Navigating Triggering News Cycles
It's vital to stay abreast of what's happening in the world. Following the news enables individuals to prepare for major events, stay connected to communities, form educated opinions, and participate meaningfully in relevant conversations. Gone are the days of the morning paper and nightly news as sole sources of information. Today's news is distributed continuously and at a staggering pace via multiple sources ranging from cable networks, to push notifications, and social media. The evolution of news consumption and the increasingly graphic and combative nature of its content can be overwhelming. Balancing the need to stay informed with the need to maintain mental health has become increasingly more challenging. It's hard to know what to do when something so necessary becomes toxic.
What is a Trigger:
The word "trigger" has recently been incorporated into popular culture, but it's not just a synonym for "offensive." In the field of psychology, a trigger is an item, place, or event that reminds someone of a past trauma. A trauma is an incident or series of incidents that were harmful or life-threatening; many kinds of events can be categorized as clinically traumatic. Some studies suggest 70% or more of U.S. adults have endured at least one traumatic event. About 20% of those will develop posttraumatic stress disorder. It is possible to experience a trigger without a diagnosis of PTSD, and someone may be triggered many years after the traumatic event(s) occurred.
Triggers precipitate a chain reaction of thoughts, feelings, and even physical responses that lead to emotional and/or behavioral changes. Sometimes triggers can be anticipated, like knowing there will be violence in a horror movie. This gives people the opportunity to prepare in advance, or avoid the situation altogether. However, triggers are frequently unexpected and sneaky. People cannot always accurately predict what exactly will trigger them. Individuals may notice symptoms, but not know precisely when or how they were triggered. To complicate things further, triggers may not be consistent; something that felt comfortable one day could be triggering the next.
The list of possible reactions to a trigger is long, but people triggered by news coverage may experience increases in anxiety, feeling unsafe (even if they are currently in a safe environment), intrusive thoughts, depressed mood, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, irritability, muscle tension, difficulty focusing, hypervigilance, an urge to isolate, panic attacks, and heart palpitation. It is not advisable to watch the news if one has a trauma history and is already experiencing these symptoms.
Suggestions for Managing Triggers
It may seem like the easiest potential intervention for avoiding triggers in the news is to avoid news altogether. While a "news detox" can be helpful, it's not always practical or even possible. One may consider setting limits on news intake. For example, reading print instead of watching television or video reports may reduce the intensity of a potential trigger. Check sources only during specific times that work for you, like during a commute, before breakfast, or at the 8:00 pm hour, etc. If sleep is impacted, institute a nightly cut-off time for news intake. Refraining from engaging all day long can reduce exposure to triggers, and create more mental space for revitalizing activities.
Since triggers can be unpredictable, it's important to be prepared in advance. Part of being proactive means practicing basic mental health hygiene like taking medications as prescribed, getting enough sleep and exercise, avoiding unnecessary risks, and staying connected to a positive support system. Integrate techniques like yoga, meditation, and mindfulness into daily routines- even when things are good- to assure that the brain stays in practice. As anxiety increases, the brain has a harder time putting together rational thoughts. The more a brain practices something without stress, the more efficient the brain will be at performing that task when it is stressed.
Once triggered, the brain takes people back in time to when they felt threatened. Successfully responding to a trigger means staying connected to the present, where it is safe. A triggered individual should remind themselves that they are safe where they are, there is no current threat, and the scared feeling will pass. "Grounding techniques" are simple skills people can use to stay anchored to the safety of the present moment (e.g. pet an animal, look for something nearby that starts with each letter of the alphabet, squeeze a stress ball or an ice cube). Keeping tools for managing triggers in an easily accessible place increases the likelihood that you will make use of them. Try consolidating things like soothing music, notes to yourself, guided mediations, images of relaxing places, or simple games in a file on your phone. This will make the interventions easier to find when you really need them.
Avoid using alcohol, drugs, or any medications not specifically prescribed to you in an attempt to manage triggers. Using substances makes it harder to stay connected to the present, and can make symptoms worse.
Working with experienced, compassionate mental health professionals is an important part of recovering from trauma for many people. Psychotherapists, psychiatrists, and even community-based support services can provide resources that help trauma survivors regain control of their mental health. There are also many free emergency hotlines available to those in crisis and struggling to overcome the aftermath of traumatic events. Triggers are tricky to figure out and almost impossible to avoid altogether. Thankfully, there is an ever-growing understanding about the human response to trauma, and safe, effective, evidence-based practices for treatment.
- Crisis Text Line: Text "home" to 741741 to connect with a mental health professional
- National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)
- Lifeline for Vets: 1-888-777-4443 for veterans to connect with fellow veterans
- National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), Central Virginia Helpline: 804-285-1749
- List of Grounding Techniques [PDF]
- Free Guided Mindfulness Mediations
Alissa Murray, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is a Clinical Associate with Family Guidance Centers in our Chesterfield office. She provides individual, child, family, and marital therapy. She can be reached at 804-743-0960 or can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Seeking Safety A Treatment Manual for PTSD and Substance Abuse, by Lisa M. Najavits The Body Keeps the Score Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M. D.
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