Trigger. It is a word that is thrown around a lot in the circles I move in. And it is something I actively work with a lot, in myself and with clients.
What is a trigger? Being triggered simply means that something from the past is activated in the present. It can be a way your partner looks at you that reminds you of your mum. Trigger. Something somebody says that has you be back in that hallway at school, being bullied. Trigger. Or it can be something that is not done, like nobody reaching out to you. Trigger. There are as many triggers as there are people. Often a trigger happens when there is some form of disconnection or a boundary crossed.
And suddenly we are back there. In that moment in time. Our bodies do that, not our conscious minds. Triggers happen many times faster than the mind can track. Our bodies store these experiences, and we often play them out (and the conclusions we attached to them) our whole lives. Until we bring consciousness to them.
Here are some signs you are triggered:
● Tunnel vision: you are only aware of a very small part of your surroundings;
● Perceiving other people as a threat;
● Tension in your body, especially the front: hunching your shoulders, tightening your belly, tensing your legs;
● Things suddenly seeming black & white, right or wrong. There is no middle way;
● Gathering evidence to corroborate your story, also known as ‘building a case’ (to prove you are right);
● Compassion, humor and curiosity are out of the window; survival is in charge and you do not care about the other person;
● Something is at stake, a really important thing that is vital to protect;
● Either a lot of activation in your body or dissociating and not feeling your body at all;
● Wanting to run, hide or fight (including hiding within yourself);
● Blaming or shaming the other person (sentences starting with “you always” or “you never”).
When you are triggered, your full adult capacity is not online. You tend to regress to a younger state, where your young you had to fight, run or freeze in the light of a certain event.
To stay safe. To win love. To survive. I have a lot of compassion for triggers (and sometimes it is fucking hard as well, being triggered, or somebody being triggered by me).
Yet I know that being triggered and playing that dynamic out in the present moment does not get me what I want. Ever.
Trigger-me wants safety, protection, love, but the strategies trigger-me deploys often get me the opposite. I run away from love because I am afraid to be hurt. So I sabotage my love relationships. I withdraw when I am scared. So I feel isolated instead of connected. I lash out at people close to me when all my younger self wants is to be held. So I end up alone.
See? Counterproductive. And yet, all these strategies are simply younger selves trying to get their needs met. They are just going about it the wrong way.
It has huge benefits to know when you are triggered and to slowly learn to parent yourself back to a place of wider capacity. Take a breath. Or three. Take a walk. Take your younger self by the hand and give her what she did not get in that moment in time: love, connection, safety. Do anything that gets you back in your body and the here and now. Sometimes you need other people for that: someone holding your hand, hugging you, telling your scared reptile brain it is okay. Or even pointing out that you are triggered in the first place.
The value of pausing when triggered and dropping back into awareness of yourself and what is going on, is that the conclusion you wrote can slowly be re-written. The thing that seemed so real and life-threatening just a minute ago evaporates when you guide yourself back. You get to see you are actually not alone. People are not leaving. You are wanted. Life is okay. You are not in danger.
And that is all our little children ever wanted.
PS: Humour. A great tool to untrigger yourself. Sing your experience, make an outrageously stupid joke, fake a smile (it works!) or watch this video from two brilliant comedians playing out triggers. It cracks me up every time.