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Calm • Anxiety

On Being ‘Triggered’

The phenomenon of being ‘triggered’ — though it may, at times, be applied too liberally — sits on top of a hugely important concept in psychological life which demands our respect, compassion and attention. To be triggered is, in its most basic form, to respond with intense fear and anger to a situation in the here and now which, to other people, may seem blameless and unconcerning. One moment we are calm, the next we are catapulted into despair and terror; only minutes ago, the future looked hopeful, now only ruin and disaster seem to lie ahead.

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Most of us who suffer from these episodes would very much like to better hold on to equanimity and hope. It may be important to know how to be scared or incensed when situations actually demand it. But (as the triggered person typically feels after an episode) it is also deeply counterproductive and plain exhausting to be visited by powerful emotions that aren’t warranted by what lies before us, and that fail to advance our interests in any way.

The way out of being uncontrollably triggered is to understand how the mechanism operates. The mind is triggered when it believes it recognises in the world around it a situation that it feels from memory to be highly damaging and dangerous. Our triggers are a secret guide to our histories: they tell us about things we were once very afraid of. The triggering element is like a piece of a jigsaw that will precisely fit into an analogous puzzle in the past. We are triggered now by what we were devastated by then.

Even if we don’t remember too much about our past, we can surmise everything we need to know from reverse engineering our triggers. If we are constantly afraid we are going to be excommunicated and mocked, this will — in some form — be exactly what happened to us at some stage long ago. If we’re terrified that someone is going to overpower us and not listen to our ‘no’s’, this is an almost sure echo of what we once experienced. The precise relationship between trigger and catalytic event may not always be literally equivalent; there can be some displacement along the way. But the link will be strong all the same. The trigger contains and maps onto a traumatic event.

Let’s imagine a person who is triggered, that is, thrown into powerful despair and self-loathing, by images on social media of blatantly attractive and popular people. No sooner have they seen these than they start to doubt and despise themselves, reflect on their inadequacies and remember all the reasons why they are fated to be a failure and unloved.

The trigger is not entirely ‘nothing’. There is something a little dispiriting about the beauty parade on certain sorts of social media. But the point at issue is the scale of the reaction that is generated. In seeking to account for it, we have to look backwards. The person has been triggered because the contemporary event contains, in a garbled, disguised and unconscious form, the essence of a profoundly traumatic dynamic in earlier life which lies mostly unknown and unexplored — and thereby commands immense and unending power over the victim. 

Let’s suppose that this person had a mother who favoured their more ebullient younger sibling over them and that their looks were part of what damned them to horrific neglect and emotional coldness. It doesn’t, in the circumstances, take much to be returned back to this place. We are animals who are primed to sniff out in the present the slightest sign of the dangers of the past.

The tragedy of triggering is that it fails to notice the differences between then and now; between the awfulness we suffered long ago and the relative innocence of the modern moment. In so far as bad things do happen nowadays, triggering also fails to account for the way in which we are no longer children, and are therefore able to respond to the threats that do come our way with a lot more creativity, strength and calm than we possessed as four or ten year olds. Were things ever to get as bad as they once were, we have so many more options than we did…and therefore so many reasons to feel less agitated and vulnerable.

To be triggered is to lose our powers of discrimination. In the heat of the moment, we can no longer distinguish between A and B. So frightening is A that everything between it and Q is, at heart, another A. We can’t tell that someone is not telling us that we are guilty, that the situation isn’t evidence of doom, that we are not being mocked, that our colleague isn’t attacking us, that we aren’t being reprimanded unbearably, that we haven’t been told we’re an idiot or a monster. We can’t distinguish between looking a bit tired and looking fundamentally unacceptable, between something they’ve done that got them sent to prison and something we’ve done that won’t ever be noticed. So primed has our history made us to appalling scenarios, we have no ability not to refind them at every turn — especially when we are a little low or tired.

Photo by FLY:D on Unsplash

Though we might assume that we’d want to escape our triggers, we are also drawn to them through a compulsive sense of familiarity. Calm and confidence aren’t our resting places; they don’t feel normal and are therefore worrying in their own way. We want our awful hunches confirmed. It can feel right to put ourselves in environments where people might be mocking, to look out for stories of disgrace or ruin or to befriend people who are constantly on the edge of undermining us. When our mood feels eerie and sad, we might go to the very website that triggers us or call up the person we know is going to alarm us.

The cure for triggering is love; love understood as a process of patiently holding someone and, like a kindly and soothing parent, helping them to discriminate between black and white, terror and calm, evil and goodness. The cure lies too in learning to work backwards from our current triggers to the dynamics that once created them. Rather than worrying yet more about the future, we should ask ourselves the simple question: What does my fear of what will happen tell me about what did happen? What scenario from my past is contained in my alarm at the future?

To overcome our triggers is to come to navigate the present with all the confidence and excited curiosity that should have been ours from the start. And maturity could be defined as: knowing what triggers us and why — and a commitment to dampening our first responses in the name of a patient exploration and understanding of the past.

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