They are sudden, intense—and before you realize, they’ve already tossed you in a whirlpool of anxiety, fear, sadness, and grief.
One moment you are absolutely fine, going about your day, and in the next one, you find them standing in front of you, blocking your way.
You try to push them away, but they won’t budge.
You try and move away, but they hold you down.
After immense struggle, you finally surrender.
Surrender to your shadows that now embrace and engulf you.
Your shadows that turn your world from white to black.
And you stay there,
Waiting for time to pass.
Before you can gather yourself up once again to go about your day and life,
Pretending that it’s okay.
Only to find yourself standing face-to-face with them,
All over again.
Such are our triggers.
These unwelcome, unpleasant, and intense reminders of our pain, anguish, and sorrow come up whenever they want, wherever they want, and leave us shocked, confused, and helpless.
These emotional and psychological triggers can be external or internal. Sometimes external events and situations can trigger us immensely—leaving us grief-stricken and anxious. Sometimes, it’s our own internal churning that can throw up some really unwanted memories, realizations, fears that we don’t know how to deal with.
When we are triggered, our mind usually ends up associating itself with some past psychological hurt or trauma that becomes activated in the present moment. It’s as though a part of us is still stuck and reliving that past trauma right here, right now.
We get sucked into a dreadful story that we have already lived at some point in our lives and it feels as if it’s happening all over again. Any event that violates our expectations or shatters our worldview can become a traumatic event for us and that trauma inadvertently becomes a defining feature of our own self and life.
Even when the event has passed, we continue to carry its remains within us along with the fear and dread of it happening all over again.
When we’re triggered, three things happen:
1. Re-experiencing the event
Our mind (consciously or unconsciously) begins to replay the event. This can manifest through nightmares, ruminating thoughts, and talking about the past. We get trapped in the past and are unable to move on with our present life.
2. Hypo- or hyper-arousal
Our nervous system can be triggered into fight-or-flight mode. We may find ourselves getting angry, irritable, frustrated, or aggressive. Conversely, we can be induced into a low arousal state where we want to flee or dissociate. This is the time when we feel afraid and anxious, and want to avoid or run away from the situation. There are times when we may also find ourselves in a “flop-drop” or “freeze” mode where it’s as if we have collapsed and we can’t do anything at all.
3. Psychological rigidity
We become disconnected from reality and often end up fusing with judgements about self, life, others, our own thoughts and emotions. We often get caught in ideas of hopelessness, worthlessness, and abandonment, We often move away from our values and goals and become unable to consider alternate perspectives.
Our triggers are the broken, fragmented parts that call out to us for just one thing: reintegration and wholeness.
Allowing these triggers to heal involves undertaking a long and patient journey toward wholeness. In those moments of anger, hurt, despair, grief, or fear, we just need to be held in a way that can remind us we are already whole.
We aren’t broken or damaged. We are simply stuck in time and all we need to do is free ourselves from the chains that keep us tied to that past.
Would freeing ourselves change the past or would it make us feel as if nothing traumatic ever happened to us ? No. As much as we would want, we cannot erase or change the past. But we can allow ourselves to gently release ourselves from its painful grip.
Here are some of the things that we can begin doing to hold our triggers with gentleness (based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy):
1. Drop the struggle.
We need to acknowledge what’s coming up and slowly connect with our body. Focusing on our breathing helps us to connect with the present moment and disengages us from the past.
2. Contact the present moment.
Finding something to focus on in the present moment. When we regulate our breathing, move around, or stretch our body—it reminds us that while we can’t stop our thoughts and emotions from coming up, we can consciously choose to engage them and let them pass. It simply means allowing the discomfort to come up and dissolve while being in the here and now.
3. Open up.
We need to be able to make room for these painful thoughts, memories, and emotions instead of pushing them away, distracting ourselves, or avoiding them. The only way out of this discomfort is through it.
4. Psychological flexibility.
This means holding our difficult feelings lightly while keeping the larger focus on our current and long-term values and goals. This helps us integrate them into our lives. We need to remind ourselves that the bad has passed so we can create a new story for ourselves.
We allow ourselves to become whole again by integrating the stuck parts of us in a new way. A way that helps us to move toward a new definition of trust and security within ourselves, our relationships, and the world. We need to make room for the pain to come up without pushing it away.
For when we’re triggered, we need to be held with warmth, love, and gentleness. We just need to remind ourselves that we’re safe in this moment and that it’s going to be okay.
Our triggers need love, safety, and security. Sometimes from our world around us and most of the time from ourselves.
They just need a home within us.