CHANGING the CULTURE of MENTAL HEALTH

what are triggers

Triggers: What they are, why you have them, and what you can do about them

Terri Bly, PsyD, LP

Unless you spend an average of zero minutes per day on social media, you’ve no doubt come across the word “trigger.” For the most part, I consider this to be a good thing. After all, it means lots of people are talking about mental health, including how negative events from our past can impact our emotional experiences in the now. Yay, mental health awareness!

That being said, when complex psychological concepts weave their way into mainstream culture, their original meaning can get lost in the hullabaloo, and “triggers” are no exception. As our society becomes more comfortable talking about trauma, I think it’s important to understand what triggers are, how and why we get them, and what we can do about them when they show up.

Trauma: The Mothership of Triggers

Triggers do not exist in the absence of trauma. So, to understand triggers, you first need to know a little bit about trauma.

For better or for worse, trauma happens to all of us at some point. Not only is trauma inevitable, but it also teaches us how to survive, which is probably why we are wired to react more strongly to the bad stuff that happens to us than we are to the good stuff.

Broadly speaking, here’s how trauma impacts us most of the time: The bad thing (i.e., traumatic event) happens, we have a big negative emotional response, and then once that bad thing is over, the brain processes the experience, gleans the lessons that can be learned from it, and then files it away into our long-term memory. This is what I call Wisdom. It’s why your thrice-divorced grandma is able to give you excellent relationship advice.

Sometimes, however, a bad thing happens to us, we react, the bad thing ends…but we are prevented from processing the experience and learning from it. This can happen for a variety of reasons, some more complex than others. For now, suffice it to say that the bad thing and the big negative emotional response sorta get frozen in time and stored together in the limbic system, becoming what I call Baggage. Baggage is why my grandma, who was a child during the Great Depression, would furtively stuff leftover pork chops into her purse when we went out to eat, despite having a fully stocked pantry at home.

Triggers: The Fallout from Unprocessed Trauma

 Ok, so here you are today, with your Wisdom and your Baggage. Sometimes, negative things happen to you, and while you may have some lingering feelings about it, you are able to reach back into your storehouse of wisdom, grab the lessons you have learned from similar experiences in your past, and make your next move accordingly.

Once in a while, however, you may encounter a situation that falls into the Baggage category, and it sends you into an emotional tailspin. In fact, you feel just like you did the very first time something similarly awful happened to you. You may even be aware that your response is totally outsized, given the actual situation, but it doesn’t stop you from freaking out anyway. The reason for this? You have been triggered.

In other words, your triggers are located inside your Baggage.

Hallmark of a Trigger

So how do you know if you’ve been triggered, or if you’re just upset? First and foremost, you need to determine if your emotional response was disproportionate to the situation. For example, it is perfectly reasonable to get upset at someone for making fun of your shoes. But if you take your shoes off and hurtle them at the person’s head, along with every offensive word you can think of, I think we can agree that is a disproportionate emotional response, and it could be a sign that somewhere in past you have some unprocessed trauma.

To be very clear: getting super upset does not, in and of itself, mean you have been triggered. For example, if you are a woman or person of color, no doubt you’ve been told more than once you are overreacting to a situation simply because you had a stronger reaction than the people around you. It should go without saying that a person of color will probably have a bigger emotional response to a racist remark than a white person would. A woman may have a more negative reaction to a misogynist joke than the men in the room. That does not mean they have been triggered. But if the woman responded to the misogynist joke by setting fire to the joke-teller’s car, that’s your clue she may have been triggered.

The Problem with Triggers

When we are triggered, we lose our capacity for rational thought, which means we are not able to craft a response to the situation with much forethought as to how it might be received, or what consequences we may face for our reactions. All we can do is react, and our control over the intensity and specifics of that reaction is pretty darn limited.

When triggered, we cannot effectively problem-solve, listen, advocate for change, or carry on a productive conversation. When we get triggered, our prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of the brain) gets hijacked by our limbic system (the reacting part of the brain). It’s wildly unpleasant, and unless you are in actual danger, it’s not a very constructive state to be in (note: if you are in actual danger, you haven’t been triggered; your limbic system is simply doing its job, which is to keep you safe).

What happens when you get triggered?

The Solution for Triggers

Getting triggered is a scary experience, and it feels horrible – so horrible, in fact, we may start avoiding situations in which we could get triggered, thus making our world smaller than it otherwise would be. We may even demand other people change their behavior because it is triggering. While completely understandable, it is my experience that solutions that rely solely on other people changing their behavior are rarely successful. I am not talking about having a strongly worded conversation in which you tell a relative, friend or colleague to stop making racist remarks or cracking misogynist jokes because it creates an unsafe environment for you and/or others. But if you were to insist that those around you stop telling any jokes at all because jokes remind you of clowns and clowns happen to be one of your triggers…hopefully you can see how this is problematic.

The bottom line is that while you are not responsible for the trauma that happened to you, you are the only one who can do anything about it.

Now for the good news: You can do something about your triggers! You are not at the whim of the people around you! Huzzah! Whether your triggers are due to a one-time Bad Thing that happened to you, to years of Bad Things happening to you on a regular basis, or even if you aren’t sure why you’re getting triggered, there are a number of evidence-based, widely used therapies created solely for the purpose of helping you process those past traumas, turn that Baggage into Wisdom, and leave your triggers in the past where they belong. How amazing would that be?! EMDR, AIR Network, Brain-Spotting, Trauma-Focused CBT are a few of the most widely used interventions, and all of them have a sizable body of research supporting their effectiveness.

Want to learn more? Contact Ellie Mental Health to be connected with a therapist trained in any of the above modalities. They can talk to you about your triggers, past trauma, and the different ways you can address them.


Terri Bly

Terri Bly is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist on a mission to help her clients pursue an intentional, values-driven life, while gaining the insight and tools they need to overcome the obstacles that inevitably arise along the way. A big fan of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Terri also incorporates mindfulness, solution-focused therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Motivational Interviewing into her practice, while maintaining a strengths-based perspective. Terri is also a firm believer in the mind-body connection to health, working with her clients to identify lifestyle changes that will help them feel and function better (translation: she is going to ask you about your sleep and technology habits – probably more than once).

Terri works with adolescents (12+) and adults, and has experience with a wide range of issues, including depression, anxiety, ADHD, managing life stressors, grief and loss, coping with physical health problems, parenting, marital/relationship difficulties, religious trauma, Reunification Therapy, divorce, and co-parenting after divorce.

Outside the office, Terri exercises her creative muscles as much as possible, and enjoys acting, singing, dancing, writing and photography. Most of her free time, however, is spent parenting her two lovely teenage daughters and their 80-pound goldendoodle, Norman.