Many people will experience traumatic events to varying degrees in their lifetime. To be human is to experience suffering, and therefore, when consciously or unconsciously reminded of past traumatic experiences, you are prone to having an intense emotional response, known as a trigger.
What are Emotional Triggers?
Some triggers may come about from strong emotions around blatant negative experiences, such as being yelled at. Other triggers may come from sensory reminders, such as smells or colors associated with a past trauma or negative event. When you are reminded of these events, the typical emotional triggers can include emotional reactions, such as intense sadness, anxiety, panic, dissociation, or even anger.
Triggers can be associated with mental illnesses such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or anxiety disorders, but one doesn’t need to have an official mental health condition to feel triggered. Often when someone experiences triggers, especially related to another person’s actions, it feels as though the other person’s actions were the cause and blame for the intense emotional experience. They were the people who made you feel angry, right? Not so much.
Name it to Tame it
As you may already know from experience, this dysregulated emotional experience, whether grief, panic, anger, or sadness that comes with the trigger, makes mindfully labeling the experience as a trigger, from a past trauma, very difficult in the moment. Triggers are usually identified after the fact, sometimes minutes, hours, or days after the event when your nervous system is regulated again and you can reflect with some clarity.
After your amplified emotional states returns to baseline and you’ve identified your emotional triggers from the past, you may associate the recent trigger episode with the recent environmental trigger context, even though that person or event had nothing to do with the original trauma that left you predisposed to reactivity in the here and now.
Depending on the severity of the emotional dysregulation in the here-and-now, if you continue to experience intense dysregulation in various circumstances loosely or not related to the original trauma, there lies a potential to be retraumatized and even re-associate your original trauma with various other situations. So, if the trigger is not identified at the root, in the long term, more sub-triggers could be unconsciously created.
One of the first steps to healing is by naming and labeling. Dr. Daniel Siegel created the exercise “name it to tame it.” Labeling and linking the original trauma to the current here-and-now emotion is critical for processing the trigger, so it doesn’t snowball.
Triggered in Real Life
Consider Curtis, a gay man, originally from a rural farming area. He was relentlessly bullied and physically assaulted by straight male classmates who perceived him to be a bit more effeminate than the other boys. In his twenties, Curtis moved to Los Angeles to be in a gay diaspora, where he imagined he would experience more inclusion.
Feeling safe in his new city and job, Curtis casually mentioned his boyfriend to a friendly, straight coworker. She exclaimed, “I knew you were gay! My friends say I’ve always had the best gaydar.”
Even though he consciously knew his co-worker was safe, nice enough, and probably didn’t mean to be rude, Curtis shut down, and experienced anger, frustration, and even a bit of embarrassment. He quietly turned his back and walked away.
Curtis was surprised by his reaction because he was fine when other gay men recognized he was gay. However, when the straight coworker made a comment to him about his sexuality because of his appearance or behavior, he experienced feeling triggered.
The comment reminded him of the experiences of bullying in his adolescence, when no matter how hard he tried to dress or act differently, he was never able to control his classmates’ perception of him of being gay and he was frequently victimized. He’s experienced this trigger many times before; whenever straight people comment on his voice, manner of speech, or way of carrying himself.
Every time, he shuts down and has to remove himself from the conversation, and remains confused as to why he is so upset. After working with his therapist, he was able to identify that this conversation with his coworker triggered deeply painful feelings from his childhood. Each time he is triggered, he experiences similar nervous system dysregulation and paranoia; unconscious protective mechanisms he developed in response to the original trauma in his adolescence.
Even though Curtis was not cognitively aware that he is triggered by straight people recognizing his sexuality, he continued to be retriggered and retraumatized with the assumption he unconsciously carries that straight people knowing his sexuality will lead to violence, which isn’t always true.
Until he uncovered the connection to his past, Curtis blamed both himself for not acting straight passing enough and felt afraid of straight people perceiving his sexual orientation.
Why Own Your Triggers?
Taking ownership of your triggered reactions gives you the ability to get liberty from them, and to ensure they leave minimal havoc on your life and the lives of others. What happened to you was not your fault, and when some folks get triggered, they blame those around them and continue to feel trapped by the memory of the original trauma, most of the time unknowingly.
This can affect your personal and professional relationships and sense of self. By identifying triggers and learning how to regulate through them, people can begin to right size threats to their safety in the moment, leaving fear related to old hurts, more readily in the past.
With learning how to deal with triggers, you can cognitively and emotionally process the false beliefs or no longer relevant fears that fuel them. As adults, it is each person’s responsibility to process their unique or common triggers and past traumas. Doing so begins a path to feeling more grounded in the present moment, empowered, and in control of your life.