Understanding Triggers

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

What comes to mind when you hear someone say they're "triggered"? In common conversation it's come to mean little more than a strong emotional reaction to something. Sometimes it's even used to dismiss how someone feels when they're impacted by another's words or behavior.

But being triggered is far more significant than simply finding someone's comments or behavior offensive. It's something very real that happens, and we're often not sure why.

Out of Context

There was nothing wrong with the church or the service. Everything was bright and welcoming, the people smiling and friendly. But Patti couldn't get comfortable.

As the seats around her filled up with people, her breathing got shallower, and the feeling of panic grew steadily. The music started, upbeat and easy, but it was the last straw. She gathered up her things and left the sanctuary almost at a jog.

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Out in her car, she opened the glove box and with trembling hands dug out the packet of cigarettes waiting there for her. You're such a hot mess, she thought bitterly as she flicked the lighter. Maybe next year.


When Greg and Diane finally managed to make date night happen, they decided on a new restaurant that had just opened up nearby. As they walked in, Greg immediately noticed how nicely everyone was dressed.

"Do you have a reservation?" the hostess asked politely. When Greg said no, the apologetic smile she gave them cut him to the bone. Diane led the way out, content to try whatever else was available, but Greg felt utterly exposed and humiliated. For the rest of the night he completely shut down, leaving Diane alone and frustrated.

Stories in which we experience intense shame, helplessness, danger, or abandonment can have a lasting impact.

Significant Storylines

Each of us is a walking story in progress, and every part continues to matter. The behavior of the people in the two short narratives above might not make a lot of sense to most people.

Watching Patti leave the church service in an apparent huff, the folks around her might have trouble interpreting her behavior. Of course, they might see it differently if they knew how, during adolescence, her family had been part of a deeply toxic faith community that used shame and threats of damnation to manipulate almost every aspect of the parishioners' lives.

When date night hit a snag, Diane was able to keep sailing along, but Greg was transported back to his teen years. That moment at the host stand somehow resonated with the hopeless struggle of trying to please his demanding mother, who never failed to find something he'd forgotten, misplaced, or screwed up, that made him deserving of derision and abuse.

Wired for Survival

For a person with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a "trigger" is any stimuli that reminds them of the event that is the source of their trauma. It involuntarily activates their neurological survival mechanisms as if they were still in danger. But you don't have to have clinical PTSD to experience something a lot like this.

Intensely emotional experiences can have a similar effect. Every part of us--mental, physical, and emotional--is wired for survival. That means our conscious and unconscious parts are all going to make sure we get through any danger or suffering, and do our best to keep away from it in the future.

Stories in which we experience intense shame, helplessness, danger, or abandonment can have a lasting impact. They change how we experience the world, others, and ourselves. Reminders of that place of hurt can crop up without warning, and we find ourselves right back in the emotions like it just happened.

On our own, most of us survive these wounds by shutting parts of ourselves down, or finding some way to compensate. This helps us to go on in a way, but the impact is still there.

Knowing your story and the wounds in it can help you understand what triggers you and why. This takes going back into those painful places--voluntarily--and reconnecting to a part of ourselves that we've learned to ignore as long as we can.

These places remain tender and even trigger-able for some time. It's important to allow for that and give ourselves time and space to heal. And it's not an excuse to act destructively when something touches our suffering. But as we learn what it means to hold our stories authentically, even though we may still get triggered sometimes, we'll be able to respond instead of react, to care instead of cope, and to make choices not out of hurt, but from our heart.

Mike Ensley, MA, LPCC, is a nationally board-certified professional counselor in Loveland, CO.

Photo by Israel Palacio on Unsplash.

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