How to Handle (Good & Bad) Triggers

For me, it’s a Bryan Adams or Collective Soul song. The roar of a super-charged Mustang. A plate full of cheesy potatoes. Fall leaves. A blue suit. His name.

I grin, thinking about him smiling or wrapping his long arms around me and whispering in my ear. Then I remember: my husband’s gory autopsy report, pictures from the state troopers, pacing in my house wondering what the hell I am going to do now.

And then I hurt. Memories weigh like bricks on my chest, tears surface like the tide. For some reason, swallowing often helps me control the flood that is waiting behind my eyes.  

What I do next really depends on the time of day. If in the evening, I just say goodbye to the day, knowing that sleep will help me start anew tomorrow. And, eight years out, I know tomorrow will be a sunny day. If the trigger comes in the morning or afternoon, it’s more complicated. Especially if the trigger is a difficult one by itself - without my emotions permeating its structure. I’m talking now about dealing with negligent drivers, insensitive people, medical diagnoses, ambulances. The ones that make me re-play the horrible crash that caused his death, over and over and over, and the complicated feelings of emptiness, rage, and loss.

My gut may be to curl into a ball and sit in my closet, or consume too many bars of chocolate, but I have learned that one or several of the following will help me regain a small sense control faster:

Verbalize. If the trigger comes and you’re with someone, one of the most helpful things is to say out loud what’s going on. Naming diffuses the trigger’s power by removing you from the prison of your own repetitive thoughts, as well as open the therapeutic process of storytelling. In the grief group that I facilitate monthly, I’m amazed with the transformation that comes when someone recounts all the details of their person’s death, the people who were there/not there, the sheer agony of those first days. The truth is that it’s good for us to expel the emotions, but it’s also good for others to listen and understand.

Meditate. If you’re alone or you deeply prefer being alone with your grief, try a relaxing breath-centered meditation. My first Zen teacher taught his students that the best way to ground oneself and stay in the present is to focus on breathing. When you start to notice the rhythm, your chest, or even the sound, all other thoughts start to drift away.

That said, there have been times - when I’m replaying my husband’s death - that I need more than the breath. In those instances, I often find solace with imagery: imagining walking with a friend on a beach, listening to their words or needs, stumbling upon a pattern in the sand, etc. Recently in my grief process, recalling people and events for which I’m grateful (“gratitude meditation”) has been centering. However, I know this would have made me resentful in the beginning; forcing gratitude to overcome anger doesn’t work well.

Rock with a Weighted Blanket. One of my grief counselors advised investing in a rocking chair. At one time, my “homework” was to rock, three times per day, for ten minutes each time. The movement is simple and calming. Paired with a weighted blanket, which serves as a physical containment of chaotic emotions (really), it helped me de-stress enough to fall asleep.

EMDR. This is the acronym for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, a common therapeutic tool to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It works with either a moving (just back and forth) object that your eyes focus on OR two small handheld receivers that take turns vibrating. Both types work with the assumption that you and a trained counselor can re-train your brain’s neural pathways by disrupting them. The disruption is either the eye movement or the vibration as you re-live the trigger and talk about it in new ways. It helps me now to remember the conversations from my EMDR experience: For instance, are there positive events that happen because of ambulances? Can I think about them helping people the next time I hear or see one?

Walk. Similar to rocking, walking is simple and automatic. Plus it’s exercise, which re-balances the chemicals in our brain. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a renowned professor created The Center for Healthy Minds as a way to investigate depression and healing. Next to meditation, exercise was the most important tool for a healthy brain.

Usually when I walk to dispel a trigger, I also Call one of my close friends. I know that they are trustworthy with my grief, and will understand that my brain is reacting automatically. In other words, they don’t use logic to counsel me, but rather stuff like this:

“I’m so sorry this keeps happening. Thank you for calling me.”

“Are you in a place where you can just sit outside or make a cup of tea?”

“Tell me more.”

Break. I mean this as a noun and a verb. It’s important to allow yourself to “take a break” and physically leave a situation that causes or exacerbates a trigger. Staying in one because we feel it would be awkward to leave or any other excuse that supports a “should,” is only going to make recovery time longer. Three years ago, I forced myself to endure a PTSD attack at a Christmas celebration, and I suffered physically for three days after.

The verb “to break” is completely different; in grief healing, it’s about smashing old plates, tiles or mirrors to discharge anger. Some people let go less violently, but some of us need a physical release. Picking up the pieces when finished can lead to a productive art project, too: mosaics.

Read. I keep Derek Walcott’s poem, “Earth,” in my purse, car, and bedroom dresser. It’s about our belonging to and being of this planet.

Let the day grow on you upward

through your feet,

the vegetal knuckles,

to your knees of stone,

until by evening you are a black tree;

feel, with evening,

the swifts thicken your hair,

the new moon rising out of your forehead,

and the moonlit veins of silver

running from your armpits

like rivulets under white leaves.

Sleep, as ants

cross over your eyelids.

You have never possessed anything

as deeply as this.

This is all you have owned

from the first outcry

through forever;

you can never be dispossessed.

With its tangible imagery, I find Walcott’s words grounding. What words do you re-read in times of great turmoil? Some people find comfort in reflections on pain, assertions of hope, or even funny fictional conversations/distractions. It doesn’t matter what works in the moment, mainly because we need a plethora of coping mechanisms to deal with grief. Each one in this list has accompanied my journey the past eight years.

Unfortunately, difficult triggers will accompany us for decades - perhaps our entire lifetime; fortunately, their intensity is not always paralyzing. They do lessen with time and a diverse toolkit.

HOPE = Hold on, pain ends.

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About the Author
After losing her husband of 13 months to a crash in August 2008, Michelle found new patterns to her broken pieces by becoming a teacher. Her students encouraged her to also be a writer. She remarried in 2013 and became a mother in 2015. She works toward a balance that weaves the threads of joy and pain together. Connect with her online at
I'm Grieving, Now What?