Unofficial PTSD in Fiction: Someone Asked About Triggers

Multiple someones, actually, over email.

I think I’m only to address this once, and then point to this blog post thereafter. This subject, naturally, triggers me, because answering it requires me to comb through what triggers me, the relationship of the triggers to each other, and synthesize all that into analysis.

Going on….

The media and much of fiction portray something really wrong about triggers: the ideas that triggers are concrete, discrete, reliable, few, consistent over multiple individuals, and unchanging.

First, addressing “concrete” triggers: some triggers are more clear-cut than others. Gunshots, vehicles backfiring, fireworks, etc., are all concrete: you definitely know when they’ve happened. So too are sirens, music—indeed, anything sensual, from sight to hearing to smell, that’s closely tied to the trauma. However, the majority of “triggers” are not concrete—emotions are ultimately the base of any trigger, and emotional state is a complex thing involving many factors, much of it personal.

Second, “discrete” triggers: again, the idea that a trigger is a split-second kind of thing, determined by some event, item, or person that serves as a switch. No, triggers can be much more drawn-out than that; again, this is due to the fact that emotional state is complex and nuanced. A lot of subtle things can build up, slowly altering your emotional state, and thus what actually triggered you is nothing you can definitively point at.

Concrete/discrete versus non-concrete/continuous is shown very deftly in The West Wing‘s “Nöel” episode, where Josh’s triggers fall into both categories: music, and the more complicated, less well-defined identification with the pilot who committed suicide, respectively. I strongly suggest watching this episode, even if you don’t feel like reading anything else covered by the PTSD in Fiction series on Here is the Amazon Video-on-Demand link to “Nöel”; you can watch the episode online for $1.99 (one-time payment).

Third, triggers aren’t always reliable. Some very strong triggers can be quite reliable even outside of context—again, how “strong” a trigger is highly depends on the trauma and the individual’s psychology—but more subtle triggers often have a lesser rate of “success.” And since most triggers are subtle in nature, whether they actually manifest strongly depends on environment and context. And the reliability of a trigger may not always make “sense.”

A personal example: I read some of the Terry Pratchett books and part of the Harry Potter series during my long tenure of abuse as a way to temporarily escape it. You think they’d be a trigger for me now, but they aren’t, not even the same books I read during the abuse. However, the various hand crafts that I also used as a mental escape back then do trigger me now. Why is this so? Only the gods know why.

Fourth, triggers aren’t “few.” The most subtle and numerous ones you may never be able to pick out, because that would be like trying to pick out sub-atomic particles: outside of some really destructive smashing with atomic colliders and much analysis later, you aren’t going to find them. Concrete, discrete triggers are indeed few; but they are far outnumbered by their subtler brethren.

Fifth, there is no universal lexicon for triggers. “What can be a trigger?” Anything can be a trigger. It’s never the case that everything, or even close to everything, is a trigger for a person; but just that anything you can think of can be a trigger. Triggers can be broadly generic; triggers can be incredibly specific; and everything between. Triggers can be concrete, or they may be very diffuse; triggers can come from shopping for pet goldfish or simply brushing up against hundreds of holiday-stressed people. Like individual psychology, and like dreams, triggers are affected by culture, the individual experience, and the individual themselves.

Sixth, triggers aren’t unchanging over the course of an individual. Some triggers may fade away; and new triggers for the original trauma can be created, even if you never directly experience the trauma again. It’s the worst part about triggers: they’re easy to add to by accident. Triggers are, after all, just associations, and all you need to do is to start associating new stimuli with the old feelings. For instance, carrying on any single type of distraction for too long can lead to your brain subconsciously associating the distraction with the trauma. And voila: what you used to do as a distraction becomes instead another trigger.

It’s things like that which make PTSD the… fun… that it is.

In summary: if you’re going to write about characters with psychological disorders, you have to dive deep into their own psychology. Hard work, but you needed to do this when you planned to write character-driven fiction anyways, so….

8 thoughts on “Unofficial PTSD in Fiction: Someone Asked About Triggers

  1. i thought maybe some specifics would be helpful for ideas for those who come as writers.

    first, two major traumas (there are others, i’m complicated, okay? but this is just so you can see how things link together).

    one: my first memory, two years old, dad goes nuts, starts breaking all the plates, right next to me, throws them down in one big stack. it got worse from there, just violent, and bad. culminated in him frothing at the mouth (when i was four, so years of living in the violent, angry atmosphere), chasing my mom with a butcher knife around the kitchen, trying to gut her as i stared from the doorway. this is the last time i saw him, until i was an adult.

    triggers: people becoming physically violent with other people. loud noises startle me and give me panics. loud arguments. broken dishes. my dad’s face. angry people. sudden motion always makes me flinch, unexpected noises make me scream and my heart races and i feel utterly terrified for a moment, people being angry with me.

    trauma two: the man who married my mom when i was five, adopted me when i was nine, and emotionally abused us all, physically abused my brother, and controlled everything with an iron fist. at seventeen, he took me to the rose garden in loose park, told me he was in love with me and things got worse from there. (that was also the first time he ever said he loved me.)

    triggers: rose gardens. my dad (the other one). people talking about sexual abuse. people becoming authoritarian or trying to control me. for years, any man my dad’s age who showed any kind of affection. crowds. for years, certain types of physical touches (my shoulders, like a backrub, my breasts, patting my head). certain songs – ones my dad played as punishment for not loving him the way he loved me, like that chris isaaks (sp?) song or he stopped loving her today (george jones). songs about real, true love between father and daughter – about healthy relationships between them. seeing other fathers and daughters with healthy loving relationships.

    there’s other stuff, too, but i thought maybe that would help some people see the lines between what happened, and, for me at least, what are triggers.

    oh yeah, and talking about what happened is often a trigger too, and one that can creep in on you. like, doing a writing exercise and it asks you to describe your first memory, stuff like that.

    and, secondary note: my reactions to those triggers. full-blown flashbacks rarely, sometimes a flash of an image which does the same thing as non-flashback responses. kind of shut off, emotionally. retreat. hide. or, emotional explosion, which could be uncontrollable crying (sometimes for days) or fury, lashing out at people for no reason, who are utterly confused by the behavior. my primary ptsd symptom is the nightmares. anything can trigger them. ANYTHING. everything. helplessness nightmares. reliving the abuse nightmares. screaming and nobody can hear nightmares. tied up, raped, evil cats suffocating, all that fun stuff and more. and running. never-ending running. it’s just behind you, run faster, you can feel it breathing on your back nightmares. my responses to nightmares varies, but it can become a vicious cycle. i journal them to help me process. try to figure out what they are trying to help me process, because that is what i think my mind is trying to do through them. and, just recently, i started scheduling nightmares and even plotting them out in advance, and surprisingly, it has worked to keep them away, somehow.

    right, sorry about going on so long. i hope some of this is helpful.

  2. Thanks for your honesty. I appreciated your inquiry into and articulation of what triggers are. As always when I hear people’s stories it opens my heart and fills me with compassion for all people who are subjected to violence.

  3. Thank you, both, for sharing this. It was very helpful for me. Too much research as a writer leads me to medical definitions that really do me no good at all for trying to understand, and not completely mess up, my own characters.

  4. April,

    I’d say it’s too much of the wrong kind of research, rather than too much research.

    I suggest seeking out patient testimony whenever possible, because that’s where you’ll find out how it feels and is experienced. There’s no end of books and blogs and forums where this occurs. I recommend books, because those tend to go into more detail. Whether it’s individual testimony or testimony gathered by a psychologist and published, it’s a good resource and one that it’s hard to get too much of.

    It’s like the difference between reading about law enforcement, and interviewing actually people in law enforcement. One is good for technical knowledge, but the other is needed for the full knowledge (human experience) that writers need.

  5. Thank you, both of you, for sharing. God bless you both. I’m in the process of writing a short story about a man returning from Iraq and dealing with PTSD. I see now that my portrayal of triggers if flawed and needs to be fine-tuned. My goal in writing the story is to hopefully ‘trigger’ an awareness for our veterans’ needs. Again, thank you.

  6. Thanks for sharing and letting others tell their stories.
    I have so many stories, like others, that I would love to get
    out of mind for the very last time. I’m haunted by past experiences
    that have clouded my perception of reality and caused me to
    make repeatedly bad choices in my life.
    The sad truth is that I honestly know I’m worthy of more; I just
    can’t shake the strange sensations that I experience from the triggers that
    cause me to react impulsively.

  7. Marie,

    *hug* It’s very, very, very difficult. Lots of people don’t seem to get how hard it can be for some people; I mean, it’s not like (most) people think that those suffering from severe genetically-disposed carcinoma are less striving and/or deserving than those with easily surgically removed early-caught skin cancer. But mental abnormalities/illnesses get an unfair stigma, as if we’re all just pretending. Even people we like (whether famous or coworkers or friends or family) can act this way around us.

    Life isn’t fair. Bad things happen to good people. These are hard things for folks to accept.

    I wish you luck in your journey and struggle. And don’t blame yourself. And you aren’t alone. And I know how hard it all can be, and that at the same time I don’t know myself how hard it is for you.

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