Being Trigger Happy

2nd February 2020 2 By Ally Frazer

I have been experiencing a deep sense of peace of late. I think this is due in part to the fact that I threw away my to-do list and started to accept the unfinished, sloppy mess that my life (and house) is. Since Christmas I have been enjoying the simple life a bit more: walks, reading and cooking. I have slowed down the tempo and am loving it. I have reflected on why I have recently been so calm and I think it’s this: I have not been triggered by things so much or if I have, I’ve been more compassionate to it. 

If you’re not familiar with the word ‘trigger’ let me explain. For most people it’s where your serenity gets trampled over by some unsuspecting nitwit (usually a member of the family or a partner). Those close to us have an extrasensory knack of zoning in on the red buttons and hovering over them like an annoying Trump-like wasp. Triggering is not always the preserve of the nearest and dearest. You can also get triggered by strangers, people on the telly and by an event.  

So what is triggering? If you’re triggered you have a sudden and unexpected emotional reaction to something. It is emotion which can also be accompanied by cortisol or adrenalin, which explains the fight-flight feelings of chest tightness and increased heart rate. 

Triggering does not necessarily have to be brought about by a person or by something someone says or does. It may be brought about by an event which challenges an old core belief. For example, I was triggered yesterday when I was late taking my son to his hockey match. As if the universe was having a private joke at my expense, every single slow driver stopped in front of me and I got caught by every single red light. Then (because I was getting anxious about not being in time) we got lost and ended up being even more late. I lost it quite spectacularly and disappeared into small me, uttering an impressive litany of four-letter words. My son got out of the car and slammed the door and I drove off (through a no exit sign of course). Happy days. 

Later, I asked myself what it was that had caused me to stress so much so that I had suffered and contracted? As I unravelled the layers of my stress, I realised that it was my false belief that I was a perfect mother and that I had to do everything right by my son which included taking him to his match on time. I was trying to side-step the guilt that I would feel if I took him there late. I unpicked this belief. I was not a perfect mother: I was good enough. If I made mistakes as to timings on the odd occasion it would not be the end of the world – it was human. It was my desire to control the uncontrollable which was getting in the way. If I had simply chilled out at the red lights and cruised behind the slow drivers, even if my son was ten minutes late it would be ok. I had to accept that part of the journey was screwing up (both for me and him). My perfectionist belief system was under the microscope.

That is my recent example of triggering. Triggering can be more random than that. Your boss at work may speak to you in a clipped manner which (subconsciously) reminds you of a parent and causes you to storm out of the office. Your friend may make an innocent joke about a dead dog and this brings up some unresolved grief which you feel for poor old Fido. A flatmate may ask you why you haven’t put the bins out and this sends you into fits of tears because you are aware that you’ve not been feeling yourself and that your neglectful behaviour has been influenced by emotions that you’ve been trying to bury. 

When you feel triggered it is so common to want to attack the person who pulled the trigger on you in the first place. This is how conflict starts. The person who says whatever the offending statement is may not appreciate that it has hurt you. You scream back and then they stare back, wide-eyed and bewildered, thinking you’ve been kidnapped and replaced by a cussing lunatic. If you don’t build bridges the disagreement can escalate.

So the key to coping with triggers – yours and other people’s – is to be aware that we all have them. Your friend won’t have a clue as to why you’ve overreacted to their joke about an Englishman, Irishman and Welshman going into a pub. You need to explain to her that she has triggered your feelings about Brexit.

Communication is key. We need to have the courage and vulnerability to tell people we are experiencing a trigger. 

In order to build bridges, you need to have an awareness of why you’ve reacted in the first place. Having feelings about Brexit is something that you would be aware of as it’s a strong view about something external (namely politics. It can sometimes be hard to be aware of your triggers when they are subconscious or rooted in your inner world. 

For those of us who have been on a therapy or personal development journey a trigger can be like someone flashing a mirror into our lingering negative core beliefs. We can start having conversations with ourselves like ‘ah so when Mary started saying all that stuff about why I hadn’t done enough around the house, it tapped into my core belief about not being enough and that’s why I got mad’ and so on. We may see triggers as little signposts in the external world where we haven’t yet healed certain things within ourselves. That said, we can still keep our inner journeys to ourselves. Just because someone has triggered us we don’t need to bare our souls to others or bore them with our therapy (unless we and they want that). It is just enough to tell the friend or colleague that they have said something that has triggered us because of something personal we are working on to resolve and that we realise they did nothing intentional to upset us. 

Being aware of what buttons people are pushing in us is great because that is when we can start to be compassionate to both ourselves and others. We can then start to take ownership for our reactions instead of blaming others for what they say or do. This will engender more respect from people who are around us. 

It’s good to keep the communication channels open with people who have triggered you even if you disagree and part company after the triggering event has happened.  The ones who unwittingly pulled the trigger may well side-step around you if they are scared of causing you more upset. People like to find the path of least resistance in their relationships with others and if that means avoiding people because there is risk of an emotional charge, they will do that. If you get triggered and you are cold shouldered, ask gently for a conversation in a non-emotional way. Respect that their avoidance may be a sign that they don’t like dealing with emotion in others (perhaps that triggers them!)

If someone has triggered you, be honest with them about how you’re feeling and the way it has affected you. Authentic communication is the best policy. Nine times out of ten, if you are vulnerable and say that there is stuff going on for you, then people will react with compassion. Navigating relationships can sometimes be like stepping on little mines. It takes honesty and courage for all of us to start to diffuse them with each other. It is our co-ownership of our vulnerability and imperfection which will make us better lovers, friends, colleagues and partners. This leads the way to more wholesome, vital and intimate relationships. 

Be happy with triggers. They are not things that we should fear but are instead things that we need to accept as normal in ourselves and others and which we should be able to overcome together. They are just human relationship phenomena: that is all. We don’t have to create dramas over them where none need to exist.