WE ALL HAVE HOT BUTTONS OR TRIGGERS. Triggers are sensory reminders that cause painful memories or certain symptoms to resurface. If you have experienced a traumatic event, you likely remember certain sounds, smells, or sights related to that experience. Now, when you encounter these sensory reminders you may get a feeling of anxiety, unease, or panic. If you live with substance use disorder, where the smell of alcohol, paraphernalia, euphoric recall, or a certain scene can trigger your symptoms you need to be mindful of this.
A trigger can be any sensory reminder of the traumatic event: a sound, sight, smell, physical sensation, or even a time of day or season.
HOW DO TRIGGERS FORM?
A 2004 study revealed that your senses, e.g., sight, smell, sound, play a significant role in forming memories. One theory proposed that trauma-related triggers may feel so intense because your senses are highly involved. When you experience trauma, your brain tends to store the surrounding sensory stimuli to memory. Then, when you encounter these sensory triggers at a later stage, the brain may reactivate the feelings associated with the trauma. In some cases, you may not even be conscious of why you are afraid or upset.
Whether it’s a one-time event or a series of traumatic events, trauma affects each person differently. In fact, the same event could cause two people to respond completely differently. While one person might reach a point of acceptance about an unsettling experience, the other person might develop PTSD. This difference in response could be a result of a wide range of factors.
According to 2014 research, the way a traumatic event impacts an individual depends on several factors, including the:
Individual’s personality traits and sociocultural history.
Specific characteristics of the event.
Stage of the individual’s emotional development.
Meaning of the trauma to the individual.
Triggers are unique to each person. They can include:
Arguments or verbal disagreements.
Being ridiculed or judged.
Breakup of a relationship.
Certain sounds, sights, smells, or tastes related to the trauma.
Feeling left out or ignored.
Holiday or anniversary of a trauma or loss.
Loud voices or yelling.
Physical illness or injury.
Sexual harassment or unwanted touching.
Violence in the news.
WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT GETTING TRIGGERED?
You don’t choose to have the reactions we have. Triggering happens too quickly for our rational mind to intercept the amygdala’s command to activate the fight-or-flight response. You do, however, have choice about what happens next and how you respond to the trigger. Even though you’re triggered, you can create healthy behaviour by learning how to manage your emotional state.
Understanding the phenomenon of triggering and knowing your own triggers is an important first step.
Without awareness, you are at the mercy of your triggers. With awareness, you can begin to start making different choices when you are triggered. When triggered, your attention is riveted on the apparent cause of your trigger. You think we know what the problem is . . . it’s all about the other person or the external event!
You need to learn to recognise that the intensity of your reaction is not caused by the triggering event. These feelings, your core wounding and conditioning, already exist. A trigger is a response waiting to be stimulated. You may or may not need to do something to respond to the event that triggered you. Often, when you’re triggered, you’re unable to assess what’s needed or how to act effectively.
It is possible to learn how to manage your own reactivity in ways that limit the collateral damage that comes from reacting when you’re triggered. It is an important learning and behaviour in effectively, and sustainably managing your substance use, addictive behaviour, or mental health disorders. Reaction to emotions and the associated memories has led to many relapses!
MAPPING YOUR TRIGGERS
Triggering happens very quickly: a stimulus and then what seems like an instantaneous response. But there is a whole chain of associations and reactions that occurs within the moment of triggering.
The very first response is like an impulsive attempt to try to refute, push away or escape the stimulus. Hopefully you can pause long enough to monitor your thoughts and words, because the inner reactions are often things like.
“The hell with this!”
“I give up!”
“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.”
Getting triggered can be thought of like an elevator shaft:
The top floor is your very first reaction to the event.
Under this first reaction lies a second floor – a deeper, typically more vulnerable feeling.
Beneath that there are several more floors, each with a deeper, less readily accessible emotional and/or physical feeling.
Finally, we come to the basement, usually a core shock or wound often tracing all the way to our childhood. This core wound can be so sensitive, painful, and threatening, that you’re desperate to avoid feeling it.
The stimulation of this wound helps cause the amygdala to interpret the trigger as a life-or-death situation and initiate the fight-or-flight response. The core wound is what drives the whole pattern of getting triggered.
TRACING IT BACK: Once you have identified the whole pattern and the core wound, you want to examine how this sensitivity has recurred throughout your life, in other contexts and other relationships. You trace it back through time, looking for what appears to be the origin of this pattern – back to the earliest memory or memories of having felt this way.
You might find, using the above example, that defensiveness, and the resulting physical and emotional experiences are a recurring theme in your life. It might stem from childhood or adolescence when a parent questioned your academic or sporting performance. This might have made you feel that your parent’s love was conditional on your achievements, and this is where the defensiveness in adulthood stems from.
THE MAP: To help make these connections clear, your next bit of work is to draw a representation/map of your trigger associations.
For example, this might look like:
The Trigger: Someone in your life tells you that you’ve done something wrong or underachieved in a task or situation.
1st Floor: No! I didn’t!
2nd Floor: Nauseated and anxious.
3rd Floor: I’m not good at the things I do.
4th Floor: I’m not worthy or enough.
5th Floor: I’m not lovable.
Basement: I’m unlovable and will always be alone.
Tracks back to: Judging Parent - Their love was conditional on my performance and achievements.
Once you have completed the map below, go back through your life to other times, places, and relationships where you have experienced similar patterns of feeling. Keep going back until you arrive at what seems like the earliest memory/memories you have of this pattern. It might be one memory or a series of experiences from a particular time in your life.
Use the table or create a map that shows your triggers and how they can be traced back to core wounds in your life. These triggers may be associated with the reasons that you reach for substances or engage in unhealthy behaviours to minimise, numb, or escape from challenging, uncomfortable, or difficult feelings. Of course, you might need support from your coach, therapist, or someone close to you in order to be able to process this if it becomes too challenging, unsettling, or difficult.
All of us get triggered.
Your emotional buttons get pushed.
Your ability to think gets hijacked by the flight-or-fight response.
The things you do and say when you’re triggered can possibly make situations worse.
In recovery, especially early recovery, whilst you are creating new habits and developing healthier behaviours, being triggered can have negative outcomes. Being triggered means that memories are activated which can involve the use of substances or the engagement in certain behaviours as a learned response to overcoming difficult, uncomfortable emotions. You may feel out of control. The recovery goals you are working so hard to achieve can be undermined. People can be hurt.
You don’t have a lot of choice about whether you get triggered. Remember, your triggers wire deeply into your upbringing, experience, and history. You do have choice about what happens next.
You can learn how to manage yourself when we’re triggered and respond to situations in a healthy, mature way and not act out unhealthy, dysfunctional behaviours. You want to learn to respond from your prefrontal cortex and the frontal lobes of the brain in a mature, measured way so that you can make choices and decisions based on the present moment, rather than react to the situation based on memories and past experiences.
In the words of the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tsu,
“Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving until the right action shows itself?”
Managing our own state of being should become a core competency in your recovery toolbox. A powerful tool for developing this mastery is the 4-step practice of state-shifting.
State-shifting is the practice of learning to consciously shift your energy out of your triggered state to allow your neo-cortex to re-establish control. In recovery, you want to learn to do this as quickly as possible, so that you can respond appropriately to triggering situations.
The essence of the state-shifting practice is cultivating a discipline of not (re)acting when triggered, and rather pausing. Then using any one of several tools to bring yourself back to a state of presence, balance, and inner clarity. The practice will help achieve better results in your recovery and avoid the collateral damage that usually comes from acting when triggered.
There are four steps to the state-shifting practice:
Naming your triggers might be difficult initially. Pay attention to the physical symptoms of being triggered. Once you start to recognise these sensations, you will become better at taking the next steps so that you can move through the trigger situation and respond rather than react to what is upset, unsettling, challenging, or even overstimulating for you.
There are many different tools that you can use to reconnect with your executive thought functions and help you come back online. For these tools to be effective, you need to start practising them whenever you feel even the slightest bit triggered. Don’t wait until you are caught up in a tsunami of challenging emotions, completely disconnected from yourself and your ability to think clearly and consciously.
How does your body feel when you are triggered?
Being more in touch with your physical symptoms of trigger and knowing what it is that triggers you, are important to being able to overcome difficult, stressful situations. As you become more adept at handling these upsetting situations, your window of tolerance will start to expand, and you will be better able to work with what upsets you.
When you get triggered by people, events, and situations, you will be more capable of returning to a state of presence, rather than being controlled by your fight-or-flight responses. This will ensure that you are better equipped to overcome your triggers responsibly and you won’t feel pulled towards using substances or acting out to avoid feeling uncomfortable and unsettled.
Being triggered is not about using or acting out, it’s about challenging emotional experiences that activate memories or neural pathways that are associated with your unhealthy, addictive patterns. It is possible to learn to cope effectively when you feel triggered and not get caught up in the memories of how you have acted in the past when you felt similar emotions.
It’s not about NOT getting triggered. It’s about learning to deal with your triggers in a healthy, responsive way when you do.
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