by David Richo
Someone says something to us and we are suddenly struck with a sinking feeling in our stomach. Someone does something and instantly we become enraged or alarmed. Someone comes at us with a certain attitude and we go to pieces. We hear mention of a person, place, or thing that is associated with an unresolved issue or a past trauma and we immediately feel ourselves seize up with sadness, anger, fear, or shame. When any of this happens, we can be sure a trigger has been pulled.
We find ourselves in a stimulus/response experience that happens to all of us. The stimulus is referred to in metaphorical terms, a ‘trigger,’ a ‘button,’ a ‘hook’: “What she said triggered me”, “What he does pushes my buttons”, “I got hooked again”. We might also say: “I have a charge on this”, using an electrical analogy.
A trigger is any word, person, event, or experience that touches off an immediate emotional reaction, especially sadness/depression, anger/aggression, humiliation/shame, fear/panic, or even a panic attack. Words, behavior, attitudes, events and even the presence of certain people can incite reflex reactions in us over which we have no control. For example, we are suddenly surprised by a noise and we are startled. The noise is the stimulus; the startle is the reaction. Our reaction can be brief or long. Sometimes we can move through our reaction in a moment. Sometimes it becomes an obsession. This disempowers us and plunges us into a sense of being unsafe and insecure.
How triggers affect our day-to-day lives, and what they’re telling us
Our reaction to a trigger is often excessive, larger than what is warranted by the stimulus, and longer-lasting than what fits the triggering event. The extent to which a trigger affects us is proportional to how thick or thin-skinned we are. The more sensitive we are to others’ behavior toward us, the more fiercely does our fear, anger or shame erupt. As we become stronger and more self-assured, we notice that the arrows of others don’t penetrate so deeply.
In a wider context, regarding ourselves and society, we need to develop a skin thick enough to cope with our world and its shadow side, rather than hiding away from it. Then we can face the onslaughts of our imposing world, but with the courage to deal and to heal. We can come to notice what triggers us and understand why. This is how we reclaim our power, have more choice about our immediate reactions, and ultimately find healing from processing a triggering experience.
When a trigger stays the night with us, lasts too long, it is a signal. There is something to look into, to deal with. For instance, perhaps someone at work has triggered us and it is keeping us up at night. We discover that we need to have a conversation with this colleague, work the conflict out, speak up for ourselves. This is an example of how a trigger could beckon us to healthy assertiveness.
Our reaction is also based on our belief about how serious the trigger is. Examples of beliefs are assumptions, illusions, projections and suppositions. Our reaction moves from belief to expression, first as a feeling and then sometimes with a follow-up of words or actions. Usually all this happens without our having a chance to consider what makes the most sense for us in the situation.
What actually happens when we’re triggered
Triggers and reactions can happen so fast that we don’t have a chance to pause, look at what is really happening, and make a wise choice. This is because triggers activate our limbic system, where the emotions reside, rather than our pre-frontal cortex, where rational thoughts preside. We might say that the limbic system is like a horse – at times spirited, at times wild. The pre-frontal cortex is like reins. We are the riders with varying, but certainly improvable, levels of skill.
‘Trigger’ is an appropriate metaphor for what provokes these immediate reactions because the ‘gun,’ or the catalyst of our reaction, is in the hands of someone else. Using the ‘button’ metaphor, as in “He pushes my buttons,” someone does something and a nuclear reaction is set off in us. When the trigger is a ‘hook’, we are pulled into a reaction we regret, or are angry at ourselves for biting again.
All three metaphors show how we lose our personal power. We have given someone power over our serenity. Someone or something has hijacked our equanimity, gained power over our feelings and actions. This is why triggers exaggerate our feeling, reaction, and belief about their meaning. All of this is totally normal. Being triggered is not dysfunctional – though our reaction might be.
In my work as a therapist and teacher, I hear clients and students talk about being triggered with increasing frequency. Some trigger experiences can be quite serious, such as a soldier with PTSD who is triggered by a sound that reminds them of combat, or a sexual assault survivor who is triggered by a touch that reminds them of their trauma. Other triggers may be connected to less dramatic experiences, but our reactions still seem to take control over us.
A person triggers us in direct proportion to how important he has become to us in reality, or in our minds. For instance, someone we care deeply about may trigger us by showing any sign of abandoning us. Someone who threatens or scares us will easily trigger us, even when he does not intend to do so. Someone we have a crush on may trigger us by almost anything they do.
When we have given power to someone we have placed his or her finger on a trigger – and sometimes it is a hair trigger. But this does not mean that we should avoid caring about people. Rather, we should learn to understand and work with our triggers and reactions.
Symptoms of delayed grief
Sometimes a trigger can be immediate, here and now, with no earlier example of it. For instance, the first time we hear of a person in our family dying, we are stricken with grief and we weep. Usually, however, a trigger is a replay of an earlier experience. The original stimulus can be anything from a minor distress last year to a major trauma decades ago, especially in our childhood years.
Those early experiences evoked grief that we have not yet fully felt or resolved. Thus, triggers can arouse post-traumatic stress that we wish to avoid. Yet they also thereby give us a lively chance to recognize and mourn our losses, disappointments and abuses. Indeed, every trigger is a catalyst for grief. Our sudden reaction is how we begin to show it, for example with sadness or chagrin.
A triggering event that is a throwback to an archaic trauma feels like it is happening in the present. The brain’s amygdala, part of our limbic system, stores original traumas and reactions of fear with no sense of time, impact, or of our intervening years of growth and self-strengthening. This is why triggers today can give us the sense that we are still as powerless as we may have felt in childhood. We forget that we have inner resources to help us deal with challenges, or we neglect to use these resources because that part of the brain is not online; the amygdala has commandeered all the channels.
Sometimes when we are triggered, for instance, we become mute, dumbfounded, numb. Our amygdala has silenced our thinking mind. We rebuke ourselves later as we gain back our full mental powers. We think “I should have said this…” but we did not have access to that calm thought process at the time, because the limbic system had blunted it. Triggers activate the sympathetic nervous system. We are moved toward flight, fight, or freeze. Stress hormones chime in, all beyond our immediate control – another reason we feel powerless.
Reframing the brain
Today, thanks to neuroscience and research on brain plasticity, we are aware that we can reprogram our neurological pathways to change our self-defeating patterns. The pre-frontal cortex can come up with healthy ways to respond to events. We do not have to be at the mercy of immediate, irrational, and unplanned reactions.
Nonetheless, the impulse to react does not disappear easily, even when we lay down new neural patterns. Our spiritual practices may also help somewhat, but not even they are always robust enough to cancel our limbic reactions entirely. We do not have to be hard on ourselves when we still react in ways we are uncomfortable with. Instead, we can observe, learn, and practice.
Indeed, with conscious attention, our prefrontal cortex can reframe events and experiences so they do not have to be so triggering. The pre-frontal cortex in full activation can calm some of the amygdala’s overblown reactions. To move from our primitive brain to our ‘reasonable cortex’ we can evoke an alternative thought that is positive and resource-enhancing. Gradually, the new thought takes over. We recall St. Paul:
“Brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”
A trigger can, of course, be positive, a stimulus arousing joy, erotic excitement, or optimism. We are triggered with chills and a lump in our throat when our team scores a win, or when we see an example of the triumph of the human spirit. We are triggered into pleasant nostalgia by a photo of happy times gone by. We are triggered when we experience love at first sight, or the magic of a kiss.
Today we use the word ‘trigger’ mostly to refer to what is disturbing and unpleasant. Negative triggering, which arouses not only sadness, anger, or fear but, at times, hurt, shame, guilt, disappointment, letdown, regret or despair. Then our reflex action might be fleeing, fighting, or freezing – but all overdone. Our experience feels negative when we flee too fast, fight too hard, or freeze too long.
A trigger can quickly become a dead-end by leading only to a reaction, with no resource to follow. In fact, triggers don’t have to end that way once we have tools to handle them. We can insert a third option between stimulus and response. We can move from a two-part experience to a three-part practice:
Trigger 🡪 Reaction
Trigger 🡪 Reaction 🡪Resource
Then, gradually, it might happen this way:
We can mobilize inner resources not only to cope with triggering events, but even to work through the traumas that caused them: to heal some of our post-traumatic stress so it has less power over us. We move from feeling unsafe to safer, and from feeling insecure to more secure – the essence of self-trust. Triggers thrive on the illusion that we can’t trust ourselves. With inner resources, we find out we can trust ourselves indeed – and in deed.
Utilising inner resources
Trauma never goes entirely away, but it can become ‘what happened’ rather than ‘what still hurts’. We will not eliminate triggers altogether, but we no longer have to react to them so extremely. We can modify both our susceptibility to being triggered as well as our reactions to being triggered. We can learn to catch ourselves before we react blindly. The impact of triggers can be blunted and our reaction time can be shortened. We can disable the trigger mechanism so that we are not wounded, only scratched.
All of this happens when we engage in serious work on our traumas, especially in therapy. We become more aware of the connection between triggers and of what we have to work on in ourselves. Our goal is not to root out all our triggers, but to find a trailhead from them into the psychological and spiritual work that has been so long awaiting us. This is how we turn our triggers into tools.
As we marshal our inner resources, more and more of our daily triggers can turn into information with no further invasions into our peace of mind: “Oh, he said that.” “Hmm, she is doing that.” “Looks like they have that attitude toward me. How interesting.” We keep in mind in all we have learnt about trauma, though: that some were so severe that they might not easily go away at all, and resources may not easily kick in.
When we’re triggered we do not have to be victims of what others say or do. We are equipped to handle the slings and arrows that come at us. We can take arms against a sea of troubles – tender arms, of course.
Inner resources are like aquifers nourishing us. They help us trust that what happens will not do what triggers can do: throw us for a loop, plunge us into despondency, turn us into targets or make us collapse in fear or shame. Our best inner resource is our natural resourcefulness, our inventiveness and ingenuity in making the most of any hand we are dealt, or in dodging any bullet headed in our direction.
This does not mean that we will not sometimes have more to face than we can handle. Inner supplies can, at times, be so minimal that they cannot match the trigger or crisis that has assailed us. When that happens, we activate the inner resource that gives our immediate inadequacy a boost: we ask for help. We turn to our outer resources, our support system, to help us through.
We turn within for valuable resources, both psychological and spiritual. Psychology helps us develop inner resources, like awareness of our needs and the ability to express and fulfil them in all the right places. We can learn to manage our feelings, to free ourselves from inhibition, to trust our ingenuity. Spirituality offers resources such as meditation, mindfulness, freedom from attachment, and letting go of ego. Each of these can become a characteristic of our personality. Our psychological work and spiritual practices work together to increase and enrich our inner resources. Eventually, we become what we practice.
Find out more
David Richo, Ph.D. is psychotherapist, writer, and workshop leader. He teaches at a variety of organisations including Esalen and Spirit Rock Buddhist Center. He shares his time between Santa Barbara and San Francisco, California. Dave combines psychological and spiritual perspectives in his work.
Triggers: How We Can Stop Reacting and Start Healing by David Richo, published by Shambhala Publications, paperback, RRP £13.99