What are triggers?
By now, you have probably heard (or used) the term “trigger” in casual conversation to refer to a certain type of experience. But what exactly is meant by this term? A basic definition is this: a trigger is any form of stimulus that evokes recall of a painful or traumatic event.
Most of the time, triggers refer to trauma, but for the sake of this article, I’m going to expand the definition to anything that prompts a strong or seemingly disproportionate emotional response. Such emotions include fear, anger, sadness, helplessness, guilt, and shame. The person who is triggered might be completely unaware of what is happening to them, and will “blame” their emotional response entirely on the situation at hand. This same person, however, might eventually gain some insight into their experiences and realize that their emotional reaction to certain events or situations has more to do with their past than with what is happening in the present moment.
Triggers can take the form of anything we experience through our five senses, such as a song, the feel of a fabric, or the sight of a particular object, person, or place. Scents, such as the smell of cologne, seem to provide especially strong emotional responses. But triggers can take many other forms as well. A time of day, an insult, and ordinary experiences can all be triggers. They occur because the situation at hand is associated in our mind, whether conscious or not, of a past event.
When we are triggered, our emotional response can range from mild to severe. For those who have experienced trauma, triggers can be debilitating. Panic attacks and even dissociative episodes can occur. When this happens, the experience is overwhelmingly painful, and therefore the person seeks to avoid their triggering situation. Unfortunately, this isn’t an effective strategy, as it doesn’t address the underlying problem and may actually result in an increase in symptoms over time.
Here are some examples of triggers. John grew up in a house with an authoritarian father with a bad temper. Rules were unreasonably strict, and subject to change with the father’s moods. As a result, John was “in trouble” a lot, even though his behavior didn’t warrant punishment most of the time. As a result, John lived with a near-constant sense of dread that worsened when it was time for his father to come home from work. Now, John is a functioning adult with a wife and kids of his own. To the outsider, everything looks fine, but John secretly struggles with mild anxiety and depression. However, certain situations cause John’s anxiety to spike dramatically. In particular, when John is informed that his boss (or any authority figure, especially males) wants to see him, John is filled with overwhelming feelings of anxiety and dread. Figuratively speaking, such experiences transport John back into the mind of the scared little boy who was in trouble. Most of the time, John’s interactions with his boss turn out just fine, yet the experience persists for years. Initially, John is completely unaware of why he reacts so strongly to the prospect of going before an authority figure, but with the help of a therapist, he makes the connection. This awareness doesn’t mean that he suddenly stops being triggered, but it allows him to work with the problem in a way that will eventually lessen both the intensity and duration of his emotional response.
Marie grew up the only child of a single mother. Money was tight, and Marie’s mother worked long hours. When she got home from work, she told Marie she was “too tired” to spend time with her. On the weekends, Marie was often left at home alone while her mother spent time with friends or going out on dates. While Marie’s basic physical needs were being met, her emotional needs were not. Now, as an adult, Marie tends to be clingy and demanding of her friends, often to the point of pushing them away. She is hyper-sensitive to anything that feels to her like she is being left out. When she is in fact excluded from some social or family event, she flies into a rage that is followed by feelings of almost unbearable sadness and loneliness. Like John, she spends years in this cycle with virtually no conscious awareness of why this is happening to her, and she sees the world as a hostile and untrustworthy place.
When Tina was eight years old, she was sexually abused by her uncle. The abuse went on for three years until the family moved to another state. Like the vast majority of abused children, Tina was too afraid to tell anyone what was happening, due to her uncle’s threats. During one episode of abuse, a particular song was playing on the radio. Now, as an adult, whenever Tina hears the song, she is overwhelmed with feelings of nausea, fear, and shame. Tina knows why this is happening, but she tells no one because her feelings of shame are too great, and she fears telling others will only make them worse. She tells herself that she is being stupid for reacting to the song, and tries without success to “get over it.” Her inability to do so leaves her feeling frustrated and broken.
Situations like these are extremely common. It’s likely the majority of us have some triggers, even if they are relatively mild and dismissed with labels like “pet peeve.” One thing most triggers have in common is their longevity. Left unaddressed, they can last a lifetime. Triggers create a great deal of suffering, not just while they are happening, but also in the form of frustration with oneself for not being able to simply make it stop happening. Many clients have expressed to me feelings of self-blame for their inability to overcome triggers through sheer will. One client told me recently, while describing a situation that was clearly triggering, “I let myself get all worked up.” This statement indicates how the client felt guilty for allowing herself to have what seemed to her like a disproportionately large emotional response.
Here’s the thing: it is simply not realistic for anyone to expect themselves to suddenly stop being triggered. That is impossible. In fact, doing so almost inevitably causes one to feel worse, because they are bound to fail. There is good news, however. With the right intervention, one can diminish the intensity and duration of their emotional response to triggers. And what is that intervention? Well, that’s the subject of my next article. Stay tuned!