Vinny needed some electrical work done on his house. He was new to town and did not have anyone to give him recommendations for trustworthy electricians. He searched online, and found dozens of options. He became paralyzed and could not make a decision about who to call. He was overwhelmed with fear because he did not know who he could trust.
Gail was on her way to an important business meeting. She planned to pitch a new
product to a potential customer. On the way she encountered a fire engine with its lights flashing and siren blaring. Her breathing became shallow, she got light-headed and began to cry. She had experience a house fire.
Blair was excited about having lunch with his AA sponsor. He recently got a DWI and the court ordered treatment. He consulted with several substance abuse specialists who helped him create a plan that allowed him to get that treatment in a way that he could still keep his job and fulfill the requirement. His sponsor told him that he was trying to avoid treatment and was unwilling to do what was necessary to maintain his recovery. Blair replayed the conversation for a week oscillating between fear, self incrimination, anger and hurt. He couldn’t seem to find peace about the situation,
Vinnie, Gail and Blair have a common problem: they are being emotionally triggered. They are having problems accessing their left brain. Their logical thinking ability is being impaired by a flood of emotions that started because of a trigger in their interactions with the world.
What is a Trigger?
A trigger is an event or circumstance that is the cause of a particular action, process, or situation. In mental health, it means an event that contributes to a change in how one feels, thinks and/or behaves. These triggers are linked with past experiences, and can be internal or external. Current events, sounds, smells, interactions and locations can all serve as triggers that cause old feelings to flood a person’s left brain. These are overwhelming emotions including fear, sadness, panic, anger. It may be accompanied by a flashback, vivid memories of on old event that appear without notice.
Everyone has triggers that influence their moods and behaviors.
Vinnie, Gail and Blair had another thing in common: they did not realize that they had been triggered. They knew they we upset and unable to let go but did not understand that this was not an ordinary emotional event.
Being triggered causes an emotional disturbance that is not resolved by dealing with the current situation alone. When one is triggered, old emotions, thinking and problem solving methods get activated which impinge on their current abilities. Usually, the present day situation becomes bigger than it actually is because it is mixed with the old event.
The first thing Vinnie, Gail and Blair needed to do was to recognize they had been
triggered, and that they needed help sorting out the past from the present. By recognizing what is happening, it gives them the ability to gain control over what is happening inside of them.
Two Signs You Have Been Triggered
1. You feel overwhelmed by what is happening.
The situation is indeed upsetting, but your feelings are out of proportion to the event. Instead of reading reviews and considering his options, Vinnie was paralyzed by the thought of making the decision. The emotion was overwhelming his left brain and his thinking abilities. His fear was warning him about unlikely possibilities.
When you find yourself unable to use skills you know you have, you are probably
2. You can’t let go of the event
Every time you get quiet, the event replays in your mind, unbidden. You have gone over the event in great detail and come up with a conclusion, yet before you realize it, you are replaying it again. The solution that seemed so reasonable and correct, now seems to have holes in it. Just like Blair, after a week of
ruminating on the event you are still second-guessing yourself. Trusted advisors helped him create a plan, but he could not let himself trust their advice.
Most events that are upsetting will be internally resolved in a relatively short time, those that linger are usually a result of being triggered.
Once you learn to recognize that you are triggered, you can take action to help yourself:
Find a trusted friend who understands emotional triggers and make a connection.
Reassure yourself that you are not crazy or weak.
Give yourself time for your body to relax and calm down.
Remind yourself that this too shall pass and that the present is not as distressing as it feels. a