Triggers, understanding reacting -v- responding

You know when someone has pushed your button! It triggers feelings or emotions that rise up that just feel awful. Someone or something has reminded you of a person(s), or past event, or a bad time in your life. It’s something that we don’t like to think about as it brings up feelings of fear, anger, shame, sadness.

A lot of the time we don’t know what is going on for us until we have had time to think about it. The trigger itself can be something completely innocuous. Yet, it has triggered something that can leave you bemused or ready to fight and every uncomfortable feeling in between.

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What does it mean to be Triggered?

Childhood experiences that have left you feeling confused, sad, rejected, abandoned – anything that was painful enough for you to push down.

The more serious wounding like abandonment or sexual or physical abuse or poverty is also scarring to a child. So devastating in fact we have to split parts of ourselves off and bury them deeply.

In those moments of fright or terror, we go into freeze, flight, or fight. It’s the way the old part of the brain processes danger and is attempting to survive that danger.

It is not only front-line services that can suffer from PTSD but anyone who has believed they are in danger or shocked and disturbed by being a witness. For severe trauma, flashbacks can happen with no warning and are distressing. Less traumatic, but still distressing are sounds, smells, and touch.

Who Triggers these overwhelming feelings?

Family members:
Parents or siblings always seem to know what to say or do that will make your head feel as though it’s exploding.

People in authority:
People who have a certain amount of power over you, an employer for example. You feel you have little choice but to do what they say. Powerlessness or feeling unimportant may emerge so might anger.

Social media can bring up feelings of not good enough that everyone is having a good time except for you. It can bring up feelings of being excluded or invisible.

Film or tv that has a story or situation that you have experienced. Often you see a message warning people of triggering storylines.

Some common triggers

  • Your partner dismisses your opinion as stupid that brings back all the times you felt that way at home or school. You already hold the belief you are stupid and this confirms it.
  • Your boss speaks to you in a way that brings back the harsh, bullying tone of a teacher. It takes you back to being small and feeling frozen at the huge grown-up who shouted at you.
  • A work colleague teases you about a mistake you have made. It makes you feel as you did when an older sibling ridiculed you. You feel young and powerless.
  • Witnessing someone being bullied or threatened can take you back to when that happened to you. You find yourself unable to move.
Mental health

How do we avoid triggers?

  • We are nice, a people pleaser in the hope we don’t trigger someone’s anger.
  • Compliant in the hope that people will not leave us. We want to avoid the pain of abandonment at all cost.
  • We shut down when things become too intense or too intimate. Much like an animal when there is a predator nearby will play dead.
  • Compulsive behaviour, alcohol, drugs, pornography, food. We do this in order not to feel the emptiness or trauma we are carrying.
  • The psyche is trying to find a way to heal something from a long time ago. We are always trying to find parts of ourselves that we had to split off or banish. This was imperative because it is too painful to feel them. The loss of these parts may add to the loneliness we already feel in our life.

What you can do to ease emotional disruption?

  • Begin to unpick memories and understand what is happening. By working with a therapist who can help you trace back the roots of the trigger.
  • Reading self-help books. This can be very helpful for you to know that what you experiencing is not unusual and reading about people who have walked the same path can be inspirational and comforting.
  • Practice being mindful. Paying attention to your thoughts and what is happening in your body. This does take some effort and patience. Triggers can be overwhelming.
  • The most healing thing we can do for ourselves is to work to have a relationship with ourselves. Learning and working with the parts of ourselves that we had to banish. Practicing kindness and compassion.
  • Learning to be a good mother or father to ourselves can be hard at first like anything we try for the first time. Over time we can learn to have a good relationship with ourselves and in turn with others.

Is it possible to have more kindness and compassion for ourselves?

Yes, it is possible but it takes time and patience.

We need to understand our internal critic or judge. To understand the harshness we sometimes feel towards ourselves. Why we react with anger or frustration instead of responding thoughtfully. This work is best conducted with a therapist but if that feels too much think about joining a group. Sometimes we need to learn to trust others before we can heal – a group or a therapist can help.

Image of horses comforting each other. Equine-Assisted Therapy (EAT) very effective for a host of emotional issues.
Equine-Assisted Therapy (EAT) very effective for a host of emotional issues.

If you find yourself overwhelmed with feelings and memories look for someone who can help. You can find counsellors and therapists who are registered with BACP to advise.

I am registered with the BACP and work as a Psychosynthesis Counsellor and EFT Practitioner.