The word “trigger” refers to anything that sets off the three brains to the point where we become aware of a thought, feeling or body sensation.
In the exercise from part 3 of this series, you brought up a memory that “triggered” a feeling, thought and/or physical sensation. In other words, the memory evoked some experiences for you.
Triggers can be external or internal.
External triggers originate from our surroundings. An example of an external trigger is my mother’s criticism. As a result of her judging my outfit, let’s say, I am triggered to experience anger, sadness or shame. Since my mother is in the environment, this is an external trigger. What emotions does criticism trigger in you?
The weather can be a trigger. Some people are triggered to feel good on a sunny day or gloomy on a gloomy day. What emotions does a sunny day trigger within you?
Triggers can be subtle or intense.
Internal triggers happen inside of us. Illness is an internal trigger. Some people, like my grandmother, get depressed when they get the flu.
The range of responses to illness can be quite wide: sadness, shame, fear, guilt, anger and even joy and relief from not having to feel obligated to do anything but be taken care of. What emotions does illness trigger for you?
Negative thoughts also trigger emotions. When we think we are not as good as someone else, it triggers feelings. When we have proud thoughts about something we have done, that triggers joy, contentment, guilt, and others.
Anything can trigger any emotion. Even one emotion can trigger another. For example, some people feel shame every time they get angry or sad.
While emotions are universal across sex, race, culture, and gender, triggers are individual and formed from a combination of genetic predisposition and life experience, especially early life experience.
Putting Together What You’ve Learned about Triggers and the Three Brains, and What Can Be Done to Help:
My husband’s desire for us to travel to Paris triggers my fear of flying.
My thinking brain says “This is so great. I love Paris. I can’t wait to go.”
My emotional brain triggers fear at the thought of flying. It generates new thoughts such as “I don’t want to die. Is it worth the risk?”
My body brain causes my body to get tense. My heart rate increases and my breathing stops for a moment. These body sensations, which make me feel more vulnerable and weak, are now new internal triggers that add to my anxiety, fear, and insecurity. I now have even less confidence I can overcome my fears and ambivalence. I may find myself wanting to avoid traveling altogether unless I use The Change Triangle to work with my thoughts, emotional, and physical reactions.
Here’s another example.
David’s girlfriend, Jennifer, has two daughters who stay over every other weekend. It triggers many feelings in David, including fear (this fear is not yet conscious) of not getting enough attention and anger (which is the only emotion he is aware of) for his “suffering.”
David’s thinking brain says, “Oh no, the kids are coming this weekend. I think those kids are too coddled. They need to be more independent and better disciplined. I’m not sure I can take her kids. Maybe I should end the relationship.”
David’s emotional brain triggers the sadness of feeling abandoned and anger directed to both Jennifer and her children. David has an impulse to disconnect from her and from his anger. He also feels guilty about his thoughts and feelings.
David’s body brain causes him to feel unsettled, jittery, and have a knot in his stomach.
David’s many emotions (both core emotions and inhibitory emotions) all mix together to cause anxiety, which is the emotion of which David is most consciously aware.
He contemplates a break up to deal with these unpleasant emotions and sensations. Breaking up, in this case, would be a way to NOT deal with his triggers, but avoid them. This is called using a defense, and it is not a good way to deal with emotions because defenses cause other problems internally and externally.
We all get triggered from time to time. It’s part of being human.
But, what can we do about it? How can we protect ourselves from being triggered and deal better after we have been triggered? What can we do to encourage our well-being?
We can control the environments in which we choose to put ourselves. For example, if I am easily triggered into feeling shame about my body, I can hang out with people who make me feel better about my body versus worse about my body. Sometimes avoiding things or people that trigger us is a good idea — a self-protection. Sometimes, however, our avoidance causes other problems, and/or we avoid situations that might be beneficial for us in the long run.
We can work effectively with our thoughts, feelings and body sensations when we are triggered. The Change Triangle is a great guide to help us work through triggers.
We can also get to know more about our triggers. We can learn where or from who our triggers originated and when they came into existence, such as in childhood, adolescence or adulthood. For example, highway driving triggers me because my mother was terrified of driving and made me lie flat in the back seat when I was a little girl. Many people are triggered by going to the dentist or doctor because somewhere in the past they had a bad experience. The brain tends to remember bad experiences so it can avoid them from happening again.
We can learn to move through our core emotions to feel relief, and we can learn to relate compassionately to our shame and guilt to transform triggers or at least lower their reactive impact. We can also learn to calm the anxiety in our body by grounding, breathing and learning other techniques. We can also learn to challenge the thoughts our thinking brain makes in response to physical and emotional distress.
The art of life is finding the balance between being courageous enough to interact with and explore the world, while dealing with the vulnerability that wholehearted engaging brings for every one of us.
With practice, however, we can strive to achieve this balance. We can both manage and protect ourselves from triggers as best we can without overly restricting our lives. I like the emotional work and challenge of understanding my triggers, and when possible, working to lessen them. Overcoming the challenges and fears our triggers cause us is a huge confidence builder.
So, work it, it’s worth it!