By Susan Harper Slate, Ph.D.

Triggers are very quick, strong emotional responses to something.  It can be something we think or see, something someone said, a memory, a dream, witnessing an event, even something we smell or taste.  For the purpose of this article, I will not be talking about feeling mildly uncomfortable.  Nor am I discussing a response to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Definitely a PTSD trigger is real, but it is not the present focus.

The experience of feeling triggered is usually very unpleasant.  People may feel threated, scared, overwhelmed, vulnerable, angry, out of control, or hurt.  A trigger is automatic.  You feel as if you went from zero to 100 miles an hour in a nanosecond.  One can imagine how important these emotional responses may have been for the survival of our species, but also how problematic it can be.  They happen so quickly, often without the person understanding their reaction.

We have a part of our brain called the anterior cingulate.  It serves as a switch, that can flip from when we feel peaceful and at ease (our parasympathetic nervous system) to feeling activated or triggered (our sympathetic nervous system).  Once someone is activated, the blood flow slows down to our frontal lobe where all our planning, weighting options, and decision-making occurs.  Mainly, our thinking is affected.  The blood flow to our temporal lobe also slows down where our communication and language exists.  We don’t think or communicate as well when we are triggered.  No doubt you have witnessed road rage, either yourself or someone else’s.  People are often reduced to yelling or swearing; they rarely bring their “best self” to that situation. 

Let’s look at a couple’s interaction.  John and Lori are trying to decide where to go on vacation.  Lori is feeling somewhat down.  They rarely have time in their busy schedules for romantic times together.  While they are looking at options, she begins to get upset and angry.  She starts to raise her voice but is also close to tears.  Meanwhile, John is trying to make vacation plans very financially reasonable.  But as soon as Lori begins to raise her voice, he starts to shut down, get quiet and avoid her.  Both Lori and John are triggered.

In order to work with the triggers, to benefit from understanding them, one needs to pause, breathe, think.  Get curious about what is setting you off.  What are you feeling?  Explore that feeling—when have I felt this before?  What is the story I am telling myself about this moment?  Let’s look at John and Lori again.  Lori was the fifth child in a family of seven children.  She often felt she wasn’t heard and that her thoughts, feelings, and needs were not responded to.  So, when she is talking to John, she can easily get hurt and feel ignored.  John was raised in a family where security issues were at risk.  Sometimes his dad had a job and sometimes he didn’t.  His mom felt overwhelmed and she and his father would yell and blame each other, and sometimes the children.  In those situations, John would feel unsafe and would retreat to his room.  When Lori feels John retreating, she feels even more unheard and pursues John further. 

You can see how childhood wounds can trigger each other.  If John and Lori can pause, breathe, and eventually think, they might begin to communicate in a better way.

Lori:  There I go again, feeling that you won’t hear me, so I start getting upset and yelling.

John:  Well, me too.  I start worrying about what is this going to cost, and then when you raise your voice, I feel like I’m 9 years old again and running for the hills.

Lori:  I want to do this a better way.

John:  Me too.  I want you to have a vacation where you feel we have time for each other and that your needs count.

Lori:  And I don’t want you to be stressing about money.  We can make this reasonable.  When I get upset, it doesn’t mean you aren’t a good husband.

All right, so it is rarely this easy.  But the trick is to pay attention to when you get activated or triggered; What is going on?  Where is this coming from?   Have I concocted an old story or is this really happening between me and my partner?  Once you have some clarity about your triggers you are in a better place to use them to interact with others, but also to feel that you understand yourself more fully.

Dr. Susan Harper Slate is Clinical Psychologist in Santa Monica.  She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.  Dr. Slate can be reached at (310) 582-0010 or shslate@aol.com

Copyright 2021 by Susan Harper Slate, Ph.D.