We need to talk about triggers.
I know, I know. No one likes to talk about triggers.
In fact, the word “trigger” itself has kind of become sarcastic cultural shorthand for “somebody’s being oversensitive.”
But triggers are real, and have to be managed if we’re realistically going to recover— not just from trauma, but also anxiety, depression, and very definitely addiction.
And we need to talk about triggers now more than ever, insofar as much of what is going on in the world right now is triggering the living daylights out of a lot of people.
Let’s be clear about what a “trigger” is. When I use that term, I’m referring to an event or stimulus that happens outside of us, that swiftly (usually, immediately) makes a cascade of reactions in our bodies and mind more likely.
We often think of triggers in the context of trauma, because the diagnostic criteria for PTSD discusses how trauma survivors are particularly sensitive to reminders of their trauma.
The example many people may be familiar with is the sound of a car backfiring triggering the memory of firearms, leading to an anxiety reaction on the part of a veteran.
It’s not just auditory reminders of a traumatic event that can be triggering, though.
It’s very common to get triggered by multiple sense modalities. Sights, smells, even temperatures and textures, can all be potent triggers.
It’s also very common for bodily sensations to trigger us. Sweating, being out of breath or struggling to breathe, or the sensation of losing our balance or falling can very easily be triggers.
We also need to remember that we’re not just talking about anxiety disorders like PTSD. Depressive episodes, addiction cravings, and even psychotic breaks can be triggered by things happening outside of us.
Why do we need to particularly understand and respect our triggers right now?
Because right now there things happening that are absolutely triggering to large numbers of people…who don’t seem to realize that they’re being triggered.
Right now, in the cultural zeitgeist, there is massive uncertainty about really important— life or death, literally— issues that affect us all.
Right now many of the routines and institutions that significantly contribute to our lives being organized and predictable are in states of significant disruption.
Right now, many of us are looking at apparently open-ended situations where our social support networks may not be as available, or available in the ways we’re used to, as they’ve always been.
These situations aren’t “car backfiring” types of triggers…but make no mistake, they are triggers.
These situations are absolutely making post traumatic, anxious, depressive, and addiction relapse responses far more likely. Particularly in people who have histories with those conditions, and who are more vulnerable to them…but not just in those people.
The only way to manage our triggers is to be aware of them and prepared for them on a practical level.
We can’t afford to deny and disown the fact that we are vulnerable to triggers— even if we feel embarrassed to admit it.
There is absolutely no shame in getting triggered. Everybody gets triggered. It’s not a mark of weakness or inferiority.
It’s a mark of having a functioning human nervous system.
The world is triggered right now.
And I assure you: you’re probably triggered right now. At least a little, at least in some ways.
Get curious about what’s happening in your head and heart and body right now.
Don’t avoid it.
Pay attention to it— with patience and compassion and clarity.
We can manage our triggers, even in this stressful time…but it won’t happen by accident.
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