By Linda Kelly, MSW, RSW
Being triggered is a big joke in the meme-world these days.
Social media runs rampant with disdainful attitudes about oversensitive individuals and groups that are “triggered” by seemingly innocuous comments and jokes. In fact, there are a lot of groups out there that are infinitely well meaning; yet vilified because they identify discrimination and abuse that others don’t acknowledge.
Given the intense negative connotation associated with THAT word, it makes sense when even I, as an experienced psychotherapist, was denying being triggered by an event that actually did upset me!
Let’s get this straight (AHEM, please take a breath and hear me out).
To be “triggered” simply means that your internal alarm system has been set off.
It’s a sudden influx of negative feelings that can vary in intensity from mild “uh oh” to full-scale panic or anger. It is your survival system responding to a threat, and it is perfectly natural.
You hear someone trying to get into your house in the middle of the night – triggered.
Someone runs a red light in front of you – triggered.
You pet a dog that suddenly growls at you – triggered.
Someone texts you “WE NEED TO TALK” – WOW triggered (by the way, this is cruel and everyone knows it. Don’t do this).
Being triggered does NOT make you any of the following:
…By the way, you can also be “triggered” to feel good by being reminded of a pleasant memory. So the same idea applies. You have encountered a reminder that “triggers” a response.
Where does it come from?
Children usually aren’t triggered as often as adults because they are in the process of learning what is dangerous and what is safe. Youthful curiosity lays the groundwork for sharpening their sense of danger. For example, a child might continue to pet a growling dog until it is bitten. It then internalizes that growling = danger. And it can get a lot worse if the child doesn’t yet have the capacity to recognize the difference between bared teeth and a wagging tail, as they might end up being triggered by external cues so far removed from the initial danger that it creates unexplainable havoc in their lives (e.g., won’t visit Aunt Suzie’s place because her blanket looks like fur).
These are extreme cases, of course, because our internal healing system, ability to compartmentalize, and natural curiosity usually wins out. But identifying the reasons why some struggle to heal and others move on is a topic for another article.
The point is, being triggered is not a bad thing. It’s a survival cue.
Being triggered is only problematic when the intensity of your response is incongruent with the actual threat.
If you are triggered into a panic by the sound of someone roughly banging on your door at night, there’s a reasonable assumption that this situation will be bad news. Thus, fear is warranted and ecologically valid. Tread carefully.
On the other hand, it isn’t very good for your blood pressure if you are triggered by the ding of an incoming email. Yet it would make sense to be guarded if you have received threatening or upsetting emails in the recent past. Your animal brain (limbic system) has been taught that emails = danger. Given enough time and exposure to nonthreatening emails (hello Wayfair, yes, we SEE you), your symptoms will eventually go away.
Down the Rabbit Hole…
Given that they don’t know the details of your history, an outsider could easily see you as oversensitive for reacting to something that doesn’t affect them the same way. You might even end up feeling invalidated and guilty for having that reaction and not being able to figure out exactly why, which is unfair. But it’s up to you to figure out the connection because they can’t read your mind.
They might not know that being identified as a certain ethnicity brings you back to when you were little and you learned that different meant bad, wrong, and that you don’t belong. Or that being stared at by a stranger brings you back to when someone wouldn’t take no for an answer, and you re-experience the same sense of powerlessness even though the situation has changed.
To be honest, sometimes the cues are so removed from the core experience that WE don’t even know why we react the way we do. But there is always a reason, an internalized core belief along with numerous experiences we have had that reinforced what we learned.
To be clear, if you are a human being with normal human responses, you have been triggered. It’s okay to be triggered. EVERYONE gets triggered. The cues that trigger you may or may not be threatening, and may not appear threatening to others, but there is always a reason. It is valid, and your feelings are valid, even if others don’t understand.
For how to identify and manage the triggers that are problematic, stay tuned for my next article.
Check here periodically for updates from Kelly Mental Health staff.
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