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.