What are triggers and how to deal with them?

Written by Eileen Hopkins

My road to counselling and psychotherapy has been interesting. Having worked in a caring profession, nursing for over 30 years, I was always at my happiest when interacting with my patients & I have always been a people person.


Someone says something to us, and we get upset, we react, we get angry, and we blame the other person. We might believe that we are not seen, not understood, not heard. Or we might believe that the other person is trying to hurt us or to make us angry. But what actually happens? We get triggered.


What is a trigger?


A trigger is something which causes us intense emotions (anger, pain, sadness, etc.). It can be something someone says or does, or something which happens and makes us react. We might be triggered while watching a movie, or during a workshop, or when someone cuts you off in traffic. We are triggered when something reminds us of a traumatic event. It is not about the present, but about the past. It all goes down in our mind.

“When something reminds traumatized people of the past, their right brain reacts as if the traumatic event were happening in the present. But because their left brain is not working very well, they may not be aware that they are re-experiencing and re-enacting the past – they are just furious, terrified, enraged, ashamed, or frozen. After the emotional storm passes, they may look for something or somebody to blame for it. They behaved the way they did because you were ten minutes late, or because you burned the potatoes, or because you “never listen to me”. Of course, most of us have done this from time to time, but when we cool down, we hopefully can admit our mistake. Trauma interferes with this kind of awareness, and, over time, our research demonstrated why.” – Bessel Van Der Kolk, The body keeps the score

Dr. Gabor Mate says that when we get triggered is because something incomplete in us has been uncovered and we blame the other person for it.

“This happens in relationships all the time. Something happens in a relationship that uncovers your hole, your own sense of worth, and your own sense of not being valued. Your own lack of intrinsic love gets uncovered and then you blame the other person, saying “they triggered me”.

There is nothing wrong with being triggered. It just happens. Every time you are triggered though, you can do one of two things with it. You can attack or dismiss or get away from whoever is triggering you, withdraw from them. Or you can stay with the emotion and work it through. Those are your choices.”

– Dr. Gabor Mate, Compassionate Inquiry on-line training

Oftentimes, we cannot point exactly what was the memory or the traumatic event which caused us to react. But the more we get in touch with our bodies and with our feelings, the less we react to what happens. By revisiting the events which traumatized us over and over again, the brain learns that those events happened in the past and we can move past them.

So, what can you do when you get triggered? Realize that it is never about the other person, but about you. Allow yourself to experience the part of you which was uncovered (the hole) by checking in with the body, breathing deeply, noticing your reaction, and owning it. And do that with self-compassion and trust in your own process.

Originally wrote in January 2020


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