Folks with complex PTSD from chronic childhood trauma and those with PTSD due to traumatic events, such as a school shooting, have triggers. A trigger is anything that reminds them of a previous traumatic event. It causes a strong reaction, making them feel as if they were reliving the event all over again.
Triggers are ubiquitous in the mental health arena in the form of emotional activation, physical symptoms such as a racing heart, crisis situations and de-escalation, coping skills in psychoeducation, and just about every form of therapy. Our society now uses the term for any mundane experience eliciting any reaction.
Triggers are often considered bad, specifically for those of us who have experienced relational trauma in childhood. Many perceive them as something to avoid, be ashamed of, and either hide from or over-share with others. Most likely within our family environments, our logical responses to pain are transformed into signs of weakness. Others often hear the word “trigger” and think, “you’re crazy,” then diminish our needs as frivolous to break down our boundaries and meet their own needs.
Why We Misinterpret Triggers
When we feel agitated and panicked in response to some stimuli, regardless of what it is, and when all our energies — physical, emotional, spiritual — tell us something is excruciating, it has to be loud. This is because we have learned not to listen.
We are taught not to honor those signals, that the problem is in us for overreacting to something supposedly benign. This is nonsense, yet our parents and others taught us not to trust our perceptions and make accurate meanings of them. These meanings become natural to us because we needed our parents for survival, so we were essentially coded not to listen to ourselves, trust ourselves, or find things that bring us joy and inspire us.
It can take a lifetime to recognize that these meanings for our pain are illogical. This is why it is essential to work with a therapist who can effectively support you and help you notice that your perception is skewed in ways that make you feel invalid and offers little language or meaning for inspiration, peace, or contentment.
Learn to Listen to Your Feelings
The next time you feel triggered, take a moment to step back internally and observe what is happening in your body biologically. Notice your first response to these sensations — is it a desire to make them go away as fast as possible?
What kind of images do these sensations bring to mind? Perhaps a boot on the chest, frozen, pulsing. A leap into a hot cauldron of stew? That’s some of my own internal imagery, but what is yours? You may be able to assign a body movement with the experience.
Next, look around, assess the facts of the situation, and overlay them on the imagery. Do they fit together? You may have to play with it, but you’ll know whether it works.
What Our Past Experiences Can Teach Us
I know that something fits because I recognize it the same way I experienced the feelings I had at 12 years old at a community center dance when they played Billie Jean by Michael Jackson. I recognize the sensations the song evokes even though it took me a while to remember the dance intellectually.
This process helps me make sense of my current experience by way of that past experience. Billie Jean elicits both joy and pain for me; joy from being one with the music and pain from the intense loneliness of keeping family secrets and hiding my distress. Now, when I recognize those sensations at other times, I can tap into my body telling me that I might be experiencing loneliness or a lack of connection, and I find ways to connect with others.
When we honor the messages our senses offer and learn to recognize them with increasing refinement, we develop our own glossary and know how to meet our needs in those times. When we meet our needs, those triggers don’t have to get so loud, building trust in ourselves and gaining a more nuanced sense of self. This is where you will find the center of you.