Jamie tells her friend Casey she is moving away, and Casey immediately feels a sinking in her stomach. Jamie is just leaving town; her decision is not an abandonment of Casey.
Still, Casey feels it that way — her emotions don’t distinguish between the two. For her, any leaving is taken as rejection, and this exaggerates its feeling.
Likewise, Rocco is single and wants a partner. He is trying to sublet his apartment for six months while he goes to work in another city. As one prospective renter after another chooses not to sublet his place, he starts to feel panicky and thinks, I still have no one. The phrasing of his thought and the intensity of his feelings are clues that he has mixed up a business transaction with relationship concerns.
We’ve all been there. Someone raises his or her voice and we feel shaky. A door is slammed, and we become instantly enraged or alarmed. Someone acts aggressively and we go to pieces.
Whenever any of these things happens, it’s likely that it has triggered an emotion. We find ourselves in a common stimulus–response pattern.
In both of the earlier examples, the informational has been confused with the personal. Casey’s and Rocco’s friends might try to explain, “Oh, it wasn’t meant that way.” But these kinds of statements are addressed in the reasoning part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.
The trigger reaction happens in the limbic, or emotional, center of the brain, so rational explanations don’t help. The friends mean well, but they would be speaking “cerebral” to someone who can now only speak “limbic.” That part of us does not, cannot, listen to reason.
The work for Casey and Rocco — and all of us, when our own triggers are pulled — is to take a deep look into the origins of our reactions. We all have it in us to respond to a trigger rather than react to it. We just need to equip ourselves with some tools.
What Is a Trigger?
A trigger is any word, person, event, or experience that touches off an immediate emotional reaction. It’s like being startled by a noise: The noise is the trigger; the startle is the response.
Our reactions to our emotional triggers are often excessive, lasting longer than what makes sense for the event. It’s as if we’re still jumping at the sound of that slammed door hours later.
Not all triggers are negative. They can also stimulate joy or happy memories, like when we smell a flower that reminds us of a place we love or see a photograph of an event where we felt happy. Still, we usually use “trigger” to describe negative stimuli — those that set off sadness, anger, or fear, as well as hurt, shame, and despair.
When we’re triggered, our bodies engage the survival response: fighting, fleeing, or freezing. Our hearts might race; we break into a sweat; we go cold. The sympathetic nervous system is activated to save us from perceived harm.
Yet we often flee too fast, fight too hard, freeze too long. These reactions can start to interfere with our ability to live our lives. When a trigger leads only to a survival reaction, it’s a dead end.
But they can lead us to healing, too. They can point us to where we have personal work to do. When a trigger accomplishes that nudge toward self-reflection, it can be a true boon.
Still, triggers are tricksters. Our reactions can happen so fast that they erase the distance between stimulus and response, making us feel like they’re the same thing.
When we develop the tools to handle our triggers, we transform a two-part experience into a three-part practice: trigger → reaction can become trigger → reaction → resource. With enough practice, it can become a better two-part experience: trigger → resource.
Triggers thrive on the illusion that we can’t trust ourselves. But once we have access to inner resources, we can learn to catch ourselves instead of reacting blindly. Then we can trust that we can handle what we feel.
As we become more self-assured, the arrows don’t penetrate so deeply. We develop a thick enough skin to cope with our world and its shadow side rather than hiding from them.
Not all strong emotional responses are trigger reactions. If you receive news about the sudden death of a friend or relative, it is sane and sensitive to react with shock and grief. Your body experiences an automatic change in heart rate, breathing, pulse, brain synapses. This is not something to be avoided, nor is it healthy to try to control it.
When we react this strongly to a less significant event, though, it’s likely that the past is invading the present and hijacking our nervous system. In my work as a psychotherapist, I see nine categories of triggers:
- Feeling self-conscious, such as when we’re alone in a group or comparing ourselves
- Being discounted, such as when someone stands us up or ignores our calls
- Feeling we are controlled, such as when someone is making decisions for us or is telling us what to do or feel
- Feeling taken advantage of, such as when someone fails to pay us back on a loan
- Feeling vulnerable, such as when we’re in a situation in which we feel exposed
- Relationship experiences, such as when we’re lonely or feeling smothered
- Boundary concerns, such as when someone is coming at us while drunk or disrespecting our space
- Feeling uncomfortable about what is happening, such as when we witness someone being hurt or when someone’s words or actions disagree with our values
- Fearing what might happen, such as when a threat appears imminent
Notice that every trigger on the list, while unpleasant, is a given of life and relationships — all triggers are. This is the way life and people are sometimes. Human interactions come with the possibility of disappointment. None of us is entitled to a life with no triggers.
Still, all of these ordinary life events can and often do remind us of traumas in our past.
A trauma is a shocking, injuring event where we are powerless over the outcome. During a traumatic experience, we often dissociate from what’s happening because the experience is too painful.
This makes the memory of it difficult to retrieve. It can take years to feel the feelings we’ve kept repressed — and none of this can happen until our inner clock tells us we are ready to address the pain.
A trigger, however, disregards our timing and hurls us into the bodily memory of trauma before we’re ready to face it consciously. This is why we often feel such a childlike powerlessness when we’re triggered.
Yet we don’t need to blame ourselves for this: Our bodies have only our survival in mind.
Fortunately, in the present moment, we can learn to notice and then question the intensity of trigger responses — when we’re reacting to a perceived slight as if someone is trying to undermine us, or to feedback from a coworker as a full-scale judgment of character. We can stop and say: Yes, it is this way, and What is going on with me?
This allows us to explore ourselves rather than blame others for our reaction. The more we become able to accept reality with an unconditional “yes,” the less apt we are to be triggered.
Our ancestors learned to make tools at least 2 million years ago to help them handle their needs. Today we have a variety of tools, including inner resources, to help us handle ours. These are some of the specific psychological and spiritual tools to help us respond, rather than react, to our own triggers.
Name it. In the well-known fairy tale about Rumpelstiltskin, discovering his name means being free of his threats. Likewise, we can keep a written list with the names of our familiar, often-repeated triggers. These could be particular people, words, places, or behaviors. Being on the lookout for our triggers makes us ready for them. Then we respond consciously instead of acting on reflex.
Seek the source. Identifying the source of a trigger reaction — a specific event or trauma — is central to freeing ourselves from it. Triggers based on past trauma show us where the past invades the present. But they also allow us to look directly into the hidden world of who we are. When I accurately locate where a trigger comes from in myself, for instance, I notice that I can usually reduce its wallop substantially.
Be aware of projection. Trigger reactions are about projection. For example, if one of your parents was angrily violent toward you, you might be triggered by anger in others today. This is because your body fears a repetition of that original sequence, even though anger and violence aren’t inevitably linked.
Or maybe your first love left you for someone else, and now you’re unsure of your attractiveness in every new relationship. We predict outcomes based on past experience.
While it’s always possible that anger will lead to violence, or your new love interest will fall for someone else, that would be a coincidence, not a given.
Most important, when we make our reaction all about other people, it leaves us powerless, because we can’t change them. When we take ownership of our reactions, we take a step toward healing and letting go of the original injury.
Notice hyperarousal signs. When we’re triggered, cortisol and adrenaline course through us — so we might feel fragile, disorganized, and disoriented. We’re unable to self-regulate in that moment, so the first order of business is to focus on calming ourselves down.
To do this, have some favorite relaxation techniques at the ready. Take a deep breath. Go for a quick walk around the block. Head to the bathroom and splash your face with cold water. Do anything that will help bring you back to the present moment.
Don’t fight the inner voice. If you’re being triggered by an inner critic, don’t reply with an opposing opinion — that reaction will only start an argument with a force whose sole training and mission is to put you down.
Instead, try using the inner critic’s voice as a bell announcing it’s time for a break. It can remind you to deploy a self-care practice, like an affirmation: I trust myself to do the best I can. This also works when you’re starting to obsess over a worry: I trust myself to handle whatever happens. Then these inner voices can become tools to help us evolve.
Practice knowing and showing your emotions. Emotions are like muscles: They develop in healthy ways by being used appropriately. Likewise, if we’ve hidden an emotion like anger or sadness for most of our lives, our ability to cope with the feeling becomes stunted. This is one reason a reaction may feel awkward or exaggerated when we’re triggered.
As we practice knowing and showing our emotions, we become less likely to react inappropriately when we have strong feelings.
Take a breather. When we’re triggered, we lose our objectivity. We may feel like the wind is knocked out of us. This makes it much harder to say what needs to be said. Try stepping away for a moment to let the ego calm down. This makes it easier to communicate nonjudgmentally about the effect someone’s action or an experience has on us.
Try an echo response. If someone is shaming or insulting us, we can simply repeat aloud to that person — slowly — the exact words that are triggering. This creates a pause that can prevent us from being bowled over or feeling victimized. In an aikido style, we are directing the energy back to its origin.
Be ready for family. Family members know every one of our buttons and exactly how and when to push them — it’s no wonder that we’re often at our most reactive around them. If you know a particular family member is a challenge for you, be on the lookout. Be as present as you can, and if the situation reaches fever pitch, vacate the premises. Having boundaries while being loving is the goal.
Find the humor. If it’s possible, find the humor in a triggering situation. This is one of the fastest ways to diffuse the stress response.
Know you’re not alone. We become easy victims of our triggers when we believe that everyone else is able to control theirs. Triggers lose a lot of power when we realize people we trust and admire are affected in the same way we are.
Seek therapy. If a particular trauma trigger is creating unmanageable stress, seek professional help. Somatic therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) can help you integrate bodily memories into present awareness. (For more on EMDR, see “How to Change Your Brain”.)
Practice acceptance. As upsetting and challenging as triggers can be, it can help to remember that they are one of the body’s ways of pointing us toward our own healing and wholeness. And every one of us has them. Similar triggers happen to all of us; they are simply part of life.
A practice of accepting what we cannot change — knowing that people will say or do things that set us off, for instance — is a way to be kind to ourselves. We don’t have to accept abuse, but we can learn to take in stride that triggering events will happen.
Our attitude of “yes” toward that fact goes a long way toward reducing the power that triggers have over us and regaining our ability to be consciously, calmly ourselves.
This article originally appeared in Experience Life, Life Time’s whole-life health and fitness magazine.