Making Sense Of The Mess

Changing Messy Thinking

How to Turn the Trigger on Triggers

Have you ever felt your heart start racing at the sight of someone or something? Or trembled in sorrow at the sound of a song streaming overhead while you shopped? Have you tensed up when a friend innocently squeezes your shoulder?  These are known as triggers. What are they and what causes them?  And, how do we handle them?

What is a Trigger

Triggers occur when something external arouses one or more of your senses. Our brain’s circuitry is fired, delivering a thought or belief, related to a past memory or association. This sets off a response in the form of an emotion or action.

Here are some examples:

  • Watching a sunset brings you back to a favorite vacation spot, filling you with nostalgia.
  • Hearing a critical tone jolts you back to your childhood, reviving the belief “I’m a disappointment.”
  • Smelling cologne on a stranger walking by, snaps an image of a relative you haven’t seen for years, giving you the urge to call her.
  • Tasting cinnamon spiced cider leaves you craving the homemade donuts you once made routinely for your children.
  • Hugging a grieving friend opens up your own wounds from years ago, leaving you depressed.

We all experience triggers. Triggers have the capacity to be positive or negative. Positive ones cause us to savor happy memories.  Negative ones tend to make us ruminate.  Eventually we let go of them and move on.

Trauma Triggers

For those of us who have experienced trauma, letting go is difficult.  Trauma triggers impact us differently. Their intrusive attacks have the capacity to cripple us for days, weeks or months. Why? Research shows the brain’s chemistry is directly impacted by trauma. This impairs normal functioning in the parts of the brain responsible for regulating our mind and body.

As a result, many of us are plagued with reoccurring flashbacks. We lose ourselves in a state of emotional upheaval as a potpourri of emotions consumes us. We eat less and sleep less.  It becomes hard to stay focused. Our energy is depleted. The ability to let go and move forward seems impossible.

What would it look like? Here’s an example from my own life.

I was at the park when I noticed a disheveled boy panhandling with his guitar. My heart immediately sank and my mood shifted. I was transported back in time. Instead of the boy, I saw my son Scott. I recalled watching him walk off carrying his guitar. I heard him tell me he was going to the park to make some money. The same fear and confusion of that past vision returned.

For days afterwards, memories of Scott plagued me, both real and imagined. Feelings of helplessness and guilt paralyzed me. I found myself waiting for the phone to ring. To hear that dreaded phone call one more time. The one that said he overdosed. The moment I knew he would die.

How did I stop the onslaught originating from the mere sight of a boy and his guitar at the park weeks earlier? I dug into my toolbox, knowing it was time for self-awareness, self-compassion and self-care. These are foundational tools I use in many areas of my life. I hope in sharing them you will find them useful as well.

3 Tools to Turn the Trigger on Triggers:

1. Self-Awareness

The first tool to utilize is self-awareness. Tuning into your feelings and any changes in thoughts and behaviors helps to identify your triggers. This requires taking the time needed to honestly observe how you are feeling and what you are doing. I did this through journaling, a practice I still use daily.

Daily journaling gives me the space I need to dig deep and discover what’s going on inside me. It helps to make sense of what’s going on in the world around me. Some days I struggle to write, but I know the benefits this form of self-awareness provide, especially in combating triggers.

Self-awareness is a skill developed through practice. In an article on emotional triggers, Martha Beck writes:

At the outset, this is an exercise in hindsight. You won’t even think to identify your trigger until after it’s pulled. But with continued attention, you’ll start recognizing triggers sooner, and one day, even as you’re firing off shouts or tears, part of you will be saying, “Oops, there I go again.” You’ll then have a choice: Continue to blast, or put the safety on your psyche”. 

2.  Self-Compassion

Another tool for combating triggers is being kind to yourself. How was I kind? I reminded myself that everyone experiences triggers. This helped me feel less isolated and weak.

I also created self-affirmations to recite when attacked by my inner voice. For instance, when I started hearing “You’re a failure. You failed your son”, I told myself: “You did the best you could”; “You are not perfect. No one is perfect.”

In addition, I reminded myself of people throughout my life to whom I extended compassion. As I thought of their situations and their need for love and understanding, I chose to see myself. This enabled me to become both the giver and receiver of compassion.

3.  Self-Care

Another important tool is self-care. You need to give yourself permission to take time for yourself. Attending to your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual needs gives you the energy needed to power through. I focused on eating nutritionally, exercising and getting enough sleep. I made an effort to be aware of my emotions, especially when I journaled. I challenged myself to stay mentally sharp by living in the present moment. To practice mindfulness in order to avoid ruminating over the past. Finally, I chose to draw strength spiritually. To trust in the Higher Power within me.

It takes determination and effort to learn how to recognize and handle triggers. It’s not an easy process. I will be writing more about self-awareness, self-compassion and self-care in my next 3 blogs.  They are my “go to” tools for building curiosity, clarity and confidence. 

But, for now, how about you?  What triggers you? How do you handle it? Share your insights below.

About Pamela Parker

I am a writer. I love spending time with my family, especially my grandchildren. My passion for learning shows up in reading and taking courses on topics that help bring positive change in my life and hopefully those around me.


2 Replies

  1. Maria Hobson

    Awesome post, Pam! <3

    1. Thanks, Maria! I learned a lot in CAPP!!!

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