I’ve not had a good rant in a while. This one is very close to my heart so buckle in bitches. There has been an increase of using the word ‘triggered’ often in a derogatory way to imply someone’s emotional reaction is irrational. I don’t like it. It is belittling and dismissive. As a person with trauma I have to be more aware of my triggers because many of them are irrational. That being said, if a person is trying to communicate something they are uncomfortable about, especially if it is you that has made them uncomfortable, and all you can do is shout “triggered” at them or belittle their emotions then don’t expect them to give a fuck about you when you are the one who is uncomfortable.
Let’s start with what a trigger actually is. The Cambridge dictionary defines it as: “experiencing a strong emotional reaction of fear, shock, anger, or worry, especially because you are made to remember something bad that has happened in the past:” So, a triggered response is usually when our fight or flight (or freeze, or fawn) response is activated. Something bad is about to happen and your brain and body goes “aha, we’ve been here before, this is how we handle this situation”. That reaction, though it served you before might not be relevant to the situation you are now, but at one point it was; that is why it exists.
It can be empowering to work out what your triggers are, where they come from and if they still serve the situation you’re in. This is essentially what shadow work is. I have the spicy de-ja vu (PTSD) so no, many of my triggers do not serve the situation I am in now. This is because I wasn’t safe before and now I am. They might seem extreme from the outside, because they are. My trauma is extreme. It already feels shit to have triggers, is pointing out how irrational they are helpful? No it fucking isn’t. It just makes you seem like an insensitive cockwomble. I wouldn’t wish my experience and the resulting trauma and triggers on another person so forgive me if sometimes I still act out of those places. They are not healed and I am CONSTANTLY working on it.
This brings to the next part of my rant which will be in 2 sections. One for those who do not have triggers/understand what it is like to live with them (arguably we all do but some people’s are not as extreme or irrational) and those who do.
Firstly let explain what it is like to have a trigger. Everything we do is a learnt behaviour.
Every experience creates a neural pathway in our brains: input A equals outcome blah. As we go through life we make new ones, there are a million more connections in our brains than stars in the milky way. They look like tree branches, spreading out. Between the ages of 2-16, our brains undergo a process called ‘synaptic pruning’ it is ongoing but there are times when it is more intense which is why ‘the terrible twos’ and teenage angst happens, It’s an exhausting process. Essentially, this system trims away the weaker pathways, the ones we don’t need. I always use the shape sorter example: You know those little toys for babies where you have to get the triangle in the triangle hole and so on. Every time you get the right shape in the right hole you get a little endorphin boost and that pathway becomes stronger. There comes a point where it is the strongest and you no longer try to fit the triangle in any other hole. Synaptic pruning trims away the inefficient connections and makes space for new connections to be made in other areas. This is process for LITERALLY EVERYTHING you have ever learnt.
Trouble is, synaptic pruning stops in adulthood leaving us with all the connections, the efficient and inefficient. Input A can lead to outcomes A,B, C and so on. Every time we repeat a pattern, that connection becomes stronger. I’ll give you an example; Due to traumatic events, I learnt that if I stood up for what felt right to me and it disagreed with someone, It would end badly: aggression and violence etc. So, I learnt not to disagree with people. Is this healthy? Is it fuck! I have had to teach myself that it is ok to disagree with people. The first few times (more like 1000) I knew I wanted to disagree so I would psyche myself up for it. My mind and body, expecting me to have to fight for it; goes into survival mode when I haven’t even said anything yet. From the inside it looks like this:
- *person makes statement which I strongly disagree with*
- I get an uncomfortable feeling knowing I don’t agree and I want to say something like “I disagree, because my experience has been this”
- Brain “oh no, don’t stand up for yourself it will end up much worse; here are a 100 times this has gone badly before including these extreme times we thought we were going to die.
- Body Brain says we are going to die! *activates survival mode*
I now have to try to override the survival mode. What do I know about the person I am disagreeing with? Are they safe? Is the survival mode actually going to help? Now I’m sweating and shaking, I don’t breathe properly. My body wants to run or fight or worse fawn (My fawn response is my least favourite as it comes up the most). I try to express my views calmly. Inside sirens are going off, shit is on fire and rational thought is standing by the window about to yeet itself. I push through it anyway, I say what I want to say and hopefully we have a normal adults-resolving-conflict discussion. About 10 minutes later I disassociate and zone out because my body is coming down from what it felt was a near death experience.
From the outside it can look like this:
*person makes statement* one of three things happens.
- I stare ahead wide eyed, clearly panicking, it’s like I’m buffering. I manage to say “I disagree” and make my point. We have a conversation. All is good. Neural pathway for ‘not dying when you stand up for your views’ is strengthened. Goth levels up 1 exp
- I act out of survival mode. Drama ensues. Bad times.
- I say nothing and hyper focus on that until the end of time, feeling cowardly and worthless (fawn).
I have been working on this particular trigger for about 3 years now. The ‘not dying’ pathway has become stronger but it is still a conscious battle to choose this path. The best phrase I have for it is ‘overriding the old programme’. I can stand up for myself comfortably. Sometimes if it gets heated I still shake but I can stand my ground and not have a panic attack. I also still disassociate afterwards. The most irritating thing about this trigger is it only comes up when I am standing up for myself. If it is anyone else I am defending or protecting I am in complete control, cool as a cucumber mate. Good in a crisis, as long as it isn’t my crisis.
I have worse triggers than this. The really irrational ones that can be linked to a word, a smell, a place, the look on a persons face. In these situations I can recognise I am feeling triggered. In these instances all I can say is something like “oh nooo, that’s triggering” and do whatever I need to do to calm myself down. “DO NOT ENGAGE WITH THE SCARY THING, GO, BREATHE, FIND SAFETY, FIND RATIONAL THOUGHT, GET AWAY FROM THE WINDOW BITCH AND DO SOMETHING!”
At takes at least 15 minutes to calm down and then decide of I can ‘override the old programme’. This is me taking responsibility for my unique triggers and working to overcome them. They are mine. Mine to work on, mine to overcome and mine to manage. Therapy certainly helped, as did removing myself from toxic repeating patterns which affirmed the trigger rather than challenge it. I use a sabre tooth tiger as a metaphor sometimes, as in: “I know it’s not a sabre tooth tiger coming to eat me.” I have discovered recently that this was down playing my anxiety. It didn’t quite get across the “I FEEL LIKE I’M GOING TO DIE AND I HAVE TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!!!” message. I was trying to highlight that I know it is irrational but I needed to add “but my body thinks there is one around the corner and so is acting like there is”.
There, I hope that gives a taste of what it is like to experience a trigger. It all happens in the blink of an eye. We all have them, a particular tone of voice or phrase pisses you off, you’re afraid of dogs because you were bitten as a child, you have abandonment issues, reactivity or a particular song makes you feel sad. The thing I have an issue with is the trigger shaming. You don’t know what a person has been through. You can’t understand what it is like to be be so afraid you’re body had to take over to keep you safe. So to shout ‘triggered’ at a person who clearly is, is just cold hearted. Lucky you to not have experienced such awful things. What a lot of us need to over ride the program is just an interruption. It allows to engage our rational brain and act from there. If you are the sort of person who can not allow that for another human; another human who has already had a shit time, then I have some special hexes in my pocket just for you.
Furthermore, I get that you may feel called to help a person overcome their triggers and that is great. Do so by being an ally not another bully. Do not shame people, or tell them they are ridiculous (believe me, we fucking know), do not try to get them to ‘push through it’. Most importantly, if your person does manage to do the thing they want to do, not the thing they feel they have to do; DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES say “See that wasn’t so bad” I have more special hexes for you bitches! All the really shitty irritating ones.
Being an ally means saying things like “I’m here, you’re safe, how can I help?”. Try to make space for the person, removing them from the situation. Encourage them to breathe, use the tools they (hopefully) already have. Please bear in mind that not everyone can be held physically in these moments. Cuddles and physical touch aren’t always helpful when you’re freaking out. It makes me worse actually. Ask your person when they are calm what would be helpful, or if you cant do that, you know, you could just fuck off.
Point number two for my spicy brained amigos: It is YOUR job to identify, understand, manage and overcome your triggers. If you don’t put effort into doing this you will repeat the same patterns, with similar people, reaffirming that trigger until it finally becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. People won’t always understand what you are going through. Do it anyway. Find your allies, talk to them about what they see when you are triggered. Workout where they stem from and why they served you once. Decide how you would like to react to situations and practice at it.
Hard as it is, you have to be the one to break the cycle first, there is help out there. Therapy is expensive (at least the stuff that works is, cuts to the NHS have made looking for help there pretty futile) but it is the most worthwhile thing you could spend your money on. Talk to your friends, do some research, talk to other traumatised people, join groups, engage in shadow work. Actually, shadow work is something you can use for free that helps with the identifying and understanding part for sure. You can find shadow work prompts for free online. I might even write out a few more that I use in my own practice.
Our triggers exist because at one point they kept us safe. Do they serve you now? If the answer is no what are you going to do about it? Do you want to keep going through the same cycles or are you willing to make some changes the first one being looking long and hard at your trauma. It is terrifying, and hard but so worth it my darlings. The only thing holding yourself back is you. You don’t have to stay stuck where you are. There are other ways.
If reading this has been triggering for you, please do reach out. I’m here to help and if I can’t, I can point you in the direction of someone who can. Also, feel free to send this piece to anyone who could do with learning a bit more about what is like to live with triggers or how to handle them. It would mean a lot to me if you started it with “Oi dickhead! Read this”
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peace out witches ✌
Love Kate xxx