Why Do We Get Triggered and What Can We Do About It?
Our triggers are rooted in past trauma; despite this they can cause powerful present day responses
Dr Patapia Tzotzoli offers her tips to identifying your triggers and how you can respond in a different way
We have therapists available to support you here
“The angry man will defeat himself in battle as well as in life”― Joe Hyams, Zen in the Martial Arts
The list of potential triggers is endless. A friend who hasn’t texted back yet, a partner in the same room who ignore us, our kids who won’t do what we tell them to. Someone expressing a different view to ours or does something different to how we would do it, a colleague who underperforms or procrastinates, a date that didn’t progress to another. A partner who started a question with “why didn’t you…”, the way someone touched our shoulder, an invitation we didn’t get. An unexpected reason that changed our plans at the last minute, an unresponsive partner, someone commenting on our tight clothes or the way our hair look, or how we performed on a task…
We all have our own triggers that are unique to our personality and personal history. A trigger can be anything: a feeling, a need, a problem, an opinion, a want, a certain act, a particular touch. When we get triggered, we feel uncomfortable, hurt or anger and we overreact because we don’t feel safe and loved, or in order to feel safe and loved.
Many of us insist that our feelings are justified regardless of what triggered them. And yes, they might be. It might be true that other people could behave or do better. For example, be more caring, kinder, fairer, supportive, understanding. More responsible, efficient, engaging, entertaining. More loving, compliant, responsive, open-minded … the list goes on. But even if this is true, we have no control over other people. But we can and should take control of ourselves and our behaviour.
Here, we look into what’s behind our triggers, why we shouldn’t allow our automatic (and often) disproportionate behaviours to take over – and what we could (and should) do instead.
Losing control of ourselves
Triggers are our wounds from past trauma. When we experience strong negative emotions, such as hurt or anger, it’s because whatever triggered us means something very specific to us. In other words, it activated our relevant schema, i.e., our previous knowledge and interpretations about people, places, objects, or events. As such, we’re re-experiencing a past injury in the present. But we don’t necessarily know or recognise this. But even though this very specific thing has its roots in traumatic experiences we had in the past, it is inseparably connected with how we are going to react in the present.
In psychology, we call these reactions maladaptive coping mechanisms because they are developmentally primitive. In other words, they are behaviours that didn’t evolve over time and although they might provide temporary relief to how we feel, they tend to be harmful in the long term. Depending on what each trigger means to us we tend to either overcompensate (doing the opposite), surrender (giving in) or avoid (finding ways to escape or block) how we feel about a situation.
For example, we might overcompensate by attempting to defy, blame or criticise others, trying to control them through direct means in order to accomplish our goals, seeking attention or try to impress them, attempting to manipulate, seduce or con them, appearing compliant but punish them covertly through procrastination, pouting, complaining, backstabbing or non-performance, or obsessively trying to maintain strict order in order to accomplish tasks or avoid negative outcomes.
Alternatively, we might surrender by relying on others, becoming passive, dependent, or submissive, or trying to people-please and avoid conflict.
Or we might avoid by appearing over self-reliant and avoid getting involved with others, or engaging excessively with private activities such as tv watching, recreational computing or solitary work, or distracting ourselves through compulsive shopping, sex, gambling or physical activity, or engaging in self-soothing activities such as drinking, doing drugs, or overeating, or dissociating through any internal form of psychological escape such as denial, fantasy or numbness.
In short, if something triggers our unresolved trauma, we are basically unable to retain control of our emotions or thoughts and allow our inner world to be taken over by someone or something else. As a result, we respond impulsively but this ends up causing us significantly more emotional distress that the current situation warrants. This dysregulates our nervous system and further fuels our body’s stress response. Essentially, we’ve made a behavioural choice that doesn’t serve us well at all. If anything, quite the opposite.
What we can do instead
Living in autopilot and allowing our triggers to rule us is harmful. But when we realise this, it’s a wakeup call that can motivate us to break the cycle and reconnect with ourselves. We can choose to see triggers as an opportunity to understand ourselves, and then heal and grow by learning different ways to respond to them.
Step 1: Awaken our awareness
We can start by acknowledging that our behaviour has its roots in our past. It’s not always easy to make this link. But we can start by becoming more curious about things that happened to us growing up and about our current behaviour. We can ask questions about what’s trigger us and why we think, feel and behave the way we do when we are triggered.
Step 2: Keep noticing and keep breathing
Once we realise that our behaviour is driven by how we think and feel, we can start paying more attention to it. This way we can avoid being repeatedly dragged down or pulled along by our automatic responses in life.
Our strong emotions are our cue. We can stop and ask – why am I feeling this way, what triggered me and why am I feeling triggered by it? What thoughts am I having and how do I feel compelled to respond? We can then help ourselves release the built-up energy and tension in our body by taking a few deep breaths or by doing the toes relaxation exercise (i.e., sitting upright and taking deep breaths that last 3 seconds whilst curling our toes towards the ceiling and eventually relaxing them).
Step 3: Activate our empathy
When others trigger us, we can remind ourselves how fallible and imperfect all people are. We can try to recall their good traits and what we like about them. This is a thought that can help us connect with each other by allowing us to relate to each other through our shared imperfect humanity. This helps activate our empathy so we can be more understanding and as a result, we are now more likely to see it as an opportunity to be supportive of each other.
NB: We can respond to ourselves in a similar way when we have been internally triggered and engage in dysfunctional personal beliefs (e.g., feeling ashamed if we don’t perform to certain standards). That means, we can remind ourselves that no one is perfect and that we have good traits so we can be kinder and more supportive of ourselves.
Step 4: Decide how to respond
From this point on, we have three choices: respond to the situation in order to change it, accept it, or just let it go. Which of these we choose depends on the trigger and situation we face, as well as our personal interests in it.
Of course, it’s not always easy to respond in these ways. Depending on what we choose, there are many other techniques we can use to help but these lie beyond the scope of the present article. I’ll cover them in subsequent blogs, and this is also something that can be explored with the help of a psychotherapist or psychologist.
Responding in an over compensatory way, surrendering, or simply avoiding a situation are not choices that are in our best interests. Instead, a better choice is to turn to ourselves when triggered and use it as an opportunity to heal and learn. By giving ourselves the time and space to take control of our feelings and thoughts, as well as self-regulate, can open up more choices for how we respond.
When we follow these steps, we start on the road back to connecting with ourselves, healing, growing and becoming more resilient. By healing ourselves and become less reactive, we subsequently, make our world more understanding, kinder and safer for everyone, including for ourselves.