When we say someone is triggered, what exactly do we mean?
Generally, being triggered refers to an awareness that something happening in our present environment is causing a very strong negative reaction. Usually, it is because something about the present environment is reminding of us of a past event or situation that was very stressful or even traumatic.
In the field of trauma, if a person has been in a life-threatening situation, usually there were certain sounds or scents present during the traumatic event. The way we are wired for survival will help us to be very alert to danger signals going forward if we are exposed to similar sounds and scents. This then can lead to a high arousal state (fight, flight, freeze) even though we are not currently in a life threatening situation. The most obvious example would be a soldier that runs for cover in his home when he hears a car backfire outside. That sound may be similar enough to gunfire so that it can lead to a trauma response. The soldier can learn to calm his nervous system so that he can stay in present time and manage the discomfort of the trigger (which is designed to keep him safe) in ways that allow for more flexibility of response. Running for cover was adaptive and appropriate in a war zone, but is not as adaptive or helpful once back in civilian life.
The concept of a trigger has been used in our culture to explain everything from a full blown trauma response to the feeling of being very annoyed, and everything in between. Organizing your life around avoiding either large or small triggers is not how we heal from trauma or stress reactions nor is it how we grow in our flexibility of response to everyday disturbance.
In my work as a therapist, I see my job as coaching clients in ways they can increase their flexibility of response to life stressors as much as possible, and to recover and repair as soon as possible if we do react to a trigger. This has to do with recovery and building resilience. By the way, the nature of intimacy is inherently disturbing, which is why so many of us get triggered primarily in intimate settings. Intimacy triggers are usually related to our past when we were young and completely dependent on our attachment figures for our very life.
The following are a few skills you can practice that help with managing triggers so that you have as much flexibility of response as possible:
- Breath: A focus on the breath takes you out of the limbic/trauma response and requires a focus that uses higher brain function. This switch from limbic region to higher brain function tells your body that you must be safe if you can pause to focus on your breath. That signal can immediately begin to calm the limbic regions from a fight, flight, and freeze response.
- Grounding: In a sitting position, breathe normally with your feet planted firmly on the ground; take your shoes off if you can. Close your eyes if that is available and you are comfortable with eyes closed, but it’s not necessary. Imagine your feet have roots and those roots are anchoring you firmly and deeply into the earth. Do this for a minute or two while breathing normally. Notice how you feel before and after this exercise.
- Practice Self-Acceptance and Compassion: Feeling triggered is a moment of suffering that deserves your acceptance and your compassion. Self -acceptance and compassion is not the same thing as avoidance of experience. Feel the fear and do it anyway, with compassion and acceptance. Remind yourself that no feeling lasts forever.
- Take A Time-In: If you are feeling triggered when talking with your partner or other challenging person, step away and get centered by shifting your focus to managing how you are feeling inside. This is the adult version of a Time-Out. A focus on the breath can help with this, see #1. If going inside is too difficult, try #2 Grounding instead which is focused more on the outside.
- More on Time-Ins: It’s called a Time-In (Dan Siegel) because you are learning to take time to go inside and self-regulate your triggered response on your own. Remember, a trigger is the past coming forward in the present in a way that is painful and can limit your response to fight, flight, or freeze reactions. You are likely not in danger, but in the moment it may feel “as if” you are. So, you are learning to slow it down and stay present with yourself and your feelings so you can recover and gain flexibility of response. Take the time you need, and stop interacting with the challenging person. Let them know you need a break but you will come back later when you have had time to get centered. Then be alone and breath, do grounding, feel your feelings, pray, meditate, or do anything you have learned to do that helps you feel calm and centered again. Do not spend time thinking angry thoughts; if you notice angry thoughts just let them float by like leaves on a stream, but do not get attached to these thoughts. It could take 20 minutes or more to feel better. In some cases, you may need more time.
If you would like to learn more about relationship skills, send me a message and we can arrange an Initial Consultation in my Windsor office.
Very Best, Sue