This post has been updated as of February 2021.
“Suddenly my heart is racing, I can feel the blood pumping in my head, my palms are sweaty and I feel like I want to run. I can literally feel my body start to tense with building energy that has nowhere to go. My head floods with questions, doubts, insecurities, and fears. I begin to feel overwhelmed, like I’m getting tunnel vision, I’m trapped and need to get out…”
Triggers are a universal experience of trauma survivors everywhere. No matter what caused the trauma—a car accident, a serious assault, a sudden loss of a loved one, or a betrayal—reminders of that event, and the feelings and thoughts that came with it, can be overwhelming, unexpected, and extremely scary and hard to manage.
Short of literally locking yourself in a padded room, the likelihood of never coming across a trauma trigger is zero. The world, while it seems so different to us now, still turns the same way it was before the traumatic event and, as such, is full of possible reminders of our trauma.
We are all familiar with the concept of PTSD triggers in the context of war veterans. Every year we see firework warnings issued as people acknowledge the triggering effect of the loud noise that serves as a painful reminder of the gunshots and bombs experienced in war. Similarly, the backfire of a car can cause a trigger response in a combat veteran. We also acknowledge that a person who has been knocked down by a car might find walking close to a road to be triggering.
Betrayal Trauma Survivors Also Experience Triggers
For the betrayal trauma survivor, these triggers, sadly, often come in the forms of people, places, and things that they know well, that have held meaning for them in the past and that are now relegated as a painful reminder of their hurt.
The disclosure of sexual secrets in a relationship can tarnish otherwise cherished moments, memories, and mementos. That wedding photo that has been proudly displayed on the dresser, the ring he bought for me while he was away on business, the hotel we usually go to in our favorite spot—all smeared with a new reality, one in which all those things happened in the context of a lie, a false reality, where he or she was keeping secrets and acting out.
Often, the places we have been to are actual places he acted out, the things he bought are offerings made to appease a guilty conscience, and the people we know have us wondering if he uses them for objectification. Nothing in the past is sacred and nothing in the future is safe.
Even worse is the reality that for many women in the early days, their partner is a primary trigger. When you consider the dynamic of trauma, it is worth noting that most people who are traumatized by the actions of another do not have to share a bed or a house with that person!
Tools for Dealing With Betrayal Trauma Triggers
At Betrayal Trauma Recovery, I work with clients to understand and manage their triggers. I find that women really need to:
- Understand the science behind triggers, how and why they happen, and how to recognize them.
- Increase their awareness of their own personal triggers and the impact they have on them, allowing them to take the first steps to learning how to confidently recognize and face a trigger.
- Understand how tracking triggers can help them prepare for unavoidable triggers and anticipate triggering situations (and even prepare for them proactively).
- Learn and implement some of the simplest and most useable techniques for regaining their personal power over triggers.
Understanding trauma triggers, and learning to manage them, is a big part of healing from betrayal trauma. It’s a foundational skill on which to build a more emotionally regulated future. Taking back a sense of personal power amongst the flood of emotion we experience when triggered can be a lynchpin in the healing journey. Triggers can strike anywhere, at any time. They’re a normal and natural response to a traumatic reminder, and it seriously pays to have some tools for dealing with them at your disposal, ready to be used right then and there.
Many of the best trigger management tools are free and easy to use by virtue of the fact that they are related to you, your breathing, and your physical body. In fact, breathing is a vastly underrated skill when it comes to emotional regulation!
One of the fastest and most effective ways to begin calming a trigger is to focus on your breathing. Doing this can help you regulate your heartbeat and the neurochemical reaction happening in your brain. Taking slow and steady breaths, sometimes combined with visualizations or helpful grounding statements, can literally calm your body’s response to a triggering stimulus.
Related: Your Wife Has Triggers Too
Sadly, triggers often seriously impair your ability to think clearly and remember information you would usually summon without issue. Due to that, creating a trigger management plan can be an essential component in your healing and, if you don’t have one, breathing exercises can be your first addition!
I had great difficulty identifying my triggers. Sometimes I think I just pulled them out of thin air just to satisfy my group therapist.
Men are trained from the earliest ages to ignore, repress and deny emotions. It’s not surprising to me that you’ve had trouble identifying triggers. Hang in there. You’ve got them, you just need to learn to listen to yourself and be okay with experiencing emotion.
I’ve been doing my best to help rebuild my marriage. I have put boundaries in many seats of my life both professionally and personally but I still find my self depressed at being constantly accused and punished.
What can I do to help myself as the betrayer to overcome or work through my trauma?
I am in counseling individually and with my wife. Ok attend two men’s groups as well part of my church.
I have been clean and sober for 12 years.
I am so encouraged to hear that you are taking many steps to heal your marriage and remain clean and sober. Praise be to God for 12 years of freedom!!! Truly amazing.
Unfortunately, porn is great at trapping us in a cycle of shame. Even when we find freedom, it is common to find ourselves still feeling mentally and emotionally weary, especially if our spouse is struggling with betrayal trauma. Aside from continuing to attend counseling and men’s groups, dive into God’s Word daily. Be fervent in prayer. I highly recommend you and your wife read through this book together as well! This book is also a great option – or, read both!
Restoring trust takes time. Every relationship is different, but one thing remains the same: if we place God at the center of our marriage, we are setting our relationship up for success. So, do that!
Coach Cat, I did find you article very informative, however, one sided. I feel it would have been more supportive to mention that men go through very real betrayal trauma, as well, from a wife’s emotional affair. Thank you.
Yes tom oh man I was like ami the only one who finds it hard to turn everything around or just apply it to husband’s
Coach Cat. Your article was sent to me from a couple that I counsel on this issue. I have tried to locate you for a private email to ask a few questions and can’t find one. So, I am in hopes that by providing mine here, I perhaps can get a reply. My questions have to do with forgiveness.
What if your triggers are literally everywhere? Mine involve strippers, and where I live there are dozens of strip clubs. I can’t even drive to work without passing one, they are everywhere. They have ads on the radio, strip clubs and strippers are in tons of movies and TV shows, and strippers and strip clubs even come up in conversations and jokes… and that’s all in addition to having to see my husband every single day… plus the whole issue with my husband has reopened childhood wounds that I thought I had moved past involving my dad and strippers, so now even my dad is a trigger… so what if I literally come in contact with my triggers multiple times every single day? Am I going to be a heaping ball of anxiety for the rest of my life, forever having to calm myself down just to live every day without frequent panic attacks?
It’s so, so important for spouses to get real help for their trauma. In addition to setting healthy boundaries (here, here, and here are articles on that), I would suggest that you find a counselor, someone who’s experienced in trauma-informed work, who can help you process this. My suggestion would be to look for someone certified in EMDR (EMDR-IA certified), which is a trauma-specific therapy which can help you put the past in the past. Tapping In is a book that teaches EMDR-based interventions that you can use for yourself. The online resources at Bloom for Women are an excellent trauma-informed resource as well. You don’t have to be a victim of trauma. There is help. I hope this gives you some directions for healing. Kay
As a black women this oppression has been like jumping in cold water. After u been in there for a while you become acustom in in way. It’s no longer a schock. We learn how to cope. No it doesn’t bring out the best in you. Through prayer and the spirit usl connect to God. You will back out . Be healed and renew your mind. God has a mighty way of comfort peace healing