(Not Intrude on the Present)
My client reached out to me in a state. He was crazy with jealousy – emphasis on the crazy. He knew his feelings had nothing to do with his new wife’s behavior. He trusted her. But he had been cheated on before, and it had devastated him. His ex had used email to carry on a years-long affair, and now his new wife was casually telling him about an email correspondence she was having with a male former coworker.
The people may have been different, but the situation was nauseatingly familiar, and his body was reacting accordingly. He was triggered.
Sharp Memories and Automatic Reactions
To be triggered is to have an intense emotional or physical reaction to a reminder of a trauma. Being triggered, then, is to experience the extreme and unpleasant end of remembering. Remembering is essential to our survival, so the brain is really good at it. If I could not remember where food was, that rustling grass means snake, or which person hurt me, I’d be lost. Events that are painful or terrifying leave the sharpest memories of all, because they were the most threatening to our survival.
In fact, the brain is so keen not to repeat them that it takes thinking completely out of the chain of reaction. When something feels familiar, and the thing we’re reminded of was dangerous, we react automatically, before thinking.
In time, consciousness can intrude upon our automatic reaction. My client came to see that his reaction was completely out of proportion to the stimulus – but not soon enough to prevent his suffering or to prevent him from lashing out at his wife and creating new wounds.
“I don’t want to do this anymore,” he said. “How do I make the trigger go away?”
A trigger is a reminder of a memory. Memories are important, so we don’t actually want them to go away. But we can disarm the trigger.
Awareness and Compassion
To disarm a trigger, you gently pull it apart with awareness and compassion. First, bring awareness to a reaction that is automatic. Then, meet your reaction with compassion: take steps to calm down, allow your feelings, and gently learn to think differently about the situation that alarms you.
Bring awareness to the reaction. Notice that you have been triggered, and it’s no one’s fault. Your body’s reaction is automatic, not conscious (yet).
Take steps to calm down. The fight/flight response is automatic and predictable. There are a few ways you can help yourself move out of it and into a calmer state.
- Move your body. When the fight/flight response is activated, stored glucose is released into your blood stream to power action. Use it: move your body. Match the intensity of your movement to the intensity of your activation (upset). Run, walk, do jumping jacks or arm circles, stretch.
- Sigh. The fight/flight response makes your breathing fast and shallow. To calm down, sigh: empty your lungs loudly and completely, breathe in slowly, sigh, repeat. A sigh is a signal to release endorphins to bring you back to calm.
- Widen your gaze. The fight/flight response narrows your vision to what’s right in front of you. Consciously widen your gaze by focusing on your peripheral vision or looking for two or three colors at the same time.
Allow your feelings. My client told me he was embarrassed about reacting as he did. To be embarrassed is to believe you shouldn’t have reacted that way. The voice in your heads says, “You should be over this by now!” “What’s wrong with you that you can’t get over it?”
Oh. I know that voice. It’s awful. Moreover, it does not help. What does help? Allowing your feelings. Let them in. Say, “It’s okay to feel sad/mad/scared. What happened to you hurt. Of course you feel sad/mad/scared.”
You’ll be amazed at how quickly your feelings pass when you don’t fight them.
Learn to think a new thought. The brain predicts. When it encounters a situation, it does not say, “What is this?” It says, “What is this like?”
When you’re triggered, it thinks that this novel situation is actually the same situation that hurt you in the past – “better safe than sorry” is its motto. If you know better – know that this situation is not really the same as before – teach it a new thought: “This is not that.” Say it gently, as you would when teaching your child or your pet the difference between a live snake and a rubber snake.
If your trauma is very deep or vast, I encourage you to work with a therapist trained in trauma release. If, however, your trauma is more ordinary – yes, ordinary, because life can be hard and people can be mean, and trauma is the result more often than we think it ought to be. . . if your trauma is ordinary, its triggers can be disarmed. The patient application of awareness and compassion can weaken automatic reactions until they cease to distress at all, and the memories stay where they belong: in the past.