A word. A song. A thought. A smell.
Goodtherapy.org defines triggers as “a reminder of a past trauma.”
If you have ever taken a course in Psychology, you’ll remember how Pavlov taught us about triggers in a roundabout way.
Remember the dog, the steak, and the bell, right? Well if you don’t here’s a quick rundown of the experiment in a nutshell: Pavlov trained a dog to associate the sound of a bell with eating a piece of meat. So, every time the dog heard the bell, he knew he was getting food. Pavlov trained this dog so that the sound of the bell caused the dog to salivate because it already knew that food was coming. Here’s where the real experiment kicked in. Pavlov stopped giving the steak to the dog when the bell rang but the dog would still salivate when he heard the bell even though he wouldn’t receive any food. He conditioned the dog to continue the response even when the reward or secondary stimuli was no longer present.
Basically, when we are triggered by an event, an object or a sound, it is because we have classical conditioned or trained ourselves, knowingly or unknowingly, to associate that particular stimuli with a person, place, or event that brings about some type of emotional response, usually a negative one. Now don’t get me wrong, there is a such thing as positive triggers. However, how often do you hear someone say that they are triggered, and it be a good thing? Right, almost never.
Enough of the psych lesson, let’s get into it! How do we develop these triggers and how can we become “untriggered?”
Remember the first time you were riding in the car with THAT person and THAT song came on? You both looked at each other all hazily and you felt butterflies. THAT feeling you felt at THAT moment with THAT song and THAT person in THAT car was so intense that every time you hear THAT song you immediately get butterflies even if THAT person isn’t present. *takes deep breath* Get it?
So now time has passed and y’all broke up and you hear the song, what happens? You probably cry, get sad or even mad. Why? Because your brain along with that emotional response trained you to associate that song with that particular person. However, now that person is no longer a positive association. You still get that intense feeling, only now that feeling is sadness, hurt or even anger depending on the breakup. When the song comes on it changes from a positive emotional response to a negative one, which is what we call a trigger. Now when you hear it you automatically skip it or just turn it off all together. A lot of times this negative association takes time to lose its intensity because we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to process through what has become an unintentional trigger.
Let me give you a working example. A close friend of mine was killed in a car accident when I was in college. I went to his funeral and heard a song that made me cry uncontrollably because it prompted me to think about how great of a friend that I had lost. Every time I heard that song after the funeral, it immediately brought me to tears to the point where I would slam the radio off and just ruminate in my grief. I finally realized how ridiculous it was that this one song essentially caused me so much anger because of how sad I was that I had lost my friend. (Yes, unresolved sadness can lead to anger).
So, here’s what I did…I let the song play out. Who would have known?! I cried uncontrollably and processed through my feelings mentally to understand why this song triggered me to this extent. Understanding how immensely his death affected me was part of the processing. After a few plays of the song at various times over a period of time, I finally got to the point that I wouldn’t boo hoo cry anymore but I might tear up. Eventually I was able to hear the song and not feel the urge to cry at all, but even to this day I do still think about him when the song comes on. I would agree that time does heal all wounds but putting a band-aid on a wound without giving it the proper attention leaves an unsightly scar.
So, what are you saying? Well, when we are triggered by various stimuli, it is because we have not allowed ourselves to fully experience the negative emotions that we have associated with that stimuli. Nor have we taken the time to dissociate the feeling from the stimuli. It’s almost as if we have to place blame on something and we use the stimuli as that “thing” because it’s easier to get rid of the stimuli than it is to address the feeling. We turn the song off. We change the channel. We walk the opposite direction. We do anything to ignore/avoid that feeling. So, what if instead of ignoring the trigger in hopes of it just going away on its own, we talked to it? We ask ourselves some hard questions and challenge ourselves to actually answer thoughtfully.
DISCLAIMER: If you have experienced severe trauma, I DO NOT recommend that you attempt to do this on your own. This could bring up highly negative emotions that would be important to process with a trained mental health profession. Please seek professional help.
Here are a few questions that you might ask yourself to get started:
1. What about this *insert stimuli* is causing me to feel this *insert emotion*?
– Why are you associating these two variables in the first place? Reflect on the event that occurred that led to this pairing.
2. What is causing me to feel this particular emotion?
– What was the actual action that triggered this emotional response? Think about your initial reaction to this action and determine if it is the same response or a similar one. If so, this usually means that you are still carrying the weight of the initial incident and have not worked through what happened.
3. Is there an underlying emotion that I could be feeling that I am not addressing?
– For example, you are angry that your ex cheated on you but what you might actually feeling is hurt or even insecure. Usually there are underlying components to anger that take a bit more digging to be able to find the root.
3. What happened in the situation that truly hurt me?
– Address the actual emotion and sit with it for a moment. When we sit with our feelings it allows us to become more comfortable with them and also be more aware when those feelings come up again later on. This way we are better able to address them at the onset the next time.
4. How can I resolve that feeling?
– This is where some handy dandy coping skills comes in to play. Write about it. I have a slew of journals laying around ready to be used at any given moment. Think of it as a weapon, but a peaceful one.
-Also talk about it. Whether it be with your friends, family or a bonafide mental health professional, verbally processing with someone can help to ease the emotions a lot quicker and more effectively than holding it in.
-Grounding! Remind yourself that you are no longer in the place and time that is bringing up that emotional response. Take deep breaths. Touch things around you. Here is a great link to some other grounding techniques. (Don’t mistake grounding for escape. It is more commonly used to bring you into the present moment until you are more emotionally able to address that feeling.)
5. What is a positive emotion, if any, that I can put in place of the negative one?
– For example, replace hurt with strength. This particular time for you was difficult to overcome but you did! So now if something similar or of lesser magnitude were to occur, then you would be able to overcome it with slightly more ease.
– Try reconditioning your brain to think about a happy time in your life when you hear that triggering song come on. Or maybe when you get a whiff of a smell that reminds you of a traumatic event, start to associate the smell with something more enjoyable like your favorite hobby. Do this for awhile until you no longer associate that song or smell with the negative emotion.
As with everything in life, you have to find what works for you. Take the time to really become aware of what you need emotionally and figure out what your triggers are. Ask yourself these questions and genuinely and intuitively take the time to answer them. How do you deal with your triggers?
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