August 8, 2005

Being Triggered

If someone is walking down the street, scents a pie baking, and is reminded of pleasant evenings at home, that smell is a trigger because it brings up personal associations and feelings that have nothing to do with what is going on in the present moment.

However, the word "trigger" is more generally reserved for negative experiences. There are many ways of feeling triggered:

Some communities, out of fear, punish people who accidentally trigger others. They may kick people out, or simply argue for days about what was meant by a particular comment. But others take the opposite position, advising people not to expect any trigger warnings and instead to "own their triggers."

Owning your triggers means not blaming others for triggering you. It means working to recognize when your emotions are out of proportion to what is going on, and learning not to take old issues out on others. It means learning to distinguish between being triggered because of someone else's inappropriate behavior, and being triggered by something that's appropriate in the present but brought up something terrible from the past. It's a great example of the kind of healing that can be achieved through our triggers.

Triggers can be tremendously freeing. They are a source of information about what happened to us in the past. If I am committed to my own recovery, I can check in with myself regularly to see what's causing problems in my life. I can notice that certain situations always make me feel tremendous anxiety or anger, and realize that that is one of the big signs that I'm triggered. I might notice that when I'm triggered, I almost stop breathing, or that I have problems focusing my eyes. That can give me the power to realize that I'm triggered and avoid the triggering situation until I've figured out how to deal with it.

It can also give me the power to notice these symptoms in other situations and realize right away when I'm triggered, instead of making an assumption like, "I'm really angry. This person must be acting like a total asshole." Eventually, I can even develop a list of my own triggers and learn to automatically separate my past issues from what's going on right now -- and ultimately defuse the triggers entirely.

Just about everyone has some kind of triggers, whether they experience rape flashbacks or anger at behavior similar to an ex-partner's. And everyone can learn a lot about their past experiences from their triggers. For example, if Jane gets infuriated at a chronically late employee, she may realize that the employee reminds her of her mother, who was always late to Jane's rugby games. This give Jane the opportunity to separate employee and mother in her mind, and to remember that now she has the power to set boundaries and get her needs met.

Being triggered offers another opportunity, too: it gives me the chance to practice compassion toward myself. I believe that compassion is the antidote to abuse and other traumas. One of the main ways that I deal with body memories or overwhelming emotions from the past, for example, is to pay attention to what I am feeling as if this information were coming from someone else. I try to accept what my feelings tell me about what I've experienced, and to give myself (and to finally experience) the compassion that I was denied as a child. It helps me act as an adult instead of lashing out like a wounded child.

Finally, triggers are a great opportunity to get support and reality checks. When I notice that I'm feeling triggered, I get to gather information, ("Huh, I was looking at Disney stickers and they made me feel really nauseous. What do you think it means?") or to ask for help, ("My kid keeps on bugging me to play legos and it's driving me crazy! What should I do?") or to learn things about myself. ("My boss is driving me crazy! She keeps asking when I'll be done! Is it normal to be this pissed off about it?")

If we accept and learn from our triggers instead of fighting and avoiding them, they can help us transform and become safe, happy, and healthy. It's all in how we look at them.

comment on this piece. (c) 2005 catherine h.