Psychological Triggers: Understanding and Utilizing Reactions

TriggerTriggers are stimuli that cause a psychological  response, such as people, places, events, or sensory conditions.  Typically, when therapists talk about triggers, we are referring to an undesirable psychological response but it is worth noting that the same neural mechanisms can  induce positive responses. Since we tend to want to repeat positive responses and decrease negative responses, triggers serve an important function in our lives.

You can discover your triggers if you practice awareness, or mindfulness. When you notice yourself reacting intensely to some minor event, that is a clue. Try to focus in on your thoughts, feelings, and expectations surrounding the event. Maybe even dig deeper and look at your activated values (see Personal Iceberg for how to do this effectively).  If you are aware of your triggers, you can utilize your reaction to them to facilitate growth.

Positive triggers help us learn about our preferences, our talents, our hidden desires and dreams. For instance, if I feel unexplainably happy one morning, exploration of the self may reveal that I like it when there is rain in the early morning to wake up to because it reminds me of a favorite tropical vacation I took with someone who made me feel good about myself. Thus, when I wake up to rain, I feel good about myself and and therefore happy. I can capitalize on information such as this to notice that being around people who lift me up has a positive effect and I may set some new boundaries regarding friendships or other relationships.

All of us have negative triggers, things that cause us to react negatively in certain types of situations. These triggers provide warning to pay attention, things could get difficult! For example, if an alcoholic at Thanksgiving dinner with difficult, drunken relatives and noisy children is going to respond with an increased a desire to drink, they can use that knowledge to stay sober. They can attend extra meetings to prepare for the holiday. They can choose not to attend. They can arrive late and leave early. They can attempt to minimize the unpleasantness by focusing on the least annoying relative there. In other words, as the saying goes, “Forewarned is forearmed”. When our trigger is a person, we might say that the person is “pushing our buttons”.

Where do triggers come from? What caused the “buttons” (that some people push) to be there in the first place? The answers probably lie in our past, perhaps even in childhood. Here are some examples of negative triggers built across time:

Teresa was raised in extreme poverty by a stressed, difficult, and angry mother who insulted and diminished her constantly. Teresa’s mother mocked her desire to achieve. You will never get ahead, her mother said. You are wasting your time in school. You’ll be lucky to get a job waiting tables. Teresa worked hard to overcome her background and to make something of herself, to disprove her mother’s predictions. A lawyer, she holds a high position in a large corporation where the Chief Operating Officer is a difficult and high-strung woman who constantly triggers Selena’s childhood fears of failure.

Kelly was an only child in a single-parent home. His mother often told him that he was the “man of the house” and that she could not get along without him. He was his mother’s mainstay. He never disappointed her. When Kelly was 18, his mother was diagnosed with cancer of the liver. He did everything in his power to save her, but after a four-year illness, she died. Kelly was treated for depression. At 27, he married a fellow graduate student. They have a happy marriage for the most part; but whenever something is bothering his wife, Kelly must “fix” it. When he can’t, he becomes depressed. Any situation that Kelly can’t “fix” triggers him – any situation in which he cannot help a loved one.

Tyrone had an aggressive and sometimes violent father who was always “laying down the law” to his sons. If anyone standing close to Tyrone jabs at him with their index finger outstretched to make a point, his father’s habitual gesture, it triggers Tyrone. In the past, he has reacted suddenly and aggressively to two men who did that. One was a supervisor who called the police. Tyrone spent several days in jail.

Jenna’s mother was fragile, unhappy, clinging, and dependent. Early in life, Jenna got the idea that it was her “job” to make her mother happy. She became a “people-pleaser” – someone who cannot rest until everyone else is happy, someone whose guilt is triggered when they are not. The problem is that Jenna has five children. What are the chances that all five of them are going to be consistently content?

Bonnie grew up as the only child of older parents. They supervised her every move for years. Bonnie does not like for people to “stand over her” and tell her what to do and how to do it. It hits too close to home. It triggers her early discomfort with her parents’ behaviors. It pushes her buttons, and she will tell you so in no uncertain terms.

Here are questions to ask yourself to help identify triggers:

  • What am I thinking right now?
  • What is this feeling I am having?
  • What did I think would happen?
  • What do I wish had happened?
  • What are my needs in this moment?
  • Is it safe to ask for help or should I meet them myself?
  • When has this happened to me before?
  • What does this remind me of?
  • What does this reaction say about me?
  • Am I overreacting?
  • Am I underreacting?
  • What behavior best fits my values?

How can you capitalize on the power of triggers? When you know what you are reactive about and underlying processes related to the event, it is easier to be authentic in a situation and link behavior to our personal values. All it takes is practice and the willingness to go through some psychological discomfort while you learn to relate your experience to the self – as opposed to the event that triggers them. Understanding your triggers is a key element in emotional stability and can lead to a more satisfying, authentic life.

Adapted from:

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