Department of Family Services – Domestic and Sexual Violence Services

CONTACT INFORMATION: Monday–Friday 8 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
703-324-5730 TTY 711
12011 Government Center Parkway, Pennino Building, Floor 7, Suite 740
Fairfax, VA 22035
Toni Zollicoffer

Sexual Violence – Triggers

exit website button circle  SAFETY ALERT – If you are in danger, call or text 911.


A trigger is a reminder of a past trauma. This reminder can cause a person to feel overwhelmed, sadness, anxiety, or panic. It may also cause someone to have flashbacks. A flashback is a vivid, often negative memory that may appear without warning. It can cause someone to lose track of their surroundings and “relive” a traumatic event.

woman sitting on floor writing in journal Triggers can take many forms. They may be brought on by a physical location, a certain smell, or the anniversary of the traumatic event.

Sometimes triggers are predictable. Visiting the physical location of the traumatic event or attending a presentation or training on the topic. In other cases, a trigger can come without notice. A person may have smelled a perfume/cologne on his/her perpetrator and while riding the metro they have a panic attack because they smell the same perfume/cologne.

What should you do when you feel triggered?

It is impossible to predict or avoid all triggers, since many are unique to a person’s situation. Instead of solely focusing on changing the things that are triggering, start by find techniques that will improve your reactions to the triggers.

1. Focus on your breathing.

When you start to feel like your emotions are about to take off on a roller coaster ride, take a few seconds to slow down and breathe to help calm your body, mind, and spirit. Take an exaggerated first deep breath by inhaling (for 3 seconds), hold your breath (for 3 seconds), and then take a deep exhale (for 3 seconds). When you take the time to focus on deep, rhythmic breathing it can send a message to your brain that you are safe and that all is well around you.

2. Find someone with whom you can vent and process the situation.

Sometimes taking a minute to process what happened can open your eyes to the situation and how it affected you. The best time to process a situation is when you have cooled off and no longer feel triggered by negative emotions. Find a friend or loved one who you can vent to about how the event or situation affected you and how to better recognize and manage emotions when they reoccur in the future. If you aren’t able to reach anyone, call the Fairfax County Domestic and Sexual Violence 24-Hour Hotline at 703-360-7273.

Taking the time to talk through what happened while in a calm state of mind can provide clarity and help provide ways to improve your response in the future. Once you gain the ability to identify how you are triggered, you become more aware of it and can plan of how you can try responding to it next time.

3. Use your five senses to ground yourself physically.

This method allows your brain to focus on something other than what has triggered you. When you combine this with deep breathing, you will notice being calmer promotes a healthier state of mind. To practice this method, identify the following:

  • 5 things you can see.
  • 4 things you can touch.
  • 3 things you can hear.
  • 2 things you can smell.
  • 1 thing you can taste.

These distractions are wonderful ways to promote a sense of calmness throughout your body.

4. Try progressive muscle relaxation.

This method helps relieve tension throughout your body by distracting your brain through relaxing different muscle groups. Focus on tensing a group of muscles, such as your shoulders, as you breathe in (hold for 4 seconds), and then relax them as you breathe out (exhale for 4 seconds). Repeat this exercise with a different set of muscle groups (i.e., hands, arms, stomach, back). With practice, this helps lower overall tension and stress levels and helps trick your brain into thinking it has won the fight from being triggered by allowing you to calm down.

5. Give yourself a spa-like warm bath or shower.

Unwinding with a warm bath or shower can help ease tension and anxious muscles. Block off at least 15 minutes in your day where you can clear your mind and decrease any stress hormones. Play some of your favorite music, light a candle, and enjoy time to meditate while focusing on finding your inner peace. Think of this time as restoring your body, mind, and soul.

6. Practice repeating a coping statement.

Coping statements are positive, uplifting words used to replace negative and often untrue thoughts that take over your mind when triggered. Just repeating something like “I can do this” or “it’ll be OK” can help with regulation, as well as provide a rhythm to breathe to.

Negative self-talk doesn’t propel you to a healthier future, so work on quick and easy to remember coping statements you can write down and reference in a time of need. Whenever you feel like you are triggered with negative emotions, pull out your coping card statements and quickly remind yourself it will all be OK.

Learn more about sexual violence or Domestic and Sexual Violence Services.

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Fairfax Virtual Assistant