Recognising and working with someone who becomes triggered

What should I do if someone I’m working with becomes triggered?

If you know there is a risk that they might become triggered beforehand, ask them what they would like to happen if it happens with you. It’s also a good idea to ask if there are any signs you should look out for to recognise a trigger episode.

Sometimes we’re good at hiding triggers, or they’re only mild and we can work through them, in which case you can trust us to manage ourselves. Other times it can be a completely disabling experience for us.

If the person appears to be struggling with a trigger experience, acknowledge that you’ve noticed they’re not OK and ask if there’s anything you can do to help. We might already have an idea and be able to tell you. Having the response validated is better than having someone try to dismiss or minimise it.

Some distractions and grounding techniques that work for us:

  • Offer a simple distracting question on a different, safe, topic. This could be to do with a special interest of theirs, or something like what they had for breakfast, or ask if they can list items in the room that begin with a certain letter.
  • Engage in a simple interactive activity such as tossing or rolling a ball back and forth to each other.
  • Stand up and say ‘Bib Bob Boop’ until you feel so silly you have to laugh.
  • Jump up and down, stamp your feet, and shake out the negative energy.
  • Play something like naughts and crosses, Tetris, or a with a Rubix cube to engage a different part of your brain.
  • Essential oils or other scents such as strong coffee (tastes too!) can be helpful to ground and regulate us.
  • Touch can be beneficial, but be careful as this one might be more triggering to some sexual/physical abuse survivors
  • Particular songs (Running Up That Hill, anyone?) can help move us out of shock/fight/flight mode and regain control.

HOWEVER, sometimes it’s best to allow a trigger to be felt without trying to push it away. It’s important that you are able to be comfortable sitting with the triggered person as they self regulate. You don’t have to rescue them.

Sometimes if we force ourselves to ignore or move past a trigger episode when we are with a safe person, it will come back and hit us worse when we are alone and without help.

Should I apologise for accidentally triggering someone?

If you feel like you’ve pushed a conversation too far, saying sorry is a way to acknowledge that you’ve notice it was triggering and that wasn’t your intent. However, we don’t want you to feel guilty for upsetting us.

Overdoing an apology because you feel powerless in that moment could add pressure to the triggered person who may now feel like they need to reassure and comfort you or try to hide their distress.

A simple “Sorry, I can see that’s a difficult topic, We don’t have to go there. Do you need a moment?” will suffice.

What if I have to keep asking difficult questions because of my job?

Perhaps you need to gather information and are time limited; there are things you can do together to make the experience a little easier:

  • Some people might find it easier to share traumatic details when they are not sitting face to face and trying to remain physically composed. Find out what location and position the person is most comfortable with. This might be lying down, standing up, in a dark room, on a grassy hill, on a park swing, during a car drive, curled up and cocooned in blankets, etc. It’s easier when you don’t have to worry about trying to hide your distress from the person asking the questions.
  • Suggest they write it down first or try speaking about it in the 3rd person (as if they’re talking about someone else).
  • Offer a physical semi-distraction such as something to fiddle or fidget with, a comfort item such as a favourite teddy or stack of football cards to shuffle and partially focus on whilst you talk together.
  • Have them try passing or tossing a small object such as a juggling ball from one hand to another to create bilateral stimulation (see EMDR)
  • If you can, allow them short breaks to do what ever they need to do. That might be three minutes alone in the bathroom, some fresh air, a vape. If you can’t allow this, Think about what you can do to address the inhumanity of the system you’re working in!
  • When you finish the conversation, pack away the difficult topic and bring them ‘back into the room’ by talking about something calming or positive. Thank them for pushing through it with you.

What if they’re completely dissociated and can’t communicate?

Sometimes triggers can cause traumatised people to go mute, freeze up, or space out completely. If this happens, First of all, make sure they are somewhere safe and comfortable.

Offer them facilities to write – They may still be able to communicate, just not through talking. Some AAC apps can be useful for this.

Ask questions that have a Yes, No, and Neither/Unsure answer options. Hold up your hands or use objects to represent the answers and allow them to point to the answer. The Neither/Unsure option is important because what you think is a straight forward question might not be to them.

Loudly and clearly saying the persons name can help bring them back to themselves (but don’t shout!).

It’s possible the person has dissociative identities and you may need to find out if someone else is ‘fronting’ (in control of the body in the moment). If you suspect this, you can say hello and ask for their name. You can ask if they can help bring back the person you were originally talking to.

What if they are acting aggressive or dangerous to themselves or others?

Try to remain calm. Don’t flood the room with people, don’t have everyone talk at once, don’t raise your voice or your hands or try to physically restrain the person unless you absolutely have to. For example, if a child starts punching a wall and damaging their hand, instead of grabbing their wrist, see if you can put something softer between their fist and the wall (preferably not yourself) until they’ve got their punches out.

Don’t take snaps, retorts, or insults personally. It’s the fear speaking. They may feel very ashamed when they’ve managed to calm down. We don’t want to make this harder than it already is.

Don’t get into an argument of contradictions with them – now is not the time to assert your power. Trauma doesn’t think ahead or listen to reason. Recognise that you might be triggered by their trigger response and be careful how you react.

Let them know they are in control and they are safe. This could look like making sure the doorway is clear so they don’t feel trapped, or your tone and body language remaining non-threatening (defensive can be perceived as threatening to the traumatised)

All of this advise is based off of our own experiences and what works for us. Everyone’s traumas, triggers and preferences are different but we hope this gives you some ideas for things to try.