We often think of triggers are these big, sensory events that happen outside of us— and sometimes they are. A sound; a smell; something we see that, for whatever reason, takes us back to a place where we feel less safe and resourceful than we actually are. 

But sometimes triggers aren’t that straightforward. 

Often, we can be triggered by something we feel, perceive, or conclude about a situation. 

It can be triggering to FEEL invisible or erased.

It can be triggering to FEEL judged. 

It can be triggering to FEEL inadequate. 

There might be many reasons WHY we feel those things in any given moment— and sometimes those feelings only have a tenuous relationship to anything that’s actually happening right here, right now. 

When we grow up under constant pressure and unpredictably in our relationships, we tend to be hypervigilant about what things mean and what other people are thinking. 

Sometimes it gets to the point where we think we “know” what somebody else is thinking based on a look in their eyes or a tone in their voice— and our entire nervous system reacts. 

These kinds of triggers may be confusing, because they’re not the “obvious” sensory triggers that people often talk about. 

Lots of people reading this know what it’s like to grow up having to guess at what the people around us are thinking and feeling— or what they’re going to do next. 

It’s enormously stressful— and our nervous system doesn’t just turn that hypersensitive alert system off. 

That hypersensitive alert system maybe the only thing that kept us relatively safe and functional once upon a time. 

It’s really easy for other people to tell us that we no longer need the defenses we once did, because we’re not in those dangerous situations anymore— but the equation just isn’t that simple for our brain and body. 

Our nervous system knows that it’s when we drop our defenses and think we’re safe that we’re often the most vulnerable. 

One of the reasons why it’s so hard to change how vulnerable we are triggers is because that vigilance may have literally kept us alive once upon a time. 

If we’re going to ask our body and brain to become less sensitive to danger signals, we’d better be prepared to explain our new strategy for keeping ourselves safe— and how that strategy maintains or improves upon the benefits of the old strategy. 

Too often in trauma recovery, we expect ourselves to be able to just let go of old defenses, old strategies, old skills. 

We need to remember that those old defenses, strategies, and skills may have been the most reliable things in our life once upon a time. 

Understanding the complexities of how we get triggered takes a lot of patience. 

No one LIKES the fact that they get triggered. No one LIKES having to think about how or why subtle things spark such a huge reaction. We WANT to just get PAST our triggers. 

If only it worked like that. 

In understanding our triggers, we necessarily pay our due respect to the nervous system that, while it can be frustrating and the source of pain sometimes, got us through some pretty awful stuff. 

If we want to tell that nervous system it’s time to stand down, we owe it an explanation why that makes sense. 

It’s not just about surrendering old coping skills and tools. 

It’s about replacing those skills and tools with new ones that allow us to grow past mere survival. 

You deserve more than mere survival. 

You deserve to be more than the poster child for “resilience.”

You deserve a quality of life that is defined by your preferences, your goals, your dreams. 

And if you’re reading this: that quality of life is NOT beyond your ability to create. 

No matter what your trauma (or depression, or addiction, or eating disorder) is whispering in your ear right now. 

One thought on “Understanding triggers takes patience. (I know. Ugh.)

  1. Thanks, Doc. I’m going to choose to believe that, and hope to override that pesky whispering that says otherwise–as much as possible, anyway… Wishing you a very happy and healthy new year!


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