The term "trigger" gets casually thrown around a lot these days, but what exactly does it mean? Therapists use the term to refer to a strong psychological response from past situations to a percieved stimulus in the present.
EXAMPLE: " She was 'triggered' by the banging on the door."
She is not merely startled or surprised, but is having an intense psychological response to a non-intense stimulus: door-knocks don't generally signal a threat in of themselves so her fear response seems unwarranted or confusing to onlookers.
Her mismatched response-to-stimuli experience is coming from the cueing up of past trauma by the benign stimulus in some unique way that only the triggered person can understand. Her brain is flooded with stress hormones, her fight/flight system has been activated, and the amygdala has hijacked the processing of information from perception to behavior.
In this example, we described a DIFFICULT TRIGGER, but those are not the only feelings experiences that function this way in the brain. In fact we can even trigger when experiencing PLEASANT emotions.
EXAMPLE: The wedding was so beautiful I cried tears of joy!
This can happen when we associate a current happy feeling with past experience we have encoded with that same feeling or other cues. Like maybe we are thinking of our childhood weeding fantasy, or our own marriage, our hopes for the future, etc. So how do you know you are triggered instead of just having an intense feeling? Another good question...
When triggered, you might get any of the following cognitive behavioral symptoms that tell other people something is off:
However, it can be challenging to observe these symptoms as trigger-related since self awareness is severely limited under duress. Thus, it helps to start with scanning the body for clues. Here are some physiological symptoms most people can track and relate to easily if they focus on it:
- head rush
- stomach pit,
- heart palpatations
- sweaty palms
- muscle tension
- shortness of breath
- feeling flush
In either case, you will be starting with retrospection as in-the-moment observations take practice. So look for experiences you have already had that left you feeling guilty or ridiculous about how you behaved. You might also ask trusted others what they think you over-react towards or are sensitve about, and consider what they say carefully.
Not all of our triggers are truama related of course, but If you think your experiences in life that were hard for you were "not that bad" or "other's have it worse" than it might be helpful to take a look at how trauma can affect the brain. After all, you are reading the post for some reason... Also reflect on your traumatic life experiences and ask yourself how those memories might still carry weight in how you see the world.
We don't generally bother with de-trigger for pleasant experiences, so let us focus on how to deal with an unpleasant or traumatic trigger. First and foremost, it is important to get back to the present. Thus using grounding exercises is really a great place to start. Here are a few simple ideas to try:
- Count backwards from 20
- Breathe deeply for 2 minutes
- List all the blue things around you (or any color you like)
- Have a hot beverage or eat an ice cube
Other ways to manage triggers that you can learn in therapy are as follows:
- Find the source
- Inner child work
- Meet your unmet emotional needs
- Name your feelings
- Create a trigger map
- somatic re-experiencing
- Bilateral Stimulation
- Mantra work
- Thought reconditioning
Please reach out to one of our therapist, or anyone else you have been considering, thisis your sign it's okay to need help.
MANTRA: I AM SAFE, I AM PRESENT, AND I CAN TAKE CARE OF MY NEEDS