Someone says something to us and suddenly we are struck with a sinking feeling in our stomach. Someone does something and instantly we become enraged or alarmed. Someone comes at us with a certain attitude and we go to pieces. We hear mention of a person, place, or thing that is associated with an unresolved issue or a past trauma and we feel ourselves seize up with sadness, anger, or fear. When we are “upset,” a trigger has been fired. These are each examples of a familiar stimulus/response experience that happens to all of us. The stimulus is referred to in metaphorical terms, either a “trigger” or a “button”: “What she said triggered me,” “What he does pushes my buttons.” We might also say: “I have a charge on this” using an electrical analogy.
A trigger is any word, person, event, or experience that touches off an immediate emotional reaction, especially sadness/depression, anger/aggression, or fear/panic. Our reaction can be brief or long. Sometimes it becomes an obsession, hard to shake off. This disempowers us and plunges us into a sense of being unsafe and insecure.
Our reaction is also based on our belief about what the trigger signifies. Examples of beliefs are assumptions, illusions, projections, suppositions–all we let go of in mindfulness. Our reaction to a trigger moves from belief to expression, first as a feeling, and then sometimes with a follow-up of words or actions.
Usually, all this happens without our having a chance to consider what makes the most sense for us in the situation. Triggers and reactions happen so fast that we don’t have a chance to pause, look at what is really happening, and make a wise choice. This is because triggers activate our limbic system, where the emotions reside, not our pre-frontal cortex, where rational thoughts preside. We might say that the limbic system is like a horse, at times spirited, at times wild. The pre-frontal cortex is like reins. We are the riders with varying, but certainly improvable, levels of skill.
Some events simply irk us, but do not lead to an over-the-top reaction. When we simply notice a stimulus without reacting, we are not triggered. Witnessing is the opposite of being triggered. This is why mindfulness–witnessing the here and now without reacting–is an essential tool for having fewer triggers and efficiently handling the ones we have.
“He triggers me when she comes at me that way!” “She pushes my buttons as no one else can!” Both these statements refer to our topic of triggering. In both, we may feel like victims. In reality, triggers are tricksters. They seem to be instigated by someone else, but they are ultimately our own responsibility. We are being bullied by our own unfinished business.
A triggering experience alerts us to a psychological issue in ourselves that needs to be addressed, processed, and resolved. The trigger finger is especially our own when we simply let one triggering event after another occur, especially with the same person. He or she is not the cause of the trigger, only the catalyst. A trigger arouses or evokes; it does not produce. Each of us will react differently in accord with the personal issues a trigger instigates. As an example, a swamp will evince a different reaction and have a different meaning to a resident of Louisiana than to a resident of Kansas.
We can see every trigger as a pointer to our work, rather than simply a justified reaction. Then, a trigger arouses our curiosity about ourselves rather than our reaction to others. This makes a trigger a gift. We find out exactly where to focus our energy so we can liberate ourselves from being hijacked by others’ behavior. In other words, we become independent adults. Mindfulness is a path to this maturation.
In mindfulness, we pay attention to the flow of thoughts and feelings in ourselves. We allow them to pass through us without stopping to examine, judge, or entertain them. When we really are in the moment mindfully, it is impossible to keep holding on. Paradoxically, by not reacting, we grow in awareness of what things and events are in themselves, before we dressed them up with our projections, desires, fears, add-ons. This is how mindfulness helps us with desensitization: We are no longer so triggered by our cravings and repulsions. We shift from reactions to triggers to pure awareness of what happens out there and in ourselves. Soon they show themselves for what they truly are, facts to look at, not self-constructed fictions to grasp onto or escape from.
In mindfulness, we attend to what happened when we were triggered, rather than become overwhelmed by it. In mindful moments, we don’t identify with our reaction. We are witnesses of others, events, and ourselves. Our mindfulness extends both to triggers and to our reactions. We are mindful when we pay attention to and focus on the here and now without censorship, judgment, fear, reactiveness, attachment, or repulsion. Mindfulness helps us locate the pause between a trigger and a reaction. With this mindful style we are also less likely to react so excessively.
The original traumas that provoke a trigger reaction may never go away entirely, but they can become “what happened,” rather than what still hurts. Indeed, we will not eliminate triggers altogether, but we no longer have to react to them so extremely. We can modify both our susceptibility to being triggered, as well as our reactions to being triggered. We can learn to catch ourselves before we react blindly. In our mindful pause, we become more aware of the connection between triggers and what we have to work on in ourselves: Our goal is not to root out all our triggers, but to find a trailhead from them into the psychological and spiritual work that has been so long awaiting us. This is how we turn our triggers into tools.
Feelings can trigger us to run or hide. But we can always find our resources; our body has not thrown them away. All it takes is sitting in what we feel. When we let ourselves feel the trigger of loneliness, for example, we are building the inner resources to handle it next time. This is the advantage of our practice of mindfulness as being here now. We do not seek an escape or blame ourselves or others for how isolated we feel.
As we marshal our inner resources, more and more of our daily triggers can turn into information with no further inroads into our peace of mind: “Oh, he said that.” “Hmm, she is doing that.” “Looks like they have that attitude toward me. How interesting.” Now the fierce tigers have turned into butter.
David Richo, Ph.D., M.F.T., is psychotherapist, writer, and workshop leader. He teaches at a variety of places including Esalen and Spirit Rock Buddhist Center. He shares his time between Santa Barbara and San Francisco, California. Dave combines psychological and spiritual perspectives in his work. You can find him at davericho.com.