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 barely 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, provoke an explosion of painful emotions and suddenly throw us way off centre. This is so common that ‘triggering’ has passed into everyday speech and we take for granted the aptness of the ‘trigger’ metaphor itself. The explosion or other sudden emotional avalanche depends on a stored reservoir of unexpressed anger, fear or other pain. Such stores usually go all the way back to a childhood scenario which has been constantly added to over the years. As a result, a single dog barking in the night may tap into all the other times in my life my peace has been disturbed by outside interference, my attempt to help you with a tricky task may unconsciously remind you of all the times as a child you were not allowed to do something for yourself,  the smell of disinfectant may reconnect someone else with the terror of being hospitalised at the age of 3, and so on. In each case it leads to anger, fear or upset.

Nowadays online group admins and even radio presenters may give their audience ‘trigger warnings’ if the conversation is going near a sensitive topic which people might be triggered by. We are encouraged to be careful not to ‘retrigger’ someone’s trauma. As if it’s a third person who is causing us pain or is responsible for our pain when we’re triggered! On the contrary, it’s our own pain, it’s already inside us, making us ill in one way or another, and the trigger is not the issue anyway. All the rest of the mechanism: the hammer, the explosive charge, the bullet, is entirely our own. What’s more, few situations give us more direct information about our fixed patterns of belief and offer us such ideal chances to work with our childhood traumas than that of being triggered. We should thank those who accidentally ‘trigger’ us, not complain!

Typically, as with firearms, triggering happens practically in an instant. 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, and we can become aware of the process, we can feel ourselves rapidly losing the plot as a minor irritation spirals into all-out war. Still, slowing it right down and naming the stages involved can be a great first step to disarming our triggers. I’ve found the firearms metaphor to be surprisingly useful in examining in more detail what it means to be triggered, so that’s what this page does.

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 provoke 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. Still, making an NVC 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 the reference point of a clear and dispassionate observation. 

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 you come into the room. She simply doesn’t acknowledge your 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 you – because it has been set up that way, as we shall see –  you may take it personally and unconsciously link it with all the other times you haven’t received the attention you e wanted. Like the gun mechanism going click-click-click, the mind automatically adds in all the other times somebody has appeared to ignore you, and from slender evidence you jump to massive conclusions, and then amplify them: “She’s ignoring me” > “People often ignore me” > “Nobody likes me”, for example.  So in this case, the internal trigger is the readiness to believe that you are being ignored or disliked. 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 similar previous experiences.
Our habitual, unconscious 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 or primer, which in my analogy represents the ‘core belief’. If ‘being ignored’ is a ‘trigger’ for us, we may interpret ‘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 stage 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 effectively lurking 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 in response to the injury. How we respond internally to a trauma actually has far more debilitating and long-lasting effects on us than the trauma itself.

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 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 psychodramatic  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 released can range from anger to despair, especially in the seconds and hours that follow, but at the moment of triggering there is very often an element of panic and we go into the ‘Fight, Flight or Freeze’ mode.   Although this stage can be explosive (if our pattern is to Fight), it is not a release of the actual stored trauma pain, so it is not healing: it’s more about an attempt NOT to feel that pain, by whatever means we know, including taking our anger out on our ‘triggerer’.

The firefight: now we’ve both lost it!
Another aspect that makes a triggered explosion dangerous rather than a welcome release of emotion, apart from its suddenness and violence, is that there’s a bullet in the chamber of our 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, or at least screaming and shouting, but any form of judging, blaming and criticising can be used to take revenge on the person who appears to have wounded us. 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. Once both parties are divorced from the present reality, there is no-one left to empathize or hold the space and a painful firefight can ensue. 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.

Note that a triggered expression of emotions from a past situation is different from the expression of emotions arising in the moment in response to present needs. The latter can ease tension and bring connection, while the former is likely to do yet more damage by provoking the other person’s own triggers, because it doesn’t seem justified by the present situation.

Any unexpressed pain after a trauma has been exposed or ‘retriggered’ is stuffed back into the gun, with the extra pain added of it being partially exposed to the light but not healed, and maybe with a dollop of guilt and shame on top, and the trigger is reset – this time with an even more sensitive spring.

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