Your gain: Acknowledge and understand your triggers so they affect your day-to-day life as little as possible. You’ll be on your way to being a happier and mentally healthier human!
What Are Triggers
The answer is simple—anything that brings up memories of a loss that has happened to you.
They have the power to bring up emotions of despair, sadness, loneliness, longing, those classic ‘if only’ statements, and more. They can sometimes pop up without warning. Particularly, in social settings where they might shake you a little with their intensity. On the other hand, they can sometimes elicit positive, joyful memories as well which is all the better!
The tricky part about triggers is, even years after the loss, they can happen. Whether it be a trigger you’re familiar with or one that’s new and you haven’t encountered yet, you may come across a situation where you or those around you don’t know what to say or do. Especially if the trigger is noticeable, or makes you emotional in some capacity. Or, people simply assume you’re no longer that affected by your loss. Rest assured, it can happen to anyone at any time. You’re not alone in this crazy, whirlwind thing known as grieving.
Before we get too far into this, I’ll begin by saying one important thing. If it’s comforting to share your trigger and the memories and feelings that accompany it with someone—do it! They may not even understand how helpful they’re being by simply being there to comfort you really is. I can’t recommend how critical it is to find the right person or people to lean on. And, if they can relate to such triggers, too, even better. It can only have a positive effect on your coping.
Examples of Triggers
This can really be anything under the sun. Anything that resonates with you that’s a reminder of what you’ve lost. These can be in the form of a larger event, like an anniversary, birthday, or favorite holiday. Triggers like this can often be some of the most difficult, because you may recall positive, cheerful things you did together and miss those intensely.
Another very common, seemingly obvious one could be the anniversary of a death. This can be a very traumatizing, agonizing event to have to relive each year.
But there are other triggers that can affect you that you may not expect. For example, one that has really gotten me a couple of times was seeing a doppelgänger of my mom or dad (or dog, let’s be real). In fact, I had a moment or two where I could have sworn my heart skipped a beat for a moment. One afternoon I even saw a twin, and I mean a TWIN of my sweet dog that passed. I couldn’t get a grip for probably several minutes afterward. I just kept saying to my husband, “babe, I mean, that was her. That was INSANE.”
Check out my blog on 8 Things You Don’t Hear About Grief if you’re struggling with things like this. There are actually two parts to that topic because there are THAT many, and they’re that important!
For me, seeing someone (or some dog) that resembled my loved one actually really triggered me. It got to the point where it then triggered dreams and really stuck with me for a little while afterward. Anyway, that’s definitely a thing, so check these out—you’ll be happy you did.
Other more minor yet painfully taxing triggers could be a song (either one they loved or you loved together), a TV show or movie, a book, or certain foods or dishes. A change in season can ignite new or different smells or feelings in the air, which is often a notable trigger for many.
This can even cause a mood shift for a longer period of time until you come to terms with it. Winter is sometimes one of these for me, especially given my mom passed in December. Hi, the holidays… never easy.
A favorite city or place and all that encompasses, from a favorite coffee shop or restaurant to a school, hiking path, or car that looks like one they had. I mean, seriously… the list is endless and as unique as the loss you’re experiencing.
Personal items like their clothes, perfume or cologne, pictures of them recently or in childhood, or other cherished treasures. One particularly surreal trigger for me was, when I was first going through some of my mom’s things after she passed, finding her hairbrush and curlers with her smooth, blonde locks still intact. Oh… did I cry when I found that. Having things they touched around you is one thing, but having a physical piece of them still around that was attached to their human form is quite another.
Know Your Triggers
The (rather annoying) thing about triggers I’ve found is sometimes you don’t know what one of your triggers is until it, well… triggers you. A revolutionary idea, I know. This can take time, can be exhausting and even frustrating, and it definitely takes patience and understanding.
Whether it was the loss of a person, a job, a home or what have you, sometimes you’ll have a good gauge on what can or will trigger you before you even come across it. For example, perhaps you lost your home or moved away from somewhere you loved and are struggling with the adjustment.
Passing by that house could be very emotional and it would seem fairly obvious you may want to steer clear. If you lost someone to an illness as I did, hearing about someone enduring the same thing or certain aspects of it could be painful.
Some triggers? Not so obvious. Or, they’re nice and subtle like that of a massive truck. In other words, they knock you on your ass. The goal is really pretty simple: identify them. You gotta know it if you’re going to face it head-on, right? More on that below.
Not Fearing Your Triggers
This is a truly important part of this process, because triggers have the power to haunt you if you allow them. For a while, anyone that breathed the word “cancer” would bring up so many punishing emotions for me and everything my parents and family unit went through.
Switch Up Your Mindset
Guess what? We can’t control other people, and neither could I in that situation. My parents are, sadly, not the only people on this planet to have been affected by cancer. It’s something I had to get accustomed to hearing about. You’ll likely experience something to this effect at some point in your journey. If you do, the key, I’ve found, is to not shy away from them.
Yes, it absolutely takes getting on that rollercoaster and going up, up, up. As high as you think you can go on the incline of emotions. To the point where you’re so close to reaching the top and moving past it. You’ll get there, I promise you. You’ll come down that decline fast and furious, feel the wind in your hair and feel SO stinkin’ good. But there can be a lot of pain that can come before that, so hold on to your hat.
My recommendation is not to push yourself too hard. Know your limits, but slowly allow yourself to face them and feel all the things. Without allowing those raw emotions to come in, it’ll get you every. darn. time. and you’re giving it the power. You’ve already lost enough, let’s not give into something we have the incredible power to control, mkay?
One last thing—people can be forgetful or straight up inconsiderate with or without meaning to, it happens. Stay tuned for a really helpful tip for this (spoiler, it’s tip #2 below). Keeping the right mindset and a level head in these moments takes a little work, but is well worth it.
This feels like a good moment to get into how to overcome these unpleasant triggering moments. So, let’s get into it.
Overcome Your Triggers
Overcoming your triggers doesn’t have to be as hard as you think. Let me start by saying, truthfully, it takes time. It just does. When I moved into my parents’ condo, completely surrounded by all of their things, it was trigger central. After some time and settling in, it’s never felt more like home and I embrace the things that once plagued me.
That being said, here are a few tips to help acknowledge and overcome a trigger you may be feeling.
Tip 1: Journal or write them down.
If you’re not readily near a paper and pen or your formal journal when one happens, type it out in your Notes app on your phone (or something of the like) so you can add it in later. This can help you eventually learn about them, and find a solution to help gain a little control over your grief recovery.
Tip 2: Reframe your internal dialogue.
Be kind to yourself, that’s really it. Outside of coping with a trigger, “What ifs” and “If only” statements can be really detrimental and hinder your progress. Negative self-talk is harmful because it involves internalizing guilt, shame, and ultimately something you often can’t control in the moment. This only adds to giving your trigger the power to affect you negatively. You’ve been through enough, damnit!
Don’t punish yourself unnecessarily. Rather, establish positive self-talk that involves gratitude and hope—especially during bouts of triggers and at the beginning stages of your grief.
If you find yourself getting triggered and it’s resulting in higher stress or anxiety than usual, take a quick look at the entry 7 Steps for Practicing Breathing & Being Present, linked below. It gives a great process for keeping calm and working through it. It’s been a super helpful resource to me and others I’ve shared it with.
If it’s really affecting your day-to-day to the point where you find yourself in an unhealthy headspace (more than usual), please consult your doctor or therapist about ways to help you further. There ain’t no shame in that, it’s survival!
Tip 3: Be prepared.
By understanding where your triggers stem from, there’s a better chance of managing your grief in the moment. Occasionally, it may be in the form of something you can’t control. For example, someone saying something insensitive or making an ignorant comment that just does not sit well. The more you nail that positive self-talk and acceptance in advance and know these things could come, the better you’ll be able to let the moment slide a little easier.
I can’t tell you how many times I would get in the car after my mom passed and heard an Aerosmith song (this still happens). My mom may as well have kissed the ground Steven Tyler walked on. She absolutely loved the group, and we would sometimes rock out together in the car driving somewhere. It’s now something I see as a little sign she’s with me. Initially, it made me so sad. I couldn’t see past her not being there with me to share that moment, and it made me miss her being here in person. Being in the spiritual realm just wasn’t enough.
The more work I’ve done on myself, the more I’ve come to accept my mom is still around and seeing everything I do, and she’s experiencing those moments with me still just in another way. In fact, I’ve come to have fun with it! I look forward to hearing those songs. I’ll even crank up the song and play them on purpose as a way to bring her memory closer to me and have a little spiritual bonding moment.
Tip 4: Find a distraction.
Yes, sometimes I’ve found a distraction can be a good thing. But I’m talking about a healthy distraction here. While your triggers may cause you to go into a state of mourning all over again, surrounding yourself during (or shortly after) with people, a place, or thing you love will help ease your mind and emotional state when experiencing one.
If you had a rough moment, go grab that coffee drink that sparks joy. Have a day with the girls or with boys, cuddle with your pet, paint, go for a run—whatever helps you work through it. Associate a positive feeling with it and find some joy. That way, if you run into that trigger again it won’t leave you feeling with such a negative connotation attached. It’ll show you there can be happiness and hope, even after those tough moments.
Whatever your distraction is, just make sure it’s a healthy coping mechanism!
Release Your Triggers
There will come a point where some triggers of your loss will go away naturally. Or, quite frankly, it’ll happen enough times that you’re less and less phased. Plus, time heals (almost) all wounds, right? I acknowledge how cliché that sounds, but there’s so much truth to it if you haven’t started noticing already.
Some triggers, however, you might have to work harder to get accustomed to or to kick it all together. Perhaps you’ll rarely pass that recognizable building, smell that cologne, see that baseball team logo, or, heck… taste a candy cane—truly anything you associate with the loss—without a tinge of hurt.
I personally have so many. I always pass the Post Acute building my dad passed away in on my way to the grocery store. Every single time it makes my heart wince a little. But guess what? It has eased up over the last year. Mostly because I’ve passed it so many times, but that’s also time and a lot of reframing my mindset doing their jobs.
I can never see a rainbow without thinking about the call I got from the hospital when my mom was going downhill. I was taking a photo of one at the time. Now? The last time I saw one, I was coming out of a restaurant.
We had a beautiful dinner with lots of stories and laughter with my husband and one of my mom’s dear friends. When we saw it I admittedly teared up a little, looked at that sky and smiled, laughed, even joked that she was crashing the dinner, and thanked her for the sign she was hanging out with us. And, I wasn’t afraid to take that picture.
Reframe Your Triggers
My list of triggers could go on for half a mile, but you get the gist. By using the tools I mentioned above, sooner or later they’ll become more manageable when and if they do come. Your trigger has the ability to become a mechanism of comfort.
When in doubt and when you’re at your lowest, ask yourself—what about this is triggering me? How can I reframe my mindset so this is something I can grow and learn from? If not today, with a little time?
Remember, give yourself grace. This won’t happen overnight, but it has the potential to change the way you look at your life… and that’s pretty special.
If you’re struggling with this, this is my challenge to you today. Take one of your deepest triggers, confront it head on, breathe, and begin letting go.