The Truth About Triggers
“When I hold you in my arms and feel my finger on your trigger, I know that no-one can do me harm because happiness is a warm gun”
– John Lennon
When we write about the external environment and how it affects us, we talk about ‘triggers.’
This is a commonly used term that refers to external events that are prone to provoke negative cognitive behavioural cycles within us – thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. They are perceived as negative experiences. In fact, they are just experiences, but we will describe them as negative if our responses to them are not favourable.
As we, and many others, have said many times before, the nature of the experience we are having is not what is significant to our wellbeing, it is our response to it that is paramount. If we believe that our responses are not within our control, then we are powerless. Since there are many practical ways to influence our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, we are all, in fact, totally capable of harnessing our own power. It starts with becoming fully conscious of what is going on for us in every situation. There are a great many articles on this website that will show you how to do this.
Let us come back to talking about triggers. When we use this term, we are referring to the external event, which we may have no control over, and not our response to it. For example, the behaviour of another person, the loss of an opportunity, the termination of a relationship or having to work in a ‘toxic’ environment. Our response to events such as these is the only thing, we can control but we refer to the events as ‘triggers’ because we perceive them to be responsible for the resulting negative response within us.
The term ‘trigger’ is so widely used that many of us have become conscious of what our own personal triggers are. When something adverse happens, we might say that it was a trigger for us, or we might even give a ‘trigger warning’ before we post or discuss something sensitive just in case someone else identifies with the content as being a trigger for them. As much as this is a practise that has its intentions in self-awareness and compassion towards the Self and others, it also gives these negative external experiences unwarranted amounts of power. It makes them responsible for our pain – not us. They do not deserve this amount of credit. They are only experiences, what we do with them is up to us.
A trigger is in fact, a personal invitation to become upset about something.
We do not have to accept that invitation!
True resilience would be to show up every day in the presence of our triggers and to choose to remain unprovoked.
In our book ‘How to Rise’ we talk about ‘the locus of control,’ a term used by Professor of Human Development, Emily Werner. It describes the extent to which a person believes they are in control of what happens to them. People with a strong external locus of control will be entirely influenced by their external experiences, whereas people with a strong internal locus of control will recognise that it is their internal responses – thoughts feelings and behaviours - that ultimately shape their environment and seek to make conscious choices about what to think, feel and do in any given situation.
By refusing to accept the invitation to be ‘triggered’ we are shifting the locus of control towards ourselves and gaining sovereignty over our lives.
Let us reclaim our power from the external environment and those around us, and free up all the energy that we are currently using to unconsciously engage in responding to our ‘triggers.’
We are absolutely not going to suggest that you make a list of the things that trigger you.
Self- awareness is the prerequisite to enlightenment but to have about your person, a list of your known ‘triggers’ is to give unwarranted power to a set of circumstances which are just that – circumstances.
Knowing your own personal triggers not only gives them power, but it also evokes fear and anxiety within you. If you are OK when your triggers are not present, there is always the potential for one of them to come along and pull the rug from under you. When you are aware that this might happen, you may project yourself into future scenarios where you have become unconsciously triggered by external events and manifested unpleasant outcomes for yourself and others.
You can however work backwards from the experience of responding to a trigger.
When we perceive ourselves to have been triggered, we have, in fact, engaged in unconscious thoughts, feelings and behaviours. We have given the event meaning by attributing a narrative. This is a stream of thoughts regarding the event which are not rooted in truth.
For example, if I hear my colleagues talking, I might assume that they are talking about me, that the content of what they are saying is negative and that they do not like me. The only truth is that they are talking, but these are my unconscious thoughts. These thoughts then create feelings in the body caused by chemical changes and labelled with one word such as fear, despair, disappointment, or rage. These feelings then drive my behaviours, which will be designed to remove the threat. These might include challenging my colleagues, sulking, complaining to my manager or recruiting allies and spreading rumours. All of these behaviours will have consequences and ultimately shape my environment – and all because I responded to a trigger.
What can you do to avoid such a scenario?
You can learn to recognise the invitation.
The next time that you feel that you are about to unconsciously respond to a situation in an adverse way press pause.
Recognise that this is a trigger for you.
How does it feel to be triggered?
Where do those feelings express themselves in your body?
Put yourself on notice to recognise these feelings as soon as they come up in future so that you can move into consciousness immediately.
Let it be like the ringing of a bell.
As with all things adverse and otherwise, a trigger is a gift. It offers you valuable information about the Self and can act as a signpost towards work that you can do to heal your wounds from the past and reframe your core beliefs about yourself accordingly now.
Say ‘thank you’ to the Universe.
Cultivating a grateful mindset is one of the best evidence-based ways to improve your mental wellbeing.
Now you can consider the following three choices:
1. If you want to, you can consciously accept the invitation to respond. This means consciously engaging in the negative cognitive behavioural cycles being fully aware of the cost to you in terms of energy and consequence.
2. You can decline the invitation to respond as you normally would and choose to process it in a different way. You can examine your narrative and ask yourself whether there is truth in it. You can sit with your emotions and ask yourself where they are pointing you towards working on yourself. You can choose positive behaviours to foster harmonious outcomes for the good of everyone.
3. In his book ‘The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success’ Deepak Chopra refers to this option as the ‘Law of Least Effort.’ Here you choose to let go of it entirely. You simply refuse to give it your attention. You dump it. This is does not entail suppressing emotion or pushing down the stuff that is coming up, it simply means choosing not to engage with it at all. It is the most liberating way to conserve energy and requires surprisingly little energy.
When we walk through life in the presence of those things that our younger Self would have struggled with and we do not struggle, we are truly healing.
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