Woooaahh! What just happened to me there??!!

In a firearm, a small amount of pressure on a spring-loaded trigger acts via an internal mechanism of levers to release a firing pin, which strikes a percussion cap or primer, setting off a small charge which in turn ignites a mass of gunpowder. This releases a large amount of explosive energy and drives a bullet down the barrel. The consequences can be out of all proportion to the hardly visible squeezing of the trigger finger.

So it is with emotional triggers. A small action, a casual comment, may easily, if it touches on a sensitive area in another person, provoke an avalanche of painful emotions and suddenly throw us way off centre. This is so common that we almost take it for granted, as we do the aptness of the ‘trigger’ metaphor itself. A single dog barking at night may tap into all the other times in my life my peace has been disturbed by outside interference, a plastic sweet wrapper thrown out of a car window may symbolise for you the thoughtless desecration of our whole planet through centuries of neglect and exploitation, the smell of disinfectant may remind someone else of the terror of being hospitalised at the age of 3, and so on.

Typically, as with firearms, it all happens very quickly. Our button has been pushed, and before we’re even aware of it, a chain reaction has set in which we are powerless to interrupt. Even when it’s happened to us many times before, we can feel ourselves rapidly losing the plot as a minor irritation spirals into all-out war. Slowing the process right down and naming the stages involved can help us to disarm our triggers. The firearms metaphor can be surprisingly useful in examining in more detail what it means to be triggered.

The trigger: observing what happens in the outside world
It might seem logical that the trigger itself is what someone else says or does. In a sense it’s true, that’s where the process appears to start, but actually many different statements or actions can trigger the same chain reaction in us. Anyone who has tried to escape being triggered by scrupulously avoiding external triggers (for example by getting a partner to agree not to use certain ‘provocative’ words) can testify to how ineffective that is: we just get triggered by some other words or at an earlier stage of the dialogue. The crucial bit is what happens inside us. However, making an observation about what happened in the outside world may help us to detect a pattern and thus the common factors which can bring more clarity about our internal trigger mechanism. It’s also useful to name a real world observation so that we can do a reality check about whether our reactions are proportionate. The classic sign of being triggered is when our reaction is disproportionate to the present event. Whilst it’s easy to spot when someone else is triggered, it may be hard for us to see the lack of proportionality in ourselves without an observational reference point.
In this context, it is of course good practice to drop any statements like “He triggered me” or “Her behaviour is so triggering!” and think instead in more classical NVC terms such as “I felt triggered when s/he said..”!

The internal trigger mechanism: how we interpret
trigger mechanism of a firearm varies considerably between different designs and types of weapon but basically consists of a series of interconnecting levers. As the trigger is pulled, levers pivot, locks disengage and ultimately a hammer or striker moves forwards in the opposite direction to strike a firing pin, using the kinetic energy stored when the gun was cocked. In a similar way, when we are triggered, our brains do something they are very good at, namely ‘leveraging’ our immediate perceptions by linking them with many previous incidents, injuries and experiences.
For example, someone doesn’t say ‘Hello’ when we come into the room. She simply doesn’t acknowledge our presence. The behaviour itself is neutral – maybe she is deaf or has earphones on or is daydreaming or is upset about something, etc. But if this is a sensitive issue for us, we may take it personally and immediately link it in our minds with all the other times we haven’t received the attention we wanted. The human mind likes habitual routines, it feels safe when we are on a well-worn path. Like the gun mechanism going click-click-click, we add in all the other times somebody has appeared to ignore us, right back to our childhood, deep in the mechanism of the mind, and from slender evidence we jump to massive conclusions, and then amplify them: “She’s ignoring me” > “People often ignore me” > “Nobody likes me”, for example. And like a well-oiled mechanism, the process can happen within milliseconds, especially when the ‘gun’ is cocked (i.e. the spring has been compressed) by previous experiences.
Our habitual way of interpreting what happens in the outside world is the real trigger mechanism, and that’s what results in the firing pin being released.

The percussion cap or primer: a core belief
The firing pin now strikes the percussion cap, which in my analogy represents the ‘core belief’. If ‘being ignored’ is a ‘trigger’ for us, we may interpet ‘not saying hello’ as ‘rejection’. If we’ve experienced or imagined or created ‘rejection’ repeatedly in our lives – and it makes no difference whether we really have been rejected or not – then it very likely goes back to a traumatic childhood incident or situation, and in that case we have probably formed a core belief as a result.

Beliefs inform our experiences by setting the frameworks of our reality, and core beliefs in particular frustrate our connection with the underlying needs (in this case maybe for acceptance, mattering, etc) and therefore engender a lot of painful feelings. It’s the core beliefs that set the tone for our distorted interpretations and inferences, taking us from what actually happens in the outside world back to our bitter but familiar conclusion: “She doesn’t care about me”, “I am worthless”, or whatever it may be. We then create more unpleasant life experiences which ‘fit’ with our beliefs. Core beliefs are basically sitting there waiting to make trouble for us!

When the percussion cap or primer is detonated, we are struck as by a blow and our emotional body is suddenly in the place where the previous real or supposed injuries happened. A panicky feeling may be the first we know that something weird is happening. And we’re literally primed to go there, not by the trigger or even by the original injury, but by the core belief (primer) we formed at some point in the past.

Gunpowder: the pain of the unmet needs
As the priming charge goes off, our heart may miss a beat, fear floods in and almost instantaneously the main charge in the bullet or cartridge is ignited. The gunpowder is made from the unhealed pain from the original injury, now much added to and packed tightly into the cartridge or bullet casing by years of alternate repression and partial re-creation of the scenario. The chemical energy of the gunpowder comes from the unmet needs of the Inner Child. Holding major unmet needs is an inherently unstable state because there is a desperate longing to fulfil them which can drive us into extreme and risky situations. It’s like walking around with a loaded gun in your pocket, in fact!

The explosion is the emotional firestorm of re-experiencing the pain of the unmet need in all its intensity in the present moment. We’ve repressed and compressed it for fear of being overwhelmed, and now it’s more overwhelming than ever! The more pain stored and the stronger the casing (our ability to repress the childhood experience), the more explosive the release. The specific feelings which are triggered can range from anger to despair, especially in the seconds and hours that follow, but at the moment of triggering there is often an element of panic and we go into the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode.

The firefight: now we’ve both lost it!
What makes the explosion dangerous rather than just a welcome release of emotion, is not just its suddenness and violence, but that there’s a bullet in the chamber of this gun. Typically we use the burst of energy released to throw the pain we’re experiencing right back where it appears to come from, by attacking the person who apparently triggered us with whatever s/he said or didn’t say. That may be with physical violence, but verbally judging, blaming and criticising is just as effective! Often the other person has her own loaded gun too, and especially in close relationships, triggers tend to enmesh, so that when A triggers B, B’s reaction in turn triggers A, and both have lost the plot simultaneously. Now a firefight can ensue which inevitably leaves both parties wounded and exhausted. Alternatively or additionally, if our core belief involves stories of hopelessness or our own worthlessness, we may turn the barrel of the gun towards ourselves and inflict yet more self-injuries!

So much for what happens. Let’s turn now to what we can do about it! (to be continued)