The Trouble with Triggers

image by Karen Muktayani Villanueva

Suddenly, almost without warning, I can be somewhere else–at a different time, a different place. It’s like I’m whisked away, held hostage and traveling, strapped into the seat of an involuntary time machine.

Except it’s not in a silver DeLorean.

And I’m not aiming to save my very existence by ensuring my teenage parents fall in love at their high school Enchantment-Under-the-Sea dance.

No. It’s more likely I’m witnessing something uncomfortable in present time (for me, usually conflict—either within myself, between myself and other(s), or outside of me completely, between people that I care about), and I react from a time, place, and context when I’m very young and fearful of being abandoned, hurt, harmed, or shamed by someone close to me as a result of conflict.

The definition of being triggered is acting and reacting (unconsciously or subconsciously) to a situation in present time, from a time and place in one’s own history that is unresolved in some way. It’s like you are reacting to a person or situation that is not the one that is actually before you and are (here’s the kicker), for the most part, unaware that you are doing it.

Being triggered is a part of the human experience. Most of us have some unfinished business or unattended (or unattenuated) broken-ness that needs mending and healing which stems from our childhoods. So, the fact that triggers exist at all is not the problem. The trouble with triggers is the unconscious part of them. The trouble with triggers is the amount of time that we can spend in a triggered space.  The trouble with triggers are the automatic reactions that come from this unconscious state.

When we are in a triggered state, we are literally not in our “right minds”. When we are feeling triggered, we are functioning at the brain stem level. Any higher processing that involves our frontal lobes of the brain, those responsible for critical thought, language, logic, etc. gets hijacked by our lower brains, responsible for keeping us alive, in the coarsest sense. When we are operating from our brain stems, our survival instinct rules, giving us limited options for action when we are triggered:  fight or flight.

We are unable to access our compassion, empathy, wisdom, or kindness in a triggered state. And, the longer we stay in a triggered, unconscious state, the more time we have to make poor choices, say hurtful things, and otherwise wreak havoc on our relationships.

This trigger business sounds pretty dire, doesn’t it?

Fear not!

We aren’t doomed to be slaves to our brain stems. As human beings, we have been imbued with consciousness and free will. We have the capacity and are equipped to operate from a level that is elevated from a place that is much more enlightened than “kill or be killed”.

First things first. It’s important to recognize when you’re triggered. Luckily, our physical bodies give us lots of information when our limbic systems are in charge.

When triggered you might notice:

  • a change in your breathing (usually faster and more shallow)
  • a change in temperature (you might feel suddenly hot or suddenly cold)
  • a narrowing of your visual field (the room might seem smaller)
  • a very strong inclination to flee or “get away”
  • a very strong inclination to fight or strike out
  • a very strong inclination to freeze, not move, and not speak
  • the feeling of being nauseated, sick to your stomach, and/or dry mouth
  • a feeling of bodily tightness or contraction (often in the stomach or throat area)
  • a change in your perception of hearing (ambient noise can get very loud or very soft)

With diligent practice we can train ourselves to recognize when we are triggered. We can shorten the amount of time that we spend in a triggered space. We can enlist our resources that reside in the higher brain more quickly and with more reliability and ease.

Once we can recognize when we are triggered, we open ourselves up to more choice in terms of our actions. At the very least, we can commit to not making any decisions or acting from a triggered place. With more experience in catching ourselves earlier in our trigger process, we can choose to override our brain stem tendencies with our frontal lobe choices and engage our higher abilities to see the big picture, remember that we are all interconnected, and act accordingly.


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