The word trigger has become increasingly commonplace in our day to day language, but really, what are triggers and how can we best handle them?
A trigger happens when a current experience of discomfort touches on an old inner wound. This current experience of discomfort then reignites the old uncomfortable feeling(s) or experience(s), the unprocessed wound(s), or trauma(s). Negative thought patterns then get stirred and this often comes with a strong physical, emotional, and mental response. This response overwhelms the nervous system and is not necessarily congruent with the current uncomfortable experience, or trigger.
A trigger is experienced in the present and can be something someone says, doesn’t say, a look, a smell, a physical sensation, a tone of voice, or anything else that then stimulates the memory networks connected to the unprocessed trauma(s) or old wound(s) and brings up subconscious negative internalized beliefs about ourselves, such as I am unsafe, I am inadequate, I am unworthy, I am in danger and so on. The nervous system responds as if we are in danger. There is a big difference between being upset and being triggered.
When triggered, we temporarily regress back to that feeling state associated with unprocessed emotions or experiences and the nervous system takes over as form of self-protection. This response plummets us into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode. This usually happens without the ability to think it through, it is an automatic reactionary response to re-experiencing the old wounds of the past tied up into the present triggering experience. This is a survival instinct to avoid suffering and danger.
This nervous system response to a trigger is something that luckily, we can begin to manage more effectively with self-awareness and learning to regulate our nervous systems more effectively. It takes a whole lot of effort and consistent practice, but it is possible. If you have deeper trauma, it is helpful to do this with the support of a therapist who practices from an evidence-based, trauma informed approach. If you suffer from PTSD, while some of this information may be useful, I highly recommend working with a therapist who specializes in PTSD as the trigger responses are likely more extreme and automatic and may be challenging to process on your own.
Self-awareness is the key to understanding and learning to redirect our triggers. Without awareness, we cannot change. With awareness, we can begin to see our own patterns and begin to make small, incremental changes that lead towards more self-regulation of our nervous systems. With increased awareness and coping strategies, we can develop the ability to respond to the trigger versus being thrown into the automatic reactionary impulse of fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.
Gaining self-awareness takes a willingness to investigate our own reactionary behavior patterns when triggered. Journaling about triggers, keeping a “trigger log” and taking copious notes about all of the details related to what you experienced— what it was, who it was, why it was, and very importantly, what it brought up for you that is old and from your past. Having this information gives you a place to begin. Taking notes about your response to being triggered, what was happening in your body, your mind, your breath during and after the trigger, this is where your self-awareness begins to grow. Once you have some data, you can begin to consider where to intervene with these occurrences and experiences in a way that supports your growth.
One way you can begin to understand your own triggers more effectively is to know what reaction it causes within you when you feel triggered. These are the negative internalized beliefs, negative cognitions or negative thought patterns that can loop in our brains based on early childhood experiences. The messaging we took in about our self-worth in these experiences as well as what we witnessed in the behaviors of our caretakers. We’ve picked these beliefs up and respond to them as if they are true, this self-awareness work is about beginning to understand that it is old, and to begin to challenge the messaging and eventually re-writing with the language that is actually true, useful and empowering.
Some examples of negative cognitions/negative internalized beliefs are:
I am not good enough
I am not worthy
I am powerless
I am helpless
I am not in control
I am a bad person
There is something wrong with me
I am a disappointment
I am a failure
I am inadequate
I am different and don’t belong
I am unlovable
I can’t trust anyone
I am unsafe
I can’t trust myself
I have to be perfect to be loved
The list can go on and on, however these are some of the most common negative cognitions that are experienced by many people. When we are triggered, if there are experiences in the past that have made us feel this way about ourselves, we can get stuck in a pattern of negative self-talk, or have a trauma response that makes us feel that this negative cognition or feeling state is indeed true. If we don’t learn how to manage these negative cognitions it can lead to compensatory, self-sabotaging behaviors such as using food, substances, mindless activities or anything else to avoid the discomfort that is experienced in mind and body. Emotional soothing with food or any other emotional numbing is only a temporary release and leads to increased negative feelings about ourselves. When we become the observer of the trigger and understand where it came from, we can begin to take our nervous systems back and learn to create and offer more self-compassion.
Over time, with self-awareness and practice we can create a new internalized belief structure such as:
I am good enough
I am worthy
I am powerful, or I own my power, or I now have choices
I am strong
I am now in control
I am a good person, or I am learning and growing every day, or I forgive myself
I am ok just the way I am
I accept myself as I am
I can succeed
I am enough
I am unique, or I am ok just as I am
I am lovable, or I deserve love
I can choose whom I trust
I am safe, or in this moment I am safe
I am learning to trust myself, or I trust myself
I am ok as I am
When we practice accessing and internalizing these positive cognitions we can create a more compassionate relationship with ourselves. With practice and continued self-awareness we can soften the triggers and begin to operate outside of these negative, faulty beliefs. The most effective way to begin to re-write our internal language is to practice. Have the statement that is more useful, true and positive available at all times. Write it down, send it to yourself as a reminder on your phone, practice saying it out loud. Once we build this deeper awareness, we can begin to practice regulating our nervous systems in a way that leads to better self-regulation. Some of the most effective time we can spend is practicing learning these very skills and tools.
Breathing practices, meditation, mindfulness, thought work, movement, somatic awareness and embodiment, journaling, regular self-care, self-compassion practices, and talking through challenges with someone you trust are all great places to start. There are many forms of therapy that help to address thoughts and faulty beliefs and nervous system regulation if you feel you could benefit from further support as you heal. If you are someone who suffers from feeling triggered frequently, I hope you will pick one area to begin your journey towards deeper self-awareness and see where it leads. Spend time reflecting on whatever practices you may choose and notice the impact.
As you grown in your self-awareness and empowerment, you will begin to change the language of how you communicate your triggers with others. You can begin to shift your language from victim mode, “you triggered me” to self-ownership mode, “I was triggered when___________.” When we take responsibility we feel more empowered to choose our responses and less helpless and hopeless that change is possible. If someone else is in control of our responses we can’t truly believe in our capacity for change. However, if we are the ones beginning to learn to take control of our reactions and responses we take our power back and gain confidence in our capability for change. This increases our inner strength over time. It will not be an easy process. It requires a great deal of time, self-awareness, practice and more practice. It also does not mean we won’t get triggered in a way that is uncomfortable or even unmanageable at times. When you learn self-regulation, self-soothing and nervous system awareness and stabilization skills that change how you relate to any triggers, it will be life changing. When you are in control of your reactions and have this level of self-awareness you are becoming truly self-empowered.