Your partner says something to you in a condescending and dismissive tone. A close friend cancels the plans you’ve made together at the last minute. A driver jumps the line at an intersection and flips you off when you honk. Minor annoyances, but hardly felonies, right? But in an instant you’re trembling and sweating, your blood pressure is rising and you’re hyperventilating. Whatever you’re feeling – whether it’s hurt, anxiety, rage, shame – it’s intense and destabilizing. And then you’re shouting, arguing, insulting, hiding, crying, or otherwise reacting defensively.
We all have triggers – hot buttons which, when pushed, set off intense emotional responses that are not proportionate to the situation at hand. It happens because we were all children once. When we were growing up, we inevitably experienced pain or suffering that we couldn’t do anything about, or, in some cases, even acknowledge. So, as adults, we become triggered when experiences tap a fault line that leads back to those times and opens our core vulnerabilities. Here’s one example of how this works:
Erin’s trigger is anyone’s anger or disapproval. Her mother was a rage-aholic, and both of her parents were relentlessly critical. Now, she’s triggered when anyone gets angry or even disapproves of her, and she relives the same helpless panic, loneliness, shame, and hopelessness that she felt as a little girl. These feelings are so excruciatingly painful that she’ll do almost anything to get away from them. Flying into rages herself is one way she distracts herself from feeling helpless; addiction to alcohol and food are two other methods.
To be triggered is to go into a kind of trance state. You’re no longer living in the present moment, but in a kind of dream of the past that you mistake for the present. If feelings of being in danger have been triggered, for instance, it can be very difficult not to believe that you are in great danger now, no matter how safe you actually are.
What’s the best way to respond when you realize that you’re being triggered? This may sound strange for a therapist to say, but the first thing to understand is that it’s important to you make sure that you don’t ‘share your feelings.’ What I mean is, the more you try to discuss what’s going on with you with the person who triggered you, the more you’re likely to work yourself up into even more of a froth, and the more likely you are to make matters worse with the other person. That’s because, when you’re triggered, you go into emergency mode. You’re flooded with stress hormones, and you’re not responding from your rational forebrain, but from the more primitive threat centers. Attempts at “honest communication” when you’re in that state will likely just devolve into combativeness. Your first priority really needs to be to get to a place of safety, usually by absenting yourself from the situation.
The next order of business is to reduce the internal agitation. One practice that can be helpful is to do some slow, deep breathing, making sure that your exhalations are twice as long as your inhalations.
Only when your nervous system is returning to equilibrium and you’re starting to feel calmer does it become possible to be self-reflective. When that happens, you might try asking yourself “What age am I right now?” If the trigger is a specific trauma, you may find that your mind will float right back to that specific event, and you’ll immediately understand what you’ve been reacting to. More often, though, the trigger isn’t a single event, but a cluster of events, or a trauma-inducing life situation, such as a parent’s depression or addiction. In that case, your mind might float back to that time-period of time in your life, and you’ll vividly remember the “feel” of an entire era.
In any case, you only start to emerge from the trance that triggering induces when you can step back from the heat and drama of the moment and zero in on what’s happening in the background. When you begin to become conscious in this way, you acquire a capacity to understand and to heal those early wounds and bring that child that you once were to the sense of love and safety that he or she may have longed for all of your life.