Recently, the term ‘triggered’ has been co-opted by YouTube personalities and presenters in other media formats to provide a warning that the sensitive members of their audience may about to be offended. But in psychological terms, there is much more substantial meaning other the one ascribed to it by the current ‘triggered culture.’
What are Triggers?
Triggers are symptomatic of trauma. And they could be anything that causes you to recall those experiences in a very real and frightening way. When triggers take hold, you often go through many of the same emotions that you went through at the time of the incident. For example, they could be as subtle as a word or phrase that has significant meaning relating to that trauma or could be something more overt, such as graphic violence.
When they occur, these triggers affect your ability to function in the present moment. The distress they cause is not only uncomfortable but can be a source of distraction that prevents you from focusing on your tasks. The most common forms of triggers are usually related to instances of:
Serious Physical injury
Loss of a Loved One
Triggers are most often associated with cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in which strong memories and flashbacks of traumatic events are a reoccurring symptom of the condition. However, they have also been known to present in people with substance abuse issues as well, causing them to relapse back into a state of dependency after a period of sobriety. Those who suffer from either of these two conditions tend to be very aware of what their triggers are and how to avoid them, although it is sometimes easier said than done.
Types of Triggers
Triggers are often specific to an individual and can be very personalised. However, they can be more broadly categorised for easier identification. They can be divided into two subsets: internal and external.
As the name suggests, an internal trigger is one that is rooted within the individual themselves. It is most often a memory, a sensation of pain in a certain part of the body, or a felt emotional response. For example, when you’re exercising and your heart is racing, this may remind of the rush of adrenaline you experienced on the front lines during a tour of duty. Other internal triggers include:
Memories linked to a traumatic event
External triggers, on the other hand, come from the environment around us. These can be people, places, situations or specific events. For example, the quarantine measures made necessary by the COVID-19 outbreak has been triggering for a lot of people with mental health issues. Those suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder have found it particularly challenging due to the need for constant contact and validation. Here are some more common external factors that may serve as triggers.
Specific dates and occasions (holidays and anniversaries)
A specific time of the day
Visiting a specific location that reminds you of a trauma
A movie or TV show that reminds you of a trauma
Sounds that remind you of an experience (e.g. gunfire for wartime traumas)
Smells associated with Trauma
Specific people connected to your trauma
Changes in relationship dynamics
How are Triggers Created?
It’s still not fully understood how triggers are formed within psychological literature. However, it’s widely believed that by many researchers that our brains store the information relating to trauma differently than it does with memories of other non-traumatic events. It’s speculated that these past traumatic memories are interpreted as being current experiences. And because of this, they create symptoms within the body that mimic the original experience of the event.
How to Manage Your Triggers
You first need to decide whether what you’re experiencing is rooted in discomfort or whether it is a real trauma. Being offended by certain topics in the media isn’t the same as being triggered as it relates to a traumatic experience. However, if you do find yourself experiencing consistent distress when encountering specific situations, the following steps may help you form a more effective way of dealing with these unwanted episodes.
Accept Responsibility for Your Actions
The first step is letting go of the victimhood mentality and recognising yourself as someone who is in complete and total control of both yourself and your environment. But be aware, this is a process, not an event. The choice you enact this is simply the first step. So don’t allow yourself to become disheartened if you can’t quite manage this in the beginning. The important thing to have the thinking in mind that from now on, you’re going to make a commitment to yourself to take back control of your reactions and replace them with more positive emotional responses.
Learn to Recognise When You’re Being Triggered
The second step is where you need to apply yourself and where your sense of personal accountability truly comes into play. You need to become the observer of your emotions. When you’re about to have a triggering episode, take note of when, where and how this is happening. What is going on around you? Who is present, what memories were going through your mind at that moment? Use the list of internal and external triggers above to help you. Once you become aware of how these triggers work and you can identify a consistent pattern, it becomes much easier to trace them back to events that may need your attention in resolving.
Choose an Alternate Way of Expression
The final step, once you’ve learnt how to identify and catch these triggers in the moment before they take hold is to transmute that overwhelming emotional charge into something that is more positive or at the very least more manageable. Affirm to yourself that you are not your emotions. They’re merely signals that the brain is sending to the rest of your body, which are unwarranted and no longer necessary for the situation you’re in now. When you feel these ‘attacks’ coming on, first ground yourself and relax. Regulate your breathing. Then, detach from whatever thoughts are dominating your internal narrative, and repeat a chosen word that represents safety and feeling that you want to experience.
Mastering this will take time. It will not happen overnight. But the sooner you begin to engage with the process of taking back control of your emotions, the quicker you can improve the quality of your life.
About the author:
Dr Becky Spelman is a leading UK Psychologist who’s had great success helping her clients manage and overcome a multitude of mental illnesses.
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