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Therapy Lingo

Being Triggered

Most folks don't really understand what being triggered is all about, let alone recognize when they've been triggered.

To learn how to avoid being triggered, click through to my movie: Being Triggered.

So, what's a trigger?

Well, it's anything inside of us or in our environment that evokes a strong physiological and/or emotional response. It can be something we see, smell, feel, sense, and/or hear that strongly impacts us--for good or ill.

You've probably had this experience.

music floods us with memories

You hear a piece of music you love and you're suddenly flooded with warm memories. You feel exactly as you did then, maybe with the same emotions and sensations. It's like your body is being transported back in time.

You were triggered.

Normally, however we think of being triggered in negative terms because uncomfortable responses are the ones we notice and struggle with.

Triggers and you

Just so you know, triggers are relative to your personal history. What is triggering for you may not be for your friend.

For instance, if you've been in a car accident when you've been making a left hand turn, you might recognize the following as you later approach an intersection and signal left:

  • Your heart rate speeds up.
  • Hands grip the steering wheel.
  • Eyes open wide.
  • You're struggling to concentrate.
  • Feeling overwhelmed.
  • And, your body is tight and braced.

In a situation like this, the anxiety and alertness you experience is understandable. In fact, you may even anticipate it.

Yet, we can also be triggered and not know why. In instances such as these we're being triggered nonconsciously. And, without an obvious explanation, these triggered responses tend to be more difficult to tolerate…not to mention, disorienting and disturbing.

How to recognize when you're being triggered?

Let's refer to the above example and notice the post-accident signs.

triggered driver

Yup, that's right, most of them are body-based.

When we're triggered it automatically shows up in the body. In fact, it shows up even before our mind consciously registers it. That's just the way we're wired.

Triggers can be difficult to identify

Triggers tend to hover under the radar, hanging out in the nonconscious mind.

Let me explain.

Let's say you're watching a movie and a scene plays wherein the female character is alone in her home and a break-in is in progress.

The next thing you notice, you're up checking on the laundry. Seemingly odd, but is it? If you pause to reflect for a moment, it might appear rather strange, even uncharacteristic, that as this scene unfolds, you feel an urgent need to attend to your laundry.

Girl, you just got triggered! (Ain't distraction grand!)

More seriously, we tend to associate our agitation or irritability with whatever seems plausible in the moment. And, this is how nature intended it.

Here's how it works

The brain is organized to constantly make connections between what's happening on the inside and outside in the world around us. It does this so that we can more reliably predict the future and with that, ensure our survival.

Whenever we experience a trauma, the brain remembers necessary aspects so it can prompt us to avoid a reoccurrence of the event. These reminders may only need to be remotely related. Each aspect of the event is registered as an emotional charge in the brain.

Of course, we're not often aware of it. In the above example, as the woman watches the movie scene, feelings and sensations related to her own experience are evoked. All she knows is that doing the laundry feels right at the time.

By the way, doing the laundry may seem a little unusual to some folks.

doing laundry is a resource

But think about it. Freshly dried clothes feel warm, they smell great and there's a sense of accomplishment in the folding. It's a quick, satisfying way to ground. It's a self-soothing strategy, a resource.

For other folks, popcorn fills the bill. Go figure…we are all so unique with how we manage.

Not the end of the story…

Lest you think there's no light at the end of the tunnel, here's some good news. The more conscious we are, the easier it is to recognize what's triggering us. Not surprisingly, it's also a heck of a lot easier to self-care during these moments.

…and, as you may recall, counseling is one of the fastest ways of moving towards greater consciousness.

~ myShrink has teamed up with our Sponsor ~

Get it off your chest...talk to a counselor now.jpg

Editor's Note

Just so you know, the concept of "being triggered" is relative, meaning our responses fall on a continuum. They fall between high and low intensity and positive and negative affect. We may be jolted into a state of fear by the sound of squealing tires or cued into feeling calm and peaceful by viewing the beauty of a sunset.

We are triggered by the environment all the time, often in very mundane ways. We're cued by the smell of coffee first thing in the morning, the sound of rain hitting against the window pane and the feel of a cold chill against our skin. Our environment speaks to us 24/7 and each experience triggers a response in us...sometimes big, sometimes not so big.

Here's what happens when being "triggering" is taken to the next level smiley-wink.gif

How to get rid of triggers?

Simply stated, you lower your level of activation. The lower your activation the less likely you will be set off by anything remotely related to your original truama.

However, to deal with a trigger head on takes a more precise approach. When you're emotionally maxed, you're more likely to be triggered. I explain more in my movie: http://budurl.me/BeingTriggered.

It requires lowering the arousal pattern associated with the trigger. It means taking one step at a time, one day at a time, and hopefully working with a therapist who helps you untangle the fear from the trauma triggers.

Reviewed by: Coquitlam Psychologist Dr. Carole Gaato

Related Topics

Flashbacks

Mind Body Psychotherapy

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Reader Comments

Helen (NJ, USA)

Father's day just passed, and I was on facebook talking to a friend. He began sharing some stuff about his dad being in the War. As it turned out, our Dads have similar stories. He began sharing a negative experience he had the night before his dad died. I was trying to listen, understand, and console. Then my friend disappeared from facebook- just like that - no warning - just gone. I began getting very anxious about him - about something happening to him. Talked to others - getting a bit upset about it.

This morning I realized that not only is this week my Dads birthday, but also the anniversary of his death. His death was not expected. When he was dying - no one could get in touch with me because I was working in an area with no cell service, so by the time I found out, he was already gone.

Could it be that the anxiety I feel for my friend was/is triggered by the events surrounding my dads death? Is this what it is like to be triggered?

Helen

Hi Helen.

I'm so sorry to hear about you're father's death and that you weren't able to be there with him at the time of his passing. And, now being aware of the anniversary of his birth and death...that's a hard one.

And yes, it could easily be the case that you were triggered by your friend's stories about his Dad as they are similar to your own.  Supercharged events such as the sudden death of a loved one are not recorded by the brain like ordinary memories. That is, the body-mind can  non-consciously "remember" feelings and sensations associated with negative or traumatic events - hence we are vulnerable to being "triggered" into feelings and not know where they came from.

In fact, the memory of such events is stored in a different place in the brain where there is less chance of decay (i.e. memory loss). The brain is organized this way apparently because it helps us to avoid situations in future that might be "harmful" to us i.e. those that bring up feelings of overwhelm and anxiety in the body-mind.

The problem is that we don't always know the source of what triggered us. The details of a memory related to an event might have disappeared, yet the emotional sensations are still there. We just can't access them easily. In your case Helen, I think that you are onto something...that there is a connection between your anxiety for your friend and the events around your father's death.

A bottom line is if we're feeling out of sorts and don't know why, trusting the body can help. We don't just make up distress. It arises from a real event.

Hope that clarifies things for you Helen, and thanks again for posting,

Shrinklady



Ismini (Athens, Greece)

Beautiful article, Suzanne, Very helpful and very easy to understand.


vincent (wilmington, united states)

I get sad alot when i see death on tv and stuff see my grandpa died and i got over it but i still get sad. why do u think this is?

Vincent

Hello Vincent, thanks for your question. When folks say they "get over" something, they often mean they stop thinking about it. Whatever loss they experienced, just stops popping into their head.

But this is different then truly getting over a loss.  If we haven't moved through our emotions related to a loss, then chances are we're not done. People can override their feelings so they mistakenly assume they're "over it".

Now, it's not to say, you haven't gotten over the death of your grandfather. It just may be possible that you had other losses in your life (e.g. loss of an attuned connection with one of your parents when you were an infant). And, it's these losses that are being triggered. They may also be adding energy to the loss of your grandfather as well.

As I mentioned, in the article on grief and counseling, the more loss we have had and the earlier that loss, the harder it will be for us to move through it.

One clue is when you watch scenes of death. If your grandfather flashes into mind, then it just may be you haven't sufficiently dealt with it yet.

I guess the next question you might have is "how do I now get over it".

Well Vincent, I can't imagine getting over anything that significant without the help of someone else. We need each other. Being around a safe friend or therapist while we experience our feelings of loss, helps us to move through the emotions, and by doing so, allows us to let them go.

I hope you have both in your life.

Hope that helps,

Shrinklady


Anne (Grandview, MO, USA)

When someone says something that's painful to me, or I see something that causes internal pain, everything goes blurry, then it appears that everything is going by me about 100 miles per hour then everything goes black for a moment or two, then I'm back with the pain.

Is that being triggered? How do I ground myself during that?

Thank you

Anne

Well, that sounds terribly uncomfortable Anne. My first thougths are that "going blurry" sounds like you're being flooded. And, in that case, it might be helpful to read about dissociation and see if it fits for you.

The fast movement you describe leads me to think you might be triggered into a response related to a specific trauma (like a mini re-experiencing of an event). The higher our activation, the more likely we will get tripped into a trauma response.

I'd encourage you to see a therapist and espeically one that's trained in a body-based model (i.e. a body psychotherapist). For one, they could observe how you're experiencing it at the time. And for another, if we're being triggered by so many experiences, lowering our level of activation will make it less likely to be triggered in future.

BTW, I have found some trauma responses to disappear even without any identification of the specific event...thankfully, that's just the way the brain is wired.

I'm also going to run this by a colleague to see if she has anything to add. If she does, I'll post it here.

Take care,

Shrinklady

 


allie (rogers)

i feel really sad b/c my dog got hit by a car several yrs ago and i still feel guilty but why do i still feel guilty? i dont understand

allie

Thank-you Allie for sharing this. Feelings about our pets are often strong as the love between is unconditional and for many of us this is a "longed for" experience. This safe, heart-felt connection with another life form can feel deeply profound.

So when a pet dies tragically this can lead to grief lingering even months or years later. We can also feel guilty over not being able to protect our pets from events that are outside our control.

It might be helpful to look at it this way.

As you may have read elsewhere on the site, our behaviours and feeling states are patterned in early infancy and the strength of them (i.e. how entrenched they are) shows up in our adult lives. In fact, our responses to current events may be piggybacking on earlier experiences.

For instance, while I empathize with your feelings of loss, their lingering suggests to me that your grief may be connected with other losses related to your past. So, it could be that previous losses are adding energy to your grief for your dog, making it difficult for you to let go of your pet.

It's also important to understand that guilt is a "learned" response. Somewhere along the line you may have learned to take responsibility for things that were not yours to take on.

As I have suggested, patterns like these are most likely learned in infancy.

Because the nervous system is rapidly developing early on, what is learned first is stronger then what is learned later on. Early experiences have the potential for impacting us in a greater way.

Because these patterns are set down in the right brain you've probably discovered that trying not to think about (a left brain strategy) the loss of your pet doesn't work. What can be helpful however is working with a therapist to discover the connections between past experiences and this loss to help you let go of, and yet still remember, your beloved pet.

Hope that helps to explain some of it,

Take care,

Shrinklady


Scott

How can therapy help unravel the triggers? What are some practical guidelines on how to deal with triggers in the moment? Good article!

Scott

Thanks for your question Scott. In short, the way I know best--and as a body psychotherapist--is to ground oneself through small doses of the fear related to the trigger. In this way, the intensity of the fear response will start to diminish. The nervous system will, in effect, learn how to manage the charge from the trigger.

And, this point is critically important and one that a trained body psychotherapist would appreciate: If you experience too much of the fear, there's a good chance you'll get flooded. This will make it harder to move through the fear, particularly if you are on your own as you do it. It is more effective with a therapist or a caring, loving partner.

Feeling small doses of our fear response is sometimes hard but there are things you can do. For instance, if you know the trigger you can just imagine it. Fear will automatically be evoked in your body.

So, how do you ground?

You can use a resource to reduce the charge in the body. This is very individualistic of course.

So, if you're triggered by spiders (that's what get's me), then you might look at a picture of a spider and work through the sensations that emerge in your body. For instance, if I wanted to work on it, maybe I could look at scarier pictures and perhaps even touch a rubber spider.smiley-surprised.gif

So in the meantime, when I'm startled by a spider and my nervous system amps up, I bring awareness to the sensations I'm experiencing in my body. Then, I attempt to ground.

What I find helpful for me is being aware of the contact of my feet on the ground if I'm outside or feeling my butt in the chair at home. At that moment, the spider is less of a trigger and I'm one step closer to No Fear!

Baby steps, yep, baby steps.

Hope this clarifies it Scott.

Shrinklady

Sounds like you had a rough day! Thanks for replying... good stuff.
S et all

(In this last post, Scott was referring to my own triggering experience. Read about it here in Emotional Meltdown.)


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