Updated: May 17
What does it mean to be triggered? It's a term that gets thrown around a lot
But what does it actually mean? And are we a slave to our triggers or is there a way to understand them that gives us more power in our lives?
When I hear people talk about triggers, it is usually in the context of something someone did or said to them, or an event that happened to which they had a strong emotional response - i.e. an emotional response got triggered. And it’s easy to blame the person or event for how you feel. It's really normal to feel like the outside event or some other person caused us to feel the thing we feel because logically, we didn't feel that thing BEFORE they said or did what they did.
But here's the rub. When we have an extreme emotional reaction to something (usually an out-of-proportion response), it CAN mean our nervous system has recognised something in what was said or done that takes us back to a time when we felt unsafe, vulnerable, unloved, disrespected or not enough. And it often has very little to do with the actual thing that is happening (although triggers are tricky and are definitely not the whole picture, they are a great place to start getting curious).
A trigger is when our nervous system (the part that deals with flight, fight or freeze, a mechanism designed in by nature, evolution, God, or whatever/whoever you believe in about where humans came from) gets set off. This could be anything real or imagined, and can include memories (which actually get stored in our muscles as well as our brain), stories we have created about what something means, moments of feeling unsafe emotionally, or actual danger. But whatever sets it off, it is something that the body and brain now perceives as a threat to our ‘survival’.
Survival is not only about food, shelter and safety. In the past, it was also dangerous for humans to be outside the group or community, so belonging and even experiencing love and connection with others is also a form of safety that continues to this present day.
When that sense of safety or connection is threatened in any way (again real or perceived), the Autonomic Nervous System kicks in to help us survive. The result is one of 3 things:
1) We either try to automatically run away from the danger (which might look like playing endless computer games to avoid the constant criticisms of your persistent partner, or vagueing out when your partner is in full complaining mode or going to the bedroom and slamming the door when a fight starts) OR
2) We fight back - that one is pretty obvious, right? And ever been in an argument where you are both yelling at each other and fighting to be heard and understood, defending yourselves, making each other wrong? Probably! Or maybe even in an argument where your partner follows you around the house to continue the argument while you keep trying to get away? (ok, yes, I have done that!!) OR
3) We freeze. Did you know that if you see a bear, the safest strategy is to freeze if you want to keep your limbs? Moral of that story is perhaps don’t get into an argument with a bear if your inbuilt survival strategy is No 1 or 2! In your relationship, however, it might look like your partner giving you the silent treatment or behaving like a rabbit in headlights when you are trying to get your point across or to get them to do something or agree with you. This is because whatever you are saying (or how you are saying it) feels like an attack to them.
It’s important to remember that whatever you and your partner feels is an attack or criticism may not seem like one to the other one. But it’s personal to each of us - if we feel something is an attack (even if it doesn’t seem like one, our nervous system kicks in and now we are doing either number 1, 2, or 3!
Let me give you an example. Imagine a woman whose partner doesn't complete tasks around the house exactly when she wants them done. It triggers her nervous system because she subconsciously remembers when she tried to get her father's attention and he ignored her (it may have been just one time, or it may have happened to her many times). The story she created as a child from this might have been that her father didn't love her and she wasn’t good enough to get his attention. With her nervous system in the present triggering this past feeling (unconsciously) when her husband seems to be ignoring her needs, she now has the story that her husband doesn't love her or she’s not good enough for him when he doesn't do what she needs him to do, exactly when she needs it (she is, after all, a go-getter herself, and gets everything done that she says in record time. So her story also includes the fact that he is lazy and is a procrastinator - but that's for another blog post!!)
Now, the past has collapsed with the present. In this case, her nervous system is wired for attack. So she begins criticising him, calling him names (lazy), demanding that he change, insisting that he doesn't love or respect her and feeling like she will never get the love and respect she so desperately wants from him.
Now HIS nervous system is wired up. He comes from a family where expressing emotions was completely not allowed - nobody ever got angry, loving, sad or shared any type of emotion, so this tirade of emotions is extremely scary and unsafe for him. However, HIS way of managing the stress response of his nervous system, set off by being criticised and not being able to please his wife, whom he loves very much, is to retreat to his favourite armchair and watch TV or play video games to escape.
Now, he has confirmed her story of him, that he doesn't love or respect her because he ignores her.
In addition, he finds it extremely difficult to love and respect because she is so angry and hostile with him all the time.
By the way, so you have another perspective, he does eventually do the task in his own time. It turns out that he is not a procrastinator, but rather, likes to spend time planning the task in his mind really carefully so that he does a perfect job the first time, rather than doing it quickly and having to go back later to fix the mistakes. In addition, whilst processing how to do the task, he also comes up with innovative ways to make it even better than they originally planned and includes extra things that he knows she will love or find useful. The power of perspective!
Who is right? Both because they are both being human and BOTH of their experiences are valid, even if not actually true.
Who is wrong? Neither - they are just reacting to triggers, through unconscious and automatic responses to the past and living in their own perspective.
But in the end, just understanding what is going on is not going to bring more connection and love - it requires a willingness to own the triggers and commit to shifting behaviour
I am not suggesting that triggers are the only thing at play here - there are also each person’s rules for love and life, their beliefs about themselves and each other, their differences in what is important to them, their preferences, their natures, what drives them, to name a few. But managing the emotional responses remains incredibly important.
Imagine a second scenario. A couple had great chemistry and lots of passion in their early relationship. Suddenly, one partner doesn't want to have sex as often or at all - it could equally be the man or the woman but for the sake of the story, let's say the woman suddenly starts experiencing some pain on penetration that she doesn't understand or know what to do with (a common symptom in perimenopause).
She doesn’t share that she has pain because she feels scared, confused, vulnerable, embarrassed and maybe even undesirable - perhaps triggered by a past event where she felt powerless or vulnerable
He tries to initiate sex a few times but her rejection of his sexual advances leaves him feeling inadequate and rejected because sexuality is an area that so easily triggers early experiences of abandonment, rejection and especially in a man, inadequacy.
Both might retreat to their ‘corners of the bed/relationship’ because their nervous systems tell them that running away is the safest way to protect themselves.
I am not saying that triggers are the only things at play here, by any means, but by becoming aware of what got triggered and the story these two people have about the situation is powerful.
By understanding that the lack of desire of his partner might have nothing to do with his triggers of abandonment, and by calming his nervous system, he could be freed up to address the actual issue of no sex in their relationship and create a conversation that could deepen their relationship, and bring them closer together and enable them to find solutions to the challenge.
By recognising her trigger of feeling scared, inadequate or vulnerable, she could calm her nervous system, open up to her partner and create a constructive conversation that could result in much greater connection and intimacy, and again, they can find a solution together.
When we are driven by our triggers, the autonomic nervous system is in charge. And the very function of that autonomic nervous system is to keep us from dying - to save us from threats both internally and externally.
That’s great if we are running from the proverbial tiger, but when that part of the nervous system is switched on, it overrides the cortex of the brain - the part that controls our executive functions like problem-solving, decision-making, memory, learning, control of our emotions, and reasoning - even the function of our senses (no time to stop and smell the flowers if you are being chased by a rabid tiger!)
So… what can we do?
I like to think of 5 steps to help with dealing with our triggers
To notice that you get triggered. This might seem obvious but triggers are often well hidden. But if you have any emotional response that seems out of proportion to the actual event, that could be an indication that a trigger to a past situation might be playing out. Even if it isn’t an actual trigger from the past, the following steps will help anyway! Because ultimately, you can’t go back and change the past, you can only deal with what arises in the present moment.
Find out where you feel a sensation in your body and describe that to yourself - become aware of it. Perhaps it is a tightening in your chest, a gripping sensation in your stomach, heat, cold, waves, contraction, pain, nausea. It can be anywhere in your body - even in the ethereal/energetic body (I had a client who felt heat outside the top of his head when he was angry and a 10 year old girl who felt sadness in her knees!)
Calm your nervous system. This can be done in many ways. If you are with your partner, you may like to request some time out to process, and go to another room or go for a walk. Others find deep breathing, tapping or meditation (mindfulness meditation is especially helpful - the more you practise (daily for example), the easier it is to calm yourself in the moment). Try doing some physical exercise, massage or stroke your feet, hands or other parts of your body, make an infinity sign in the air with your index finger and say out loud to yourself ‘I am safe, I am calm’ repetitively. The switching off of the flight or fight response is crucial for switching on the higher executive functions of the brain (the cortex) to enable better connection with yourself and your partner, to be able to reason, put things in perspective, make different decisions, and generally become more creative and rational in finding a solution.
In the longer term (not while you are triggered!) begin to look for where the triggers came from. The moment that the triggers were set are often in childhood, since that’s when our nervous system is developing, but they may also be from other times in your life when you felt unsafe or in danger (remember the danger might have been the loss of love or connection - it’s not always physical danger) Then ask yourself - is what happened in the present REALLY true? Or could it be because it reminds you of something from the past. Could there be another perspective? For most of us, what is happening in the moment feels absolutely real and true. This person or this thing MADE me feel angry, annoyed, pissed off, sad, frustrated. That sock on the floor really and truly does mean my partner doesn’t respect me, but when you examine it from another angle (perhaps your partner’s perspective!), it isn’t really true, just a fear that comes from somewhere else in your life. You may need to seek support from a therapist or coach if the past event feels very traumatic for you to look at on your own.
Finally, what actions do you need to take or what do you need to communicate so that the trigger becomes less powerful? It’s super important for you and your partner to share your triggers with each other in a safe space - get to know them, befriend them. Commit to not actively doing things that you know are going to set your partner off, while both committing to being responsible for taking care of your own responses to being ‘set off’
If you are making requests of your partner in relation to your triggers, make sure you go to the deeper needs, not just the surface ones - it’s not about the sock on the floor but about the memory and emotion that it triggers, and the meaning you gave it. What did you make it mean? My partner doesn’t respect me? Look for other things they do that show they respect you (please, if you are in an abusive relationship, seek help and don’t go looking for reasons to trust someone who is continually disrespectful or continually doing things to cause you pain) Find a solution when you are both in a calm state, and not in flight, fight or freeze mode - be prepared for those moments when you get triggered.
No marathon runner completes a marathon without training and preparing, and let’s face it: committed relationships are a marathon not a 100m sprint. This is not about being perfect at this or necessarily getting rid of the triggers forever. Instead, it is a practice and as you do it more often, like training for the marathon, you get better at it and the intensity of the response to the triggers is likely to diminish. It is a daily practice that you commit to.
Remember that even the most loving couples can trigger each other at times - it’s a journey of getting better at:
noticing when you get upset about something that may be about more than the thing that happened in the present,
learning to be responsible for calming yourself down,
talking with your partner about what your deep triggers AND theirs, are so you are both aware
making loving requests of your partner around what triggers you, and
finding ways to help each other calm your nervous systems when accidents happen!
We are all human and sometimes even with our best intentions, we say and do things that upset each other at times! Be as kind, loving and patient as you can with yourself AND your partner, and if you DO set your partner’s nervous system off, make sure you apologise and are mindful for the future.
Remember, get help with this, if it seems too challenging for you, so you can get started on feeling more empowered in your own life and in your relationship
If you have any area in your life or relationship that is getting in the way of you having the kind of loving, connected, intimate relationship you crave and deserve, I’d love to support you. Reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or book a free call with me here https://linktr.ee/SharleneHalbertCoach and let’s have a conversation about it.
Live in Love