middle of your lunch break or some other inconvenient moment! An overwhelming experience that possibly could have been avoided with the help of a trigger warning or some sort of red flag!

However, have we started to rely on these warnings and headlines to feel safe and avoid triggers more than our own innate ability to regulate our nervous systems and restore a sense of calm in our bodies?

What if I told you that we already have the tools we need to ground ourselves and move through a trigger. That avoiding a trigger may not always be the best solution. And that the situation that has caused you pain and led to the protective changes in your lifestyle doesn’t have to continue to have control over you.

As a human being, your body has the natural ability to de-escalate from a triggering situation so that you can ‘move through’ it rather than avoid it, and eventually reclaim greater normality.

I am not saying that this is easy. Or that it is always the goal. It is very important you take the steps necessary for YOU to feel safe and grounded. However, If you feel like avoiding certain triggers is consuming too much of your energy, then maybe turning towards the triggering situation in a safe and compassionate way could be for you. It is possible to learn how to regulate your nervous system simply through your breath.

One of the main focuses of trauma work is re-establishing a sense of autonomy within the client. This essentially involves helping a person regain a sense of control over their lives and their functioning. Learning different breath skills is one way a person can do this. It is a simple skill that when done consistently, communicates to your nervous system that you are safe and out of danger. This message of safety allows the defensive and protective drivers of the brain and body to relax and slow down. When this happens, our bodies move out of survival mode and the parts of our brain that help us to think and plan rationally come back online. Leaving you in a place to make healthy decisions for you, rather than defensively reacting.

There are many different breath techniques you can try. One simple technique that I appreciate is called ‘Belly Breathing”. To do this, you place your hands over your stomach and simply notice the movements your body makes as you breath in and out. Notice if your chest rises and falls as you breath in and out. After a few minutes of this, see if you can channel your breath down to your stomach, allowing your belly to expand and retract as you inhale and exhale. As your breath moves from shallow chest breaths to deeper diaphragmatic breaths your body will start to ground and re-centre. Notice how your body feels and if there is any difference after this small change.

These days, there are a plethora of apps and resources to guide you through different breath or mindfulness skills. One app that is currently free for one year is called Balance. It gives you access to a wide range of guided breath techniques, each tailored to specific emotions or experiences. The mindfulness exercises can fit into your daily schedule and range in time from 3 minutes to 15 minutes or longer. Using the guided meditations can help you develop these skills so that they are readily accessible when you may find yourself in a moment of feeling triggered.

When you come across the next trigger warning or find yourself face to face with a trigger (which inevitably will happen), you can decide what is best for you in the moment. It may be to avoid the situation and move away from whatever is causing distress. Or you may feel equipped to check in with your breath and practice one of these techniques as you move through the triggering situation.

A trigger warning, albeit helpful, will never make you feel as safe in your body and in your environment as learning to breathe deeply and stabilise your own nervous system

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