The term ‘trigger’ has fallen into common usage to describe an external stimulus that sets off an internal reaction of distress.
Examples might include:
You see a particular type of object/person/situation, and it reminds you of a past trauma
You are treated a certain way, and it sets off an acute reaction in you
You read or hear about something, and the information reminds you of something that has caused you distress in the past
You are put, or put yourself, under pressure, and it triggers a chain reaction of distress
PATTERN TRIGGER – when the shape or character of a thing, person or event has a pattern which overstimulates your mind
BEHAVIOUR TRIGGER – when others’ direct behaviour towards you overstimulates your mind
INFORMATION TRIGGER – when simply receiving associated information overstimulates your mind
STRESS TRIGGER – when simply being under pressure overstimulates your mind
During your past experiences of suffering, your mind will have noted the characteristics of the main people, objects and events, and stored them up for later. Unfortunately, some of these details will be inappropriately specific. For instance, if you have suffered at the hands of someone with a particular hair colour, it may be that even that hair colour will trigger a reaction in you.
It can take a while to notice what patterns and types are acting as triggers. But it is worth doing the analysis if you can. If you don’t, you may even find yourself repeating trauma by unconsciously seeking out people and situations similar to past traumas. Why would you seek out similar situations? It seems perverse, but if a past pattern has given you a combination of familiarity on the one hand, and adrenaline on the other, you may be driven to seek it out. We are not always very good at telling the difference between excitement and fear.
One you have learned to spot patterns, at least you can make a conscious decision as to how to deal with them.
As humans, we are also built to protect ourselves by defending ourselves against others’ behaviour towards us. With some behaviours (e.g. physical aggression), we have a natural tendency to react acutely.
If you have suffered from particular forms of aggression in the past, then your mind will be on the lookout for them. Thus, if you have been over-controlled in the past, then you may develop a hyper-sensitivity to anything that looks like the beginnings of personal control. Similarly, if information about you has been misused in the past (common in bullying situations), then you may be hyper-reactive to anyone who seeks to know about you.
Again, it can take a while to notice what behaviour triggers you are hyper-sensitive to. It can be anything, but sensitivity to being controlled is common (e.g. being told what to do; being asked for information about you; being challenged; being contradicted; even receiving attention from others; all these can trigger a mini-explosion in your mind).
Learning what behaviours in others trigger you can help you to develop strategies to avoid escalating situations.
Humans are also built to gather data to protect themselves.
However, this wish to gather data can be reversed by traumatic events. For instance, those who have experienced legal battles can start fearing the arrival of post through their door. A hyper-alertness can develop, in which the flow of information can become a fearful thing in itself. In this watchful state, the arrival of new data can, in itself, trigger an unwanted response.
Another common way in which information triggers develop, is in the field of health. A person who has suffered a loss, can be so sensitive to further loss, that they become oversensitive to any and all information about their own body. Tiny changes get over-attended to, investigated, and turned into big self-defence issues. A headache becomes a brain tumour; an itchy skin becomes cancer. In the same way, someone who has lost a child, can be extremely sensitive to any and all information about their next child.
Sensitivity to data is not in itself bad. We thrive on our ability to process information. But, at times, our informational bias leaves us susceptible to overload, and we may need to give ourselves a rest.
Lastly, humans are built to respond to pressure. However, just like a car with suspension, the amount of suspension available can determine how much stress we can cope with.
If we are exhausted, for instance, then we are much less able to roll with the waves and adapt to events. If you have had a sleepless night, then something which normally causes you no problems, can suddenly trigger an acute reaction.
Think of yourself as normally surrounded by bubblewrap which protects you. On some days, you just have more bubblewrap around you. On other days, every single thing that happens is felt acutely.
If you can be aware when you are like this, that awareness can help you to adjust. An army would not march when it is weak and starving. In the same way, you can learn when to be kinder to yourself, and limit your exposure to stress.
HOW COUNSELLING CAN WORK WITH TRIGGERS
In your own self-development, you may well be able to detect some of the above patterns, and deal with them. However, sometimes it can be helpful to get the assistance of a third party in supporting change. Here are a few of the ways in which counselling and psychotherapy can help:
PATTERN TRIGGERS – Third party assistance can provide help in noticing what people and situations seem to trigger a disproportionate response in you. A safe, trusting relationship with a counsellor can help you to investigate safely, as well as providing an extra pair of eyes to help spot patterns of sensitivity you may have missed.
BEHAVIOUR TRIGGERS – A good, developing relationship with a counsellor can be of particular help in learning how you respond to others’ behaviour. In particular, all the control triggers will be present in the counselling room in some way. With a good counsellor you can learn, in action, how sensitive you may be to feelings of being told what to do; being asked for information; being challenged; being contradicted; receiving attention. If the relationship goes well, you may develop an open communication path in which you and your counsellor can discover, in safety, your own relational sensitivities, and how you may wish to adapt how you relate. (I have to add that a good counsellor will be open to the same learnings about themselves – it’s not all one way!)
INFORMATION TRIGGERS – A key function of counselling can be to help ‘normalise’ your situation. Of course your situation is unique, but your counsellor, if experienced, will have seen and read about your type of issue in some depth. This means that sometimes reassurance is possible. It can be enormously comforting to know that certain informational obsessions or biases are commonplace – that you are not alone.
STRESS TRIGGERS – Some people find that coming to the same safe place on a regular basis, where you are relatively protected and your happiness is prioritised, is massively helpful. At times of high stress, or times of heightened sensitivity, it can be stabilising to be able to reflect peacefully on what is happening.
Different things can trigger you in a day: encountering particular types of person or event; encountering particular behaviours; simply noticing or receiving information; and being put under pressure.
You can learn to spot the things that trigger you, investigate why they do so, and begin to adapt your behaviour. In particular, your decisions, strategies, and self-care routines can take your triggers into account.
If you need extra help, then a good counsellor can give you a safe environment in which to explore and develop how you deal with triggers.