Trigger (n). - An external stimulus that invokes a strong fight, flight, or freeze response is a Trigger. A trigger can be based on undealt with issues, past traumatic experiences, or can be environmental in nature. When the trigger is related to a strong traumatic event, the individual can experience flashbacks, the return of repressed memories, or find themselves mentally disassociating or shutting down. When the trigger is environmental, a person is reacting to something outside their control in their surroundings like repetitive sounds or certain visual images.
We won't cover trauma-related and environmental triggers. That's for you and your therapist. For this post, we are looking at non-trauma triggers. Or, as they are sometimes affectionately known, drama triggers.
Identifying the Activating Event
We start with the ability to identify what external event has set you off. This is often the easy part. This is what happened to create in you a fight, flight, or freeze response. In experiencing the freeze response, you may feel yourself mentally or physically shutting down or going cold. If you are experiencing the fight response, you may feel yourself become highly agitated, enraged, flushed with heat, or pushing for a verbal or physical conflict. And for the flee response, you may want to run away or begin experiencing a panic attack.
Responses to being triggered vary from person to person and depend on why the response is occurring.
For the purpose of understanding this for yourself, write three activating events below that recently created the fight, flight, or freeze response in you. What happened outside yourself to create the response? We will use these to go a little deeper.
Identifying the Internal Reason for Your Reaction
Next, let's look at what we sometimes call "the second half of the trigger." This is the hard part for most people. You probably had little difficulty writing out the three items above about what the other person did but what about the other half of the reaction? What about the piece that you own in this equation?
For a powder keg to blow, there needs to be a match (the external activating event) and the gun powder (the piece inside you that the match sets off). Without the gun powder, someone could strike as many matches as they want but nothing would happen. Often, we see this with interpersonal conflict. You may be completely and constantly annoyed by Barb in HR but everyone else just loves her or doesn't get why she almost always upsets you. There is something in you that is reacting that doesn't exist in those other people.
Understanding that you own a piece of the reaction is crucial to working with triggers. You won't often be able to control the external activating event, but you can work with the piece that exists inside of you when you are triggered.
Before you list what you see as the piece inside of you that corresponds to the three activating events you listed above, let's look at an example:
The Example of Mark
Mark consistently gets really angry whenever someone questions his judgment. He feels his body flush with heat and he finds himself being very combative in the moment. After the moment passes, he reviews and re-reviews the event. This re-review keeps him angry sometimes for days after he is triggered.
Mark lists the external activating event as, "Having my judgment questioned." When asked about where his internal reaction comes from, it's much more difficult for him. He initially responds with, "Being disrespected," as his internal piece. This, though, is still external -- it is still placing the locus of control outside of himself -- so we look harder at what is really going on. By asking "Why?" to each of his responses three times, Mark gets to the real answer. He sees his piece of the equation and lists his answer as, "Intellectual insecurity."
He admits that if he really felt confident in what he was saying that his response would be to just say, "whatever," to the challenge. He brings up several moments during his school experience where this was also a real problem and mentions that this strong response doesn't happen all the time or around every moment when his judgment is questioned. It just happens in certain areas where he admits his knowledge isn't as strong or his persuasion skills aren't as strong as he knows they need to be.
Own Your Internal Piece of the Equation
Using the Mark example, for each of the three activating events you listed write out the piece of that event that you can own. What inside of you is reacting? They have the match. What inside you is the gun powder? Once you have listed your responses, use the "Ask Why 3 Times" technique to keep drilling down until you get to the real underlying reason you are reacting.
In many cases, you are going to see insecurities and ego-related thinking. Everyone has some aspect of themselves that is still underdeveloped or needs work, and those insecurities are common. It's really okay to own them. "I just don't like being wrong," or "But I'm right!" is all ego. If you label something as coming from your ego, see if there isn't an insecurity hiding under there that your ego is trying to keep from being exposed. An activated ego-defense can send your thoughts spinning for days until it is able to adequately justify itself and feel safe again.
Also, note that not all internal reactions are ego and insecurity-related. There are many cases where people are internally responding to external events where their internal response isn't ego or insecurity but is rather a deeper emotion -- like injustice -- coming out. Note these responses as well. There are many times where students have listed "feelings of injustice" as their half of the trigger.
Give Yourself Time
This is hard work and you may not have answers right away. You may even change your answers over time. Be willing to sit with this for awhile if needed. It may take some time for you to really see what is going on underneath. Be patient with yourself. Also be willing to accept some difficult truths.
In the Mark example, he admitted to being intellectually insecure pretty quickly. That admission would be difficult for most people. It's also important that once you realize what is going on inside you, that no one is expecting you to post it on Facebook or announce it to the world. These are deeply personal issues. It's okay for these admissions to made only to yourself.
If you come up with an answer that you find yourself really fighting, be aware of that as well. It's really human (and incredibly common) to be defensive when it comes to identifying the piece of this equation that you own. The ego will often really fight this process. Very few people can turn the spotlight around and readily admit the darker pieces of themselves. It can take time.
Okay, I think I've Identified Both Halves of the Equation
Excellent. We will return to this later when we talk about the meta-moment as one of Sunday's skill building activities. Right now, really do the work and make sure you've identified both halves as accurately as you can.
Your work going forward will be on how to deal with what lies beneath in ways that are healthy, helpful, and improve your situation over time.
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