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In previous articles, including last week’s, ‘Feeling Out of Control? Do This…’; I’ve talked a lot about our flight, fight, freeze stress response; in other words, what happens when we enter ‘survival mode’.
In this post, I want to discuss what happens when we feel ‘triggered’, how we can recognise it and what to do when it happens.
Why we feel triggered
Again, as I’ve said many times before, our brains are designed for survival – to keep us alive long enough to procreate. The 250 million-year-old mammalian part of our brain, which developed way before our ability to speak, continually scans our environments (especially new ones) and people for potential threats.
As part of that protection, whenever something stressful (or, to the subconscious mind, potentially life-threatening) happens in our environment, our subconscious links everything that’s going on at the same time together. That’s why certain sounds (including music), sights, smells, touch and emotions can all activate our stress response. For example:
- Someone may give you a particular look, and you feel like you’re in trouble (it may be a look your mother gave you when you were naughty as a child)
- A smell might remind you of a fire you escaped.
- The thought of a particular alcoholic drink that once made you very sick elicits the same feeling 20 years later (Pernod is a typical one!)
- Someone may touch you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable.
- A song may make you feel angry or sad.
- Driving past an old workplace may give you a sense of dread or foreboding when you haven’t worked there since you left school.
Even though the unpleasant experience related to the sight, sound, taste, touch, or smell may have happened many years ago to the part of your brain trying to protect you, time is irrelevant; it will feel like it happened yesterday.
You may not even realise that you have been triggered. You may put it down to being in a bad mood, getting up on the wrong side of the bed, hormones, a late night, being tired, a hangover, being overworked or generally feeling ‘off’. But likely, something activated that response.
Our Early Ancestors
To understand why our brain does this, let’s look take a look back at an example from our early ancestors.
When out hunting, a member of our tribe may have been fishing on a previously unexplored lake. Then, all of a sudden, a huge crocodile came out of nowhere and lunged at them. While the hunter managed to escape with their life, it was a terrifying experience for him and the rest of the people who witnessed it.
As that situation was happening, everything about the scene would have become encoded in their nervous systems. For example, the time of day, the type of plants and trees surrounding it, the sound of the water and birds, the temperature, the time of year, etc.
Next time any of those things presented themselves again in a similar situation, not just by that particular river, the nervous system’s survival instincts would be activated, triggering the fight, flight, freeze response.
My Recent Example
Luckily, we aren’t often faced with crocodiles today, but we get triggered precisely the same way. This happened to me quite recently.
My neighbour really ‘pushed my buttons’ a few times, and I couldn’t understand why I felt such strong negative emotions around him. I would leave our interactions feeling angry, upset and downright bullied. I knew my reaction was over-the-top, but I couldn’t understand why I felt so triggered.
It wasn’t until a friend I was talking to about my most recent encounter with him said, ‘He sounds just like THAT person from your past’ that I realised what was happening – (‘THAT person’ being someone who was highly abusive toward me).
Without me consciously realising it, my mammalian brain recognised the signs but couldn’t tell me in words what was wrong; all it could do was give me the feeling that I had to avoid him. It was trying so hard to warn me that it was giving me all three stress responses – anger (fight), wanting to get away (flight), and feeling incapable of arguing (freeze).
My subconscious mammalian brain had picked up lots of cues that I was in ‘danger’ that my conscious mind hadn’t recognised, and it was desperately trying to warn me that I was in perceived danger.
Now I’ve realised what’s happening (awareness is everything), it has been much easier to stay calm around my neighbour and not feel guilty or rude about setting strong boundaries, including limiting our interactions.
Analyse Your Triggers
The next time you feel triggered, take some time to drill down into what’s happening. Journaling is a great way to keep track of your triggers by breaking them down and understanding why your nervous system is trying to protect you. I recommend using these prompts:
- What triggered my stress response?
- What was happening at the time
- Who was there?
- What was I thinking?
- Where might this response have first started? (Where does this fear come from?)
- What is a more realistic thought/belief?
Remember that your brain is just trying to protect you based on things you’ve been through in the past. However,
The past does not equal the future!
Getting in the habit of breaking down your triggers, analysing them and coming up with better thinking thoughts can really help regulate your nervous system. Often when you start to do this work, you’ll be able to recognise that you’re running outdated programmes that no longer serve you.
Finally, as I said in last week’s article, one of the quickest ways I know of draining intensity out of your body and mind when you’ve triggered your nervous system is by putting your hand on your heart and telling yourself,
‘I’m safe – There are no sabre-tooth tigers’.
If there are any topics that you’d like me to cover in upcoming articles, I’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to contact me a firstname.lastname@example.org.