Something in the present releases – automatically, in your brain – memories or reactions from past painful experiences.
When triggers hit, they’re usually unexpected and beyond your control.
And what usually happens next, right after the trigger: You react with old ‘defenses’ or ‘survival strategies’ that are no longer helpful or healthy (if they ever were), and that only make things worse.
Responses that can be understood, and overcome.
Some simple examples of triggers and the ‘conditioned responses’ they unleash:
- Someone criticizes something you’ve said or done, and you instantly get defensive and angry, then verbally go on the attack.
- Someone criticizes something you’ve said or done, and you instantly feel crushed and defeated, then go silent and try to ‘disappear.’
- Walking into your childhood home, your body suddenly tenses up and your eyes scan for threats.
The Nature of Triggers
Triggers can be totally obvious, like someone touching you sexually when you don’t want or expect it, or someone threatening you or clearly trying to take advantage of you.
Or they can be subtle, like someone making a mildly sarcastic comment that reminds you of mean and shaming things a parent used to say, or someone giving you a look that seems to have contempt in it.
Triggers can be obvious or subtle, in our awareness or not.
Triggers aren’t always about other people and what they say or do. They can be something like a faint smell of alcohol (that used to be on the breath of an abuser). They could be the shape of a man’s mustache, a style of clothing, a wallpaper pattern, or the sound of a slamming door. They can be the ‘anniversary’ date of a traumatic event like an abuse experience or someone’s death.
What are triggers for a particular person depends on his or her unique experiences of being vulnerable and hurt in his or her life, and the unique details of the situations in which those experiences occurred.
The trigger is always real. By definition, a trigger is something that reminds you of something bad or hurtful from your past. It ‘triggers’ an association or memory in your brain.
But sometimes you are imagining that what’s happening now is actually like what happened back then, when in reality it’s hardly similar at all, or it just reminds you because you’re feeling vulnerable in a way you did when that bad thing happened in the past.
Triggers can suddenly activate old relationship patterns.
Just as triggers range from obvious to subtle, sometimes we’re aware of them and sometimes we’re not. Your body may suddenly freak out with a racing heart and feeling of panic, but you have no idea what set off that reaction. You may suddenly feel enraged in a slightly tense conversation, but be unable to point to anything in particular that made you angry. Sometimes you can figure it out later (for example in therapy), and sometimes not.
Also, though we may not realize that we just got triggered, or why, it can be obvious to someone who knows us well, like a partner, friend, or therapist. When you feel comfortable doing so, with someone you really trust, it can be very helpful to talk over situations where you seemed to (or clearly did) over-react.
Triggers that involve other people’s behavior are often connected to ways that we repeat unhealthy relationship patterns learned in childhood. Things that other people do – especially people close to us and especially in situations of conflict – remind us of hurtful things done to us in the past. Then we respond as if we’re defending ourselves against those old vulnerabilities, hurts, or traumas.
But our responses usually just trigger vulnerable feelings in the other person, as well as their own old self-defense patterns. Then we bothend up repeating the unhealthy relationship patterns we that fear and don’t want in our lives.
Reactions can be big and fast, or creep up on you slowly.
As noted above, other common triggers include ‘anniversaries’ and holidays that remind you, at some level, of traumatic experiences, of how your family wasn’t and isn’t so happy and loving, etc.
Triggers’ Power and Effects
The power of a trigger depends on how closely it resembles a past situation or relationship, how painful or traumatic that situation or relationships was, and the state of your body and brain when the triggering happens.
If you’re feeling very calm and safe, the reaction will be much less than if you’re feeling afraid or anxious. If you’re feeling little support or trust in a relationship, your reactions to triggering behaviors by the other person will be much greater.
A trigger can bring out feelings, memories, thoughts, behaviors.
Other people might have no idea that you’ve been triggered, but you could be struggling with terrible memories in your head. Or you could suddenly have all kinds of negative thoughts and beliefs about the other person and/or yourself, like, ‘I never should have trusted him,’ ‘Every woman will stab you in the heart,’ ‘What a loser I am,’ etc.
Reactions to triggers can be very dramatic and rapid, like lashing out at someone who says the wrong thing or looks at you the wrong way. In these cases, your brain has entered a ‘fight or flight’ state and the part of your brain that you need to think clearly, to remember your values and what’s important to you, and to reflect on your own behavior (that is, your prefrontal cortex), is effectively shut down.
But responses to triggers can also creep up on you, playing out over hours and days, and get worse over time.
You may find yourself depressed and retreating from any contact with friends, or drinking a lot more every night, or smoking way more cigarettes than usual. You may find yourself getting lost in TV, videogames, or pornography. You may get caught up in trying to force others to change their behavior so they never trigger you again. Days later you may wonder, ‘Woah, how did I get back into this?’
Awareness and Learning, Freedom and Control
Basically, if you’re reacting to someone or something much more intensely than seems to make sense, then the situation has triggered something deeper and older in your brain. You’re not reacting to what’s actually happening in the here and now, and you’re certainly not acting freely.
You can change how you respond to triggers.
Instead, you’re feeling and acting, however consciously or unconsciously, as if you’re ‘back there’ in that old painful or traumatic experience, on autopilot and enslaved by old conditioning.
Fortunately, it’s entirely possible to increase your awareness of your own unique triggers, and of what happens in your mind and body when particular things trigger you. With that foundation of awareness and understanding in place, you can learn how to respond not as you always did in the past, but instead in new and much more healthy ways.
In this way, you can free yourself from deeply ingrained conditioning, actually rewiring your brain to respond in new and much healthier ways to the inevitable triggers we all encounter in our lives and relationships.
For many people, understanding and reconditioning their responses to triggers will require, or be greatly sped up, by help from a therapist or counselor. There are also self-help resources available. For example, you may consider learning how to cultivate mindfulness, which can increase your awareness of triggers and your automatic responses to them, and can give you the mental space and time you need to choose new, healthier and more constructive responses.