In Defense or Survival Mode
When triggers hit, they’re usually unexpected and beyond your control.
And what usually happens next, right after the trigger: You react with old ‘defenses’ or ‘survival strategies’ that are no longer helpful or healthy (if they ever were), and that only makes things worse.
Some simple examples of triggers and the ‘conditioned responses’ they unleash:
- Someone criticizes something you’ve said or done, and you instantly get defensive and angry, then verbally go on the attack.
- Someone criticizes something you’ve said or done, and you instantly feel crushed and defeated, then go silent and try to ‘disappear.’
- Walking into your childhood home, your body suddenly tenses up and your eyes scan for threats.
The Nature of Triggers
Triggers can be totally obvious, like someone touching you sexually when you don’t want or expect it, or someone threatening you or clearly trying to take advantage of you.
Triggers can be obvious or subtle, in our awareness or not.
Or they can be subtle, like someone making a mildly sarcastic comment that reminds you of mean and shaming things a parent used to say, or someone giving you a look that seems to have some contempt in it.
Triggers aren’t always about other people and what they say or do. They can be something like a faint smell of alcohol (that used to be on the breath of an abuser). They could be the shape of a man’s moustache, a style of clothing, a wallpaper pattern, or the sound of a slamming door. They can be an ‘anniversary’ date of a traumatic event like an abuse experience or someone’s death.
What are triggers for a particular man depends on his unique experiences of being vulnerable and hurt in his life, and the unique details of the situations in which those experiences occurred.
The trigger is always real. By definition, a trigger is something that reminds you of something bad or hurtful from your past. It ‘triggers’ an association or memory in your brain.
But sometimes you are imagining that what’s happening now is actually like what happened back then, when in reality it’s hardly similar at all, or it just reminds you because you’re feeling vulnerable in a way you did when that bad thing happened in the past.
Just as triggers range from obvious to subtle, sometimes we’re aware of them and sometimes we’re not. Your body may suddenly freak out with a racing heart and feeling of panic, but you have no idea what set off that reaction. You may suddenly feel enraged in a slightly tense conversation, but be unable to point to anything in particular that made you angry. Sometimes you can figure it out later (for example in therapy), and sometimes not.
Also, though we may not realize that we just got triggered, or why, it can be obvious to someone who knows us well, like a partner, friend, or therapist. When you feel comfortable doing so, with someone you really trust, it can be very helpful to talk over situations where you seemed to over-react.
Triggers that involve other people’s behavior are often connected to ways that we repeat unhealthy relationship patterns learned in childhood. Things that other people do – especially people close to us and especially in situations of conflict – remind us of hurtful things done to us in the past. Then we respond as if we’re defending ourselves against those old vulnerabilities, hurts, or traumas.
But our responses usually just trigger vulnerable feelings in the other person, as well as their own old self-defense patterns, and we both end up repeating the unhealthy relationship patterns we that fear and don’t want in our lives.
As noted above, other common triggers include ‘anniversaries,’ that is, dates or holidays that remind you, at some level, of traumatic experiences, of how your family wasn’t and isn’t so happy and loving, etc.
Triggers’ Power and Effects
The power of a trigger depends on how closely it resembles a past situation or relationship, how painful or traumatic that situation or relationships was, and the state of your body and brain when the triggering happens.
Reactions can be big and fast, or creep up on you slowly.
If you’re feeling very calm and safe, the reaction will be much less than if you’re feeling anxious and afraid. If you’re feeling little support or trust in a relationship, your reactions to triggering behaviors by the other person will be much greater.
A trigger can bring out feelings, memories, thoughts, and behaviors.
Other people might have no idea that you’ve been triggered, but you could be struggling with terrible memories in your head. Or you could suddenly have all kinds of negative thoughts and beliefs about the other person and/or yourself, like, ‘I never should have trusted her,’ ‘Every woman will stab you in the heart,’ ‘What a loser I am,’ etc.
Reactions to triggers can be very dramatic and rapid, like lashing out at someone who says the wrong thing or looks at you the wrong way. In these cases, your brain has entered a ‘fight or flight’ state and the part of your brain that you need to think clearly, to remember your values and what’s important to you, and to reflect on your own behavior, is effectively shut down.
But responses to triggers can also creep up on you, playing out over hours and days, and get worse over time.
You may find yourself depressed and retreating from any contact with friends, or drinking a lot more every night, or smoking way more cigarettes than usual. You may find youself getting lost in TV, videogames, or pornography. Days later you may wonder, ‘Woah, how did I get back into this?’
Awareness = Freedom and Control
Basically, if you’re reacting to someone or something much more intensely than seems to make sense, then the situation has triggered something deeper and older in your brain. You’re not reacting to what’s actually happening in the here and now, and you’re certainly not acting freely.
You can change how you respond to triggers.
Instead, you’re feeling and acting, however consciously or unconsciously, as if you’re ‘back there’ in that old painful or traumatic experience, on autopilot and enslaved by old conditioning.
Fortunately, it’s entirely possible to greatly increase your awareness of your own unique triggers, and of what happens in your mind and body when particular things trigger you. With that foundation of awareness and understanding in place, you can learn how to avoid simply responding as you always did in the past, and instead respond in new and much more healthy ways.
In this way, you can free yourself from deeply ingrained conditioning, actually rewiring your brain to respond in new and much healthier ways to the inevitable triggers we all encounter in our lives and relationships.
For many men, understanding and reconditioning their responses to triggers will require, or be greatly speeded up, by help from a therapist or counselor. There are also self-help resources available, including those mentioned under Additional Resources below.
Due to the way traumatic memories are stored, when something arises in the present that reminds you of a past event, you may feel the feelings associated with the past event…. We call the present-day events triggers, because they trigger the emotions associated with the trauma….
You may be unaware of certain triggers, because you have amnesia about the traumatic events and so can not relate present-day sights, smells, actions, feelings, and people to those involved in your trauma. Often trauma survivors do not know why they react so negatively or intensely to certain situations. It may seem that the situation does not warrant such an extreme reaction, yet there may be a perfectly logical reason for such a reaction if the situation is in some way similar to the trauma…
Having triggers, or reacting to them, does not mean you are crazy or defective. However, when you are blind to what you are feeling and why you are feeling it, you may be driven to act in ways that do not serve you well. The purpose of this chapter is to help you become more aware of your triggers and to help you to manage your reactions to them (I Can’t Get Over It: A Handbook for Trauma Survivors, Chapter 5, Why Am I Acting This Way? – Triggers, pp.113-114).
A stress response can trigger avoidance in the form of denial, dissociation, bingeing, substance abuse, self-harm, and other behaviors in an effort to get rid of feelings. These avoidance behaviors, in turn, can trigger stress responses inside because they are reminders of old efforts to deal with painful feelings. The stronger the response, the stronger the impulses to avoid. The effort spent avoiding leaves little energy to manage day-to-day life, and the result is increased stress responses that increase impulses to avoid. What a mess!
Fortunately, self-regulation skills can help you to tolerate (sit with) and control intense feeling states that have led to avoidance or dissociation in the past. You can learn to feel and control the intensity of your emotions to reduce avoidance. This will help reduce the frequency and intensity of traumatic stress symptoms and experiences. This handbook will teach you the relationship between dissociation, numbing, avoidance, and traumatic stress, and will help you to replace old, currently problematic coping (e.g., dissociation, avoidance, etc.) with conscious, more effective methods of coping (Growing Beyond Survival: A Self-Help Toolkit for Managing Traumatic Stress, p.28).
In addition to the books quoted from above, you may also consider learning how to cultivate greater ‘mindfulness,’ which will increase (1) your awareness of triggers and your automatic responses to them, and (2) the mental space and time you have for choosing new, healthier and more constructive responses. See former advisory board member Jim Hopper’s webpage, Mindfulness and Kindness: Inner Sources of Freedom and Happiness.