Feeling "triggered" can be debilitating. Here's why it happens and what you can do to help yourself.
I was struggling to handle my anger well. My husband would say something to me, that while not truly the same, felt too similar to things said to me when I was young. Sometimes it wasn't even what he said, but how he said it, or the expression on his face when he spoke. Opposite of how I responded as a child (which was to completely shut down and crawl inside of myself), I flipped out instead. As I learned how to respond to my anger, I realized that underneath I had been triggered. And there were steps I could take to calm myself down, reminding myself that this situation was not the same: I was safe and I had the opportunity to respond differently from what had been modeled for me most of my life. -Naomi Wright
Mary Ellen Mann holds a wealth of knowledge about this area of triggers. She's a survivor of sexual trauma and a licensed psychotherapist, having run her outpatient private practice for nearly 25 years in Colorado. She has dedicated her life to helping victims find confidence and a voice in therapy, as well as training advocates in the United States and elsewhere. In her passion to prevent childhood sexual abuse, she's also a trained and certified facilitator with Darkness to Light. Mary Ellen Mann has an advanced degree from Columbia University, and is an active believer in Jesus.
What is a trigger?
Mary Ellen Mann: A trigger is something that happens in the environment. It can be a smell, a taste, an object that we’re looking at, an experience that we’re having with another person. And the trigger is going to automatically move us to an anxious spot. We can have healthy anxiety, and we can have distorted anxiety. The big idea, anatomically speaking, is that anxiety is going to push us into a fight (example: defensiveness), flight (example: leaving), freeze (example: feeling numb), or fawning (example: people-pleasing) place of response.
These four Fs explain the different ways our bodies experience a trigger. But a trigger can be anything that can unconsciously or consciously earmark a previous event where we felt threatened. So a trigger can be being stuck in traffic, smelling someone’s cologne and remembering a threatening person, a Bible verse, a song, a joke. It could be a way we are touched or not touched, or when we feel confused or gaslit, a sense of pain in the body, or a doctor’s appointment. Essentially, we are triggered because our body is re-experiencing vulnerability at some level.
Am I triggered, or just sensitive about something and regressing?
Mann: People will often express that they feel more sensitive about something than they used to be, and they feel like it’s a regression. However, it is actually your body experiencing the permission to feel the memory. This 'sensitivity' shows you how much you’ve re-experienced an embedded stress and trauma. Maybe someone is an adult, and overall feels more safe than they used to as a child. When this person gets triggered, they can move past the idea that they are stuck or trapped. When this happens, they are becoming more congruent (congruency is just our inside experiences matching our outside experiences).
My encouragement is that oftentimes sensitivity is a part of progression. - Mary Ellen Mann
Does the way I respond to a trigger depend on the person who is triggering me and how I respond to them?
Mann: Yes, triggers can be dynamic, depending on who you are specifically talking to. For example, a pastor or someone in authority could be triggering. Someone could even feel more sensitive to an old friend—this actually happens a lot. For example, those friends used to maybe laugh at you when you were in a more vulnerable place in your life, and now you’re like, 'I don’t want you laughing at me.' There can be a shift that feels like you’re getting more sensitive and therefore it can feel like a regression (see above), but actually it’s a progression of your body noticing problems and things that are in fact not okay with you.
I have also found that we can respond to different people differently, even if they are similarly triggering us, based on what power we think they have. - Naomi
People may say, 'Don’t be sensitive. Just suck it up and be okay.' But I think we’re seeing a lot of people, even with sports figures, saying, 'Yeah, I’m capable. But it isn’t safe and it isn’t going to work. And it’s okay to not be okay with that.'
There's been a shift to actually live in the experience you’re having and allow yourself to feel it, because it’s when you feel it that you will get well.
Once individuals are triggered, they often feel at a loss. So when they’re in that moment, what are some practical suggestions that they can turn to for support?
Mann: I would never say these suggestions are prescriptive, but that they are just that—suggestions that could help. I don’t want anyone to feel that they’re failing if the suggestions don’t fully address their pain.
I like to call this collection of suggestions a toolbox, and this toolbox helps with all of the five senses. The contents of your toolbox should depend on whether or not you are alone, in a car, or in a social situation. You will want to have a tool in your toolbox for different situations and locations.
The toolbox doesn’t judge your reactions or need you to change how you feel, it just lowers the distress. The toolbox addresses your senses as the body is experiencing feelings: pain, distress, anxiety—all of which are part of healing. The toolbox prompts questions like, 'What do you need to see? Taste? Smell? Touch? Hear?' In essence, your toolbox contains tools that help you to physically experience a different response than your trigger.
It is important to have your toolbox ready before you’re in a triggering situation, so you are able to help yourself in the moment. I recommend testing out these tools before you get triggered, to see if you would actually find them helpful in a live situation.
Examples of tools for your toolbox:
Hear: A playlist on your phone that you can listen to and gives you a sense of calm
Taste: A specific flavor of gum that relaxes you, or a candy that melts in your mouth (like Raisinets), or a hot cup of chamomile tea
See: A photo of someone who is important to you, or a beautiful landscape
Touch: A weighted lap blanket that applies pressure similar to being held
Smell: A candle with your favorite scent
In trauma work, we look not for how many days since the last time you were hurt, but how many days you’ve felt safe since the last time you were hurt. Building safety into your day is very important. - Mary Ellen Mann
You might not even need to use your toolbox (or all of your tools) in a triggering situation. If you're in a situation where you can’t see something calming, then what is something you can hear instead? Knowing multiple tools are there for you if you need them may be all of the safety and comfort required.
What are some tools to help us help ourselves at home, once we are in a space where we have the time to process?
Mann: I’m a big believer in 2 Timothy 1:7 that says 'for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.' We are built to feel in control of our bodies, and so there is nothing wrong with moving in whatever direction helps you regain control.
In my office as a therapist, I have two types of weighted blankets: One is a thirty pound adult couch blanket, and another is fifteen pounds. Some of my clients use one or the other, some use both. You can get both of these products online and from most major retailers to have at home. The idea is to have a stabilizer tool or two at the ready in any situation, but then to have things at home that you can use as you process the experience more fullt, like a weighted blanket, a candle, etc.
I also encourage guided journaling because often what goes missing in abusive experiences is the sense of 'I can trust my judgment.' Guided journal can help to create stepping stones to restore that. For example, "Let’s see what the event is, to what degree did it hurt you, and what are the emotions that came with that? What is the lie or old belief that comes with that trigger, and what does it normally cause you to do?"
Then you go into what I call the disputation, which is, “I’m going to dispute this old way of thinking and doing, and say, ‘but is it true 24/7 that I’m always thinking this lie?’” More than likely, the answer is no. So the next thing is to say, “What is it that you want to know that would bring confidence and counter that lie?” That’s where the money is—that’s where people find they can trust their judgment.
We can also look at mastery: What are some times in your life where you’ve known that you’ve trusted your judgment, and it worked? We look at mastery events so it gives you a chance to really pull your concentration into a new way of thinking. The thoughts that are firing are reflective of the wiring in your brain (your neurocircuitry). So if we are firing those ideas, then the wiring does its own thing. It becomes a foundational defense system that roots you. It gets us to a place where we can confidently say we are safe. It also allows us to feel content, relieved, strong, and confident. And within that, how strong do you feel that it is true, on a scale from one to ten? Continually work on these things until you’re closer to a ten, or a ten. Don’t dismiss the progress you make going from a three to a six, because it is absolutely a process that takes time, so give yourself both time and space to heal your triggers.
To wrap all of this together: Regain control of yourself emotionally and mentally (think back to 2 Timothy 1:7 and your toolbox), and that is when you can do your deeper processing.
What should people be looking for in a professional support person, and what are some first steps they can take in finding that person?
Mann: First things first, I would suggest writing down things you want to feel when you're with a support professional, and what you want to get out of your sessions. People can list themselves as a trauma specialist (which is absolutely important), but there is also an element of assessing wisely whether or not you feel safe around them. Do they make you feel supported, cared for, and do you feel heard and believed by them? Is this person going to help you get more confident in trusting again?
Generally speaking, I would look for licensed professionals because they are held to an ethical standard of care. They also have to complete CEUs, which are continuing education units. Additionally, they also have to pay for their license and have had to have supervised hours (not just completing a Master’s degree).
I know some people will go to life coaches, and I love life coaches for things like becoming more organized or understanding work goals. However, when we are talking about trauma, I urge you to consider working with people who are seasoned in the work of trauma and are trauma-informed.
Trauma-informed care was conceptually birthed into the mental health world about ten years ago, and really hit the scene in 2016. So make sure you’re talking to people who are trauma-informed. The core of what it means to be trauma-informed is that these licensed professionals understand that there isn’t something wrong with you; there is something that’s happened to you. They really help their clients stay with that narrative, with a gentle and compassionate model of care. These things have to be in play for people to feel safe in order to heal.