Emotional storms – Help, I’ve been triggered…

Triggers and Triggering

Our body is self-defending, and reacts to cues (triggers) that signal potential danger. Biased to respond to danger signals it has encountered before, it reacts when triggered as though the danger was in the present. I’ve included a list of common triggers at the end of this page. The list can be added to as you recognize more triggers. When we get triggered, we experience sudden and overwhelming feelings, sensations and impulses that communicate “Danger – avoid/escape/fight/freeze.  Trauma triggers can activate self-loathing, desperation, despair, hopelessness, chronic expectations of danger, overwhelming body sensations, and movements or movement impulses: restlessness, frozen states, impulses to escape, violence, and huddling/hugging self.

Biological indications of triggering (or how we can know we’ve been triggered):

  • Sudden, intense and hard to shift emotions. Comes on in seconds.
  • Anxiety, fear, shame.
  • Increase in heart rate, tightness in muscles/chest, shallow breathing, dry mouth, sick feeling in stomach, wanting to get away, hyperventilation, holding breath.
  • Obsessive thinking (rumination); jumping to conclusions, catastrophizing (something dreadful is going to happen; I can’t bear this feeling, this feeling is doing me harm).
  • Feeling small, feeling as though you’re outside your body, feeling young/little/vulnerable, feeling like you’re viewing things as though they are a movie or at a distance,  “disappearing”.

Even though these reactions occur in the blink of an eye, your brain can be used to manage the reactions and calm the emotional storm. Triggers are filtered through our meaning-making system, this can be changed. The trigger goes off; we filter it through our beliefs to create meaning, which creates the feelings we have.  Change the belief, you change the feeling.

Trauma and triggers taken from Janina Fisher, 2015, and adapted.

Trigger List (some common triggers)-

  • Facial expressions
  • Colors, smells, sounds, songs, music, silence.
  • Statements that evoke memories of times we have felt stressed, rejected, abandoned or vulnerable
  • Being told what to do
  • Having to wait
  • Being alone (the brain senses this as a threat, since we are wired for connection).
  • Disappointing people.
  • Certain people (may remind you of others who have harmed or disappointed you).
  • Messy rooms.
  • Feeling guilt, shame or vulnerability or helplessness.
  • Confrontation
  • Feeling exposed, feeling watched.
  • People leaving
  • People approaching your “safe space” – home, special seat, phone calls.
  • Stress and pressure.
  • Anger and angry faces or voices, heightened emotions – even happy emotions.
  • People appearing moody, vulnerable, stressed or upset.

Biological indications of triggering (or how we can know we’ve been triggered):

  • Sudden, intense and hard to shift emotions. Comes on in seconds.
  • Anxiety, fear, shame.
  • Increase in heart rate, tightness in muscles/chest, shallow breathing, dry mouth, sick feeling in stomach, wanting to get away, hyperventilation, holding breath.
  • Obsessive thinking (rumination); jumping to conclusions, catastrophizing (something dreadful is going to happen; I can’t bear this feeling, this feeling is doing me harm).
  • Feeling small, feeling as though you’re outside your body, feeling young/little/vulnerable, feeling like you’re viewing things as though they are a movie or at a distance, “disappearing”.

A counsellor can help you to manage the strong emotions that happen when you’re triggered. Life gets better when you can recognize and respond to triggers with awareness and self-management.

Trauma and triggers taken from Janina Fisher, Healing the fragmented selves of trauma survivors 2015, and adapted.