As a coach I spend a lot of time working with people on their triggers, those internal and external events that lead us to say things we wish we hadn’t said, to do things we wish we hadn’t done, and to send us into those all-too-familiar states of fight, flight or freeze.
When we’re triggered our prefrontal cortex goes offline and our thoughts and actions are guided by pre-existing habits and by more primitive part of the brain. No wonder we end up being something other than our best self when we’re triggered.
It’s all about safety, or lack thereof. Much of our brain and nervous system has evolved to keep us safe – from being eaten by lions, or clubbed to death by a warring tribe, or eating poisonous berries. That mechanism evolved when we were small bands of humans roaming the savannah, and the mechanism has not really changed at all. But our circumstances have changed dramatically. And how we have evolved as a society leaves us with a brilliant neurobiology that is triggered by all manner of threats large and small, real or imagined. Kind of like when your smoke alarm constantly goes off when you’re roasting a chicken.
Dr. Stephen Porges calls the nervous system’s safety monitoring function ‘neuroception.’ Our brain is always scanning for mortal threats, a process that mostly goes on beneath the surface of our awareness. If a threat is perceived a whole series of neurological and biochemical events unfold, often resulting in some combination of fight, flight or freeze. The problem is, here in 2022 the neuroception danger system can’t distinguish between a true life or death threat and a threat to our dignity. As neuroscientist David Rock explains, “the question ‘can I offer you some feedback’ generates a similar response to hearing fast footsteps behind you at night.”
For most of us everyday life is a trigger blizzard. Read a newspaper lately? Do you feel safe sending your kid to school? Is the Supreme Court going to turn Handmaid’s Tale into reality? Does your boss think you’re stupid when she looks at you like that? Why is no one wearing a mask on the plane? Who are all those kids with MAGA hats?
Every trigger produces a biological response. Cortisol and other stress hormones surge. Your muscles may tense for fight or flight, and other physical symptoms flare. This all takes a fraction of a second to go into motion, but it can take hours or days for the symptoms to subside. When these triggers come in too fast, grow too large or come in with such frequency that they pile up on top of one another, we enter the realm of trauma. Trauma leaves an imprint on our nervous system so that what once might have been minor triggers can evoke a dramatically more incapacitating result.
While major traumas like sexual assault, gun violence, or watching a loved one die may require therapy and other professional support, the trauma of living everyday with Covid, Monkeypox, The Supreme Court, the breakdown of society, runaway climate change, and structural racism may be at least partially amenable to more accessible approaches.
OK now here’s the worse news. You’re probably never going to get rid of your triggers. They may have evolved in your early childhood and may have been helpful at one time. They are deeply embedded in your psyche. They are part of who you are. But there’s also good news: you can learn how to respond to triggers in more constructive ways. You can spot a trigger leading to an action urge that might be unhelpful, and you can make a different choice. And the even better news is the more you practice trigger awareness, the more choices you’ll have and over time, the intensity of that trigger may even wane.
It begins with your body. The whole trigger/neuroception thing occurs beneath conscious awareness. Your body knows it’s triggered well before your thinking brain has a clue. So learn to identify the physical sensations that come before you mouth off, or get angry or upset and say or do that thing you later regret or collapse into a heap of rumination and hurt (which by the way is what freeze looks like).
NOTE: if you are dealing with serious trauma, go easy on focusing on your body. It can be re-traumatizing. See a Somatic Experiencing therapist or other trauma-aware professional.
At a minimum, learn to be broadly aware when you’re activated. Perhaps even say to yourself ‘I’m triggered.’ And if possible cut yourself off from the source of the trigger. If you’re in a meeting and someone says something that makes you want to strangle them, call a break. Or leave the room for a minute. If you feel an overwhelming urge to say or do something, don’t. Easier said than done, but that triggered urge does dissipate on its own if you let it. The old ‘count to 10’ wisdom is actually good advice.
If you can, do something to change your state. Take a walk. Look at vacation pictures. Recall a happy memory and stick with it for 30 seconds. Watch your breath for 10 breaths. Pet the dog. Dance. Punch a pillow. Do what it takes to let that fight/flight/freeze energy dissipate. For god’s sake stop reading the news on your phone.
We all want to be the best person we can (and if you don’t you’re probably not reading this), and practicing good ‘trigger habits’ is one way to embody the ideal you.