Understanding Trauma Triggers and Trigger Responses Caused by Domestic Violence

Understanding Trauma Triggers and Trigger Responses Caused by Domestic Violence

Domestic violence causes physical, mental, and emotional stress. If it’s severe enough, this stress can cause your body and mind to change.

Your physical health and emotional outlook may suffer. Your brain might even change the way it processes information. These changes are meant to protect you from further violence, but they can also trigger responses that, while understandable, may seem out of proportion to the situation.

Below, you’ll learn how trauma creates trauma triggers and what you can do to understand your trigger responses.

Domestic Violence and Its Effects

Domestic violence is intended to gain power or control over someone else in a domestic relationship. It can happen in family, dating, or even roommate relationships.

A domestic abuser gains control through fear. Viewed this way, trauma triggers and trigger responses are the goals of domestic violence — the fear of violence conditions you to respond in certain ways.

A domestic partner yells at you or punches the wall to trigger a response. Unfortunately, these triggers and their responses don’t go away when the relationship ends. They can persist for years or even the rest of your life.

Domestic violence incidents usually fall into one of a few categories:

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse includes unwanted and harmful contact. It includes throwing objects, slapping your phone out of your hand, and threats of violence.

Even if you never suffer an injury, you can still experience physical abuse. 

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse encompasses all forms of unwanted sexual contact. It also implies sexual harassment, extortion, or other forms of leverage gained through sex.

Mental Abuse

Mental abuse includes behaviors intended to lower your self-esteem and cause you to doubt yourself. This form of abuse is characterized by insults, gaslighting, and other mind games.

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abusers try to make you emotionally dependent on them or the relationship. Some common tactics include isolating you from friends and family or threatening suicide if you end the relationship.

Financial Abuse

Financial abusers use financial leverage for control. They might steal from you, put you on an allowance, or forbid you from working.

How Stress from Domestic Violence Can Affect Victims

All stress, whether it comes from your job, concern for a loved one, or domestic violence, impacts your physical, emotional, and mental health.

Stress causes your brain to prepare your body to respond to danger. 

In response to stress, your body will:

  • Release hormones to speed up your heart rate and make you more alert
  • Cause your body to rapidly process anything in your digestive system
  • Constrict your blood vessels to increase your blood pressure
  • Dilate your pupils so you can better track movement

When repeated over and over, these responses can take a toll on your body and mind. 

Chronic stress can cause:

  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Headaches
  • Muscle pain
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Sleep disorders

Chronic stress can also change your mental and emotional well-being, leading to:

You might develop problematic behaviors to cope with stress, including changes in eating habits, drug or alcohol use, or withdrawal from friends and family. Stress from an identifiable traumatic event, like domestic violence, can even result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD and Trauma Triggers

PTSD is an anxiety disorder. It begins with a traumatic event like a car accident, combat, or domestic violence. In response to this traumatic event, the brain looks for ways to protect you from a recurrence of the event.

For example, after a car accident, your brain might try to protect you from another accident by triggering a stress response when you drive near the accident scene. This stress heightens your senses so that you’re on guard against other cars. But as a side effect, the stress can overwhelm you, causing flashbacks, panic attacks, or other detrimental responses.

In priming itself to protect you, your brain will search for any sign it can use as an early warning of impending danger. This explains why veterans injured by roadside bombs during active duty can be triggered by the sight of a plastic bag on the roadside.

As a victim of domestic violence, your brain will identify triggers associated with your abuser or the circumstances of your abuse. 

These triggers will often be highly personalized and might include:

  • Sounds that preceded an attack
  • Smells you associate with your abuser
  • Locations where you were abused

These triggers frequently sit in your subconscious until some stressful stimulus prompts them to emerge.

Trigger Responses

Identifying signs of danger is only the first step your brain takes to protect you. It must then decide how to respond to the perceived danger. These so-called trigger responses will also be unique to your circumstances and your personality.

The most well-known conditioned response is the “fight-or-flight” response. When faced with danger, animals will either attempt to fight the source of the danger or flee from it. Some animals also have a third response called “freeze,” where they become motionless, hoping that the threat will pass them by.

In the same way, your brain responds to trauma triggers by sending your body into a fight, flight, or freeze mode. Some common “fight” responses include lashing out physically or having angry outbursts. “Flight” responses include running away or urinating involuntarily, while a “freeze” response might cause you to pass out.

Getting Help for Trauma Triggers and Trigger Responses

Without help, trauma triggers and trigger responses can take a toll on your life. 

You might try to address your trauma by:

  • Withdrawing
  • Creating elaborate systems to avoid triggers
  • Using drugs or alcohol to suppress your responses and distract yourself from your trauma
  • Contemplating suicide

Attempting to avoid triggers can also lead to paranoia or even mental illness.

No one can prescribe the right course of action for overcoming the PTSD associated with domestic violence, as every person embodies a mixture of unique experiences. That said, many people have responded well to therapy, counseling, medication, support groups, and self-help books and videos.

You may need to experiment to find the right formula to address your trauma. But when you do, you can expect your physical, mental, and emotional health to improve.

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