Triggers and Programs
In my last post, “What are triggers?” I defined a trigger as any form of stimulus that evokes recall (usually unconsciously) of a painful or traumatic event. In this article, I wanted to explore more closely what happens when one is triggered.
If the trigger is an event that sets off an emotional reaction, then that reaction can be compared to a computer program that runs in the mind, consisting of powerful, often overwhelming thoughts and emotions. These emotions usually manifest in the body as physical sensations, such as rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, shallow breathing, chest pain, and other feelings that can be surprisingly powerful, and even frightening.
The most common “programs” that run when we are triggered include the I’m in trouble program, the I’m not good enough program, and the I’m about to be abandoned program. All of these are variations on the most common program of all, which we can call the There’s something terribly wrong with me program. At the heart of this program is the worst fear of all, other than the fear of death: the fear that I am so damaged that I am incapable of being loved. This core belief is responsible for a tremendous amount of emotional pain that we commonly label depression and anxiety.
How are these programs created? Most of them came into being during early life, when we were still forming our sense of identity. The programs contain beliefs about who we are that came to us as messages from others, mostly parents, as well as faulty conclusions we reached to help explain what was going on around us. Some of the messages we received came in the form of overt criticism, such as, “You’re never going to amount to anything,” “You can’t do anything right,” “I was happy until you came along,” “You’re the reason I’m an alcoholic,” and many others. Every one of those quotes is a real-life example of statements my clients were told by parents while they were children.
Other messages are not so overt, and often take the form of faulty conclusions. For instance, if a child is ignored by her parents, she will inevitably come to the conclusion, “I’m not important,” or, “I don’t matter.” That conclusion then becomes the core belief that drives a particular program that will be activated whenever that person, as a child and then as an adult, feels ignored or excluded.
Anything that is experienced as a traumatic event will almost certainly create a program in the mind of the traumatized person, as will any form of abuse or neglect. It is important to keep in mind that neglect, in particular, might not appear to the victim or to others to be “big enough” to cause such persistent problems. People who experienced neglect as a child, including emotional neglect, often don’t recognize and label their experiences as neglect. This leads people to believe that they don’t have a good enough reason to react and feel the way they do, so this reinforces the belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with their brain.
In most cases, when a person is triggered and their program begins to run immediately, they are aware only of the fact that they are experiencing pain and discomfort. The first impulse, naturally, is to fight what is happening. We try to escape the pain in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most common is to try to change the way we feel using logic and reason. We might say to ourselves statements like, “There’s no reason to be this upset,” or, “If I keep thinking about it, I’ll discover something that will calm me down.” This response is perfectly understandable, because why wouldn’t we want to change how we feel in such moments? There is a major problem, however, with these efforts, and that is this: they are doomed to fail. They simply don’t work. In fact, they often end up making things worse. Here’s why: Once a program gets kicked off in our mind, there’s virtually no stopping it until it runs its course. Mind programs are too deep and too powerful to defeat with mere logic. There is no force-quit option on this kind of program. Not knowing this, we try anyway, and when it doesn’t work, we blame ourselves in one (or both) of two ways: first, we tell ourselves we are not trying hard enough to change how we feel, so we keep trying different things. They don’t work either, so we come to a truly awful conclusion, which is I am too broken for this to work. This thought, which is unconscious most of the time, fills us with fear and despair. This is what the writer Eckhart Tolle refers to as the “pain-body.”
Over time, our original program develops a simultaneous sub-program that basically says, This shouldn’t be happening to me and it’s my fault that I can’t fix it. If we knew how much emotional pain that is caused by this thought, we would be shocked. Roughly speaking, it doubles the emotional pain we experience when we are triggered. I have found this to be present in almost every client who identifies one or more of their triggers.
Consider the following true story: Bob has just had an argument with his wife. There was no clear winner, and both sides withdrew from each other while the conflict hangs in the air between them. Bob decides he will go for a run, hoping the exercise and fresh air will clear his head. He suits up and heads out, his head spinning with thoughts and a feeling of nausea in his guts. He is aware of the fact that he hates the way he feels and he desperately wants it to go away. He runs for several blocks while his thoughts are in turmoil. His mind is grasping for anything that will make him feel better, but nothing works. Suddenly, Bob has an epiphany: I have been triggered.
In the space of a few seconds, everything changes. Bob realizes not only that he has been triggered, but that his abandonment program is running. He has talked with his therapist about it enough to know that this program has run dozens, if not hundreds of times in his head. But for the first time in his life, Bob’s abandonment program is running while he is fully aware of it. This has the seemingly miraculous effect of freeing him from feelings of guilt, despair, and shame. In the space of a heartbeat, his level of emotional pain is cut in half, because he is able to realize that What is happening is not my fault. What a liberating realization! Bob knows he doesn’t have to keep fighting the program; rather, he simply has to ride it out while observing it without judgment. His original program is still running, but without the accompanying guilt, it is much easier to tolerate. Bob thinks, I can’t wait to tell my therapist!
This wouldn’t have happened if Bob hadn’t reached a point where he could identify his particular triggers. Like millions of other people, Bob’s biggest trigger is an argument with his significant other, starting with his first girlfriend in high school. But his abandonment program was created long before that, in childhood. He has talked about it in therapy many times, but so far, nothing has lessened the frequency or duration of his emotional reactions to conflict with a girlfriend or spouse. Like virtually everyone, Bob has held onto the hope that he could somehow defeat his program with facts and logic. To this end, he has engaged in a lot of cognitive-behavioral therapy, wherein he has challenged some of his underlying assumptions, including “I’m not good enough,” among others. While his self-esteem has risen somewhat as a result of this kind of therapy, the intensity and duration of his trigger response has remained undiminished, until now.
This points out a major shortcoming of traditional cognitive-behavioral therapy. While CBT can be extremely helpful in some situations, it is much less effective at changing core beliefs that reside deep in our unconscious minds. These beliefs are too deeply-rooted, too stubborn, too insidious to be changed with mere logic. We try, and we fail. This attempt is being made all over the world, thousands of times a day. But it doesn’t work.
So what can we do? We are much better served by the practice of emotional mindfulness, as described above. This means the practice of becoming increasingly aware of our mental/emotional processes without judgment. Instead of doomed attempts to talk ourselves out of how we are feeling, we instead introduce qualities of curiosity, understanding, and, above all, compassion. Most of us are reasonably good at applying compassion when it comes to other people, while it often doesn’t even occur to us to use it on ourselves. This simply has to change, if we want to be happier people (and who doesn’t?).
If you want to start applying this kind of practice in your life, a good way to begin is to sit down with yourself (or someone you trust) and identify as many of your triggers as you can. Ask yourself, what are the situations that set me off, the ones that cause me to over-react in such a negative way? Some common ones are conflict or arguments with a significant other; being criticized, even if it’s constructive; feeling like you are being excluded, whether real or imaginary; having to go before an authority figure (“The boss wants to see you.”); making a mistake; as well as ordinary stress or just bad luck. These situations and many others can trigger us by activating old programs, which are always the result of experiences in our past.
Most of us can identify a couple of triggers without too much effort. That doesn’t mean we’ve discovered all of them, but it’s a good start. While we’re at it, we might also become aware of triggers in those around us, including family members, friends, and partners. We also might become aware of a significant shift in our attitude toward these things when we label them as triggers, rather than pet peeves or annoying over-reactions. For instance, a partner’s tendency to become angry and defensive when given feedback might be thought of as a deliberate and annoying attempt to evade responsibility; however, when it is seen for what it truly is, which is a conditioned response born out of pain, one’s attitude might shift from resentment to compassion. Nobody chooses to have these things. We didn’t ask for the conditions that created our triggers. We got the cards we were dealt, and we coped with them the best way we knew how at the time. This is universally true. So how angry do we need to be with ourselves and others? And while it is easy to judge, these responses are extremely difficult to overcome. Force of will doesn’t defeat them. It is only through compassion and understanding that we begin to heal.