Coping With Triggers

There are, it would seem, nearly as many approaches and therapies for dealing with triggers — events and actions that provoke negative emotions in us — as there are potential believers in them. Although I try to be open-minded about this, at this point in my life I tend to believe that there are a relatively tiny number of people with the skill, time and understanding of human nature to be able to help those afflicted (and I think that’s just about all of us, though I admit that triggers are more debilitating for some than others), over time, to recognize and ‘manage’ their triggers better. I have almost no use for the vast number of ‘self-help’ books that purport to help people deal with these on their own.

My sense is that most triggers tend to provoke three broad classes of negative emotional responses (there may well be triggers for positive emotions, but as long as they’re authentic and not delusional I’m content to see them as a good thing):

  • anger, jealousy/envy, hatred, self-hatred
  • fear, anxiety, dread, helplessness, feeling ‘trapped’
  • sadness, grief, shame, guilt, sorrow. hopelessness, anguish

This intuitive grouping corresponds well to Parrot’s emotion ‘tree’ (though I sense that the ‘anger’ and ‘sadness’ groupings are more closely connected than we might think). The triggers for any of these negative emotions depend on our own experience and worldview. For example, many of us get angry at being mistreated, fearful when we sense danger, and sad when we hear tragic news. What underlies all of these emotions, I think, is suffering — real or potential, past, present or future, personal or on behalf of those we care about. Suffering is a consequence of pain (though some would say not inevitably so). And there is a lot of pain in our overcrowded, overstressed, exhausted world.

In an article last spring I attempted to lay out a strategy for avoidance of and coping with triggers. I have tried very hard to apply it. To my credit, I think I have become much better at recognizing when I have been triggered, and the direct cause (event or action) and indirect causes (traumatic events in my past, feelings of incompetency etc.) All of these ’causes’ are, of course, stories (about myself, others, the past or the future) and all of them, as people like Tolle and Richard Moss will tell you, are inventions. That doesn’t mean the trauma wasn’t real or the feeling isn’t valid — it just means that what is causing suffering now when a triggering event occurs is our own intellectual and emotional processing — the stories we create to explain what happened and why, what will happen and why, or what we believe is true and why, and the negative emotions that these stories immediately provoke.

So, for example, when someone suddenly cuts in front of me in traffic after shouting ‘asshole’ in my window and giving me the finger, a flurry of negative emotions are provoked by the stories I immediately invent about this event:

  • this guy has publicly disrespected me for no valid reason (anger)
  • the guy is dangerous, and will now try to physically hurt me as a result of his anger (fear)
  • I was not paying attention, and must have created a traffic hazard, perhaps by wandering over the line (shame)

When this happens, I am pretty good at recognizing both the stories I am telling about it and the emotions these stories provoke. I’m even getting better at helping others, when they are triggered (even when it’s by my actions) to recognize the stories they are telling about it and the emotions these stories are provoking in them.

What I am not good at is preventing myself from getting triggered at all. As I move to prevent and avoid situations (and people) who I think are likely to trigger me, I find that as the situations that can trigger me get (on average) tamer, my sensitivity to them is actually increasing (perhaps due to lack of practice). So (what I perceive as) a mild personal rebuke now triggers me more than it used to.

And, worse, when I get triggered, the process I prepared for myself, and try to practice, to cope with the trigger, is not working at all. This process is:

  1. Recognize what I’m feeling (the pain and the emotions), and recognize the stories I’m telling myself that provoked these emotions. Don’t judge the validity of either the stories or the emotions in the moment. Just accept that this is who I am.
  2. Understand, take time to let feelings/thoughts settle, and put things in perspective.
    • For fear: What is it I really fear? Is the threat real? What does responding fearfully to these situations get me? Five years from now looking back, will my current fearful response seem justified? What steps can I reasonably take to mitigate the threat or its impact?
    • For anger and sadness: Be generous, appreciative and forgiving of others. Imagine alternative stories that make the behaviour that angered/saddened me more understandable.
  3. Be present. Breathe. Be aware of my body, how I am ’embodying’ what I am thinking and feeling.
  4. Express my feelings. Let them out. Discharge.
  5. Let go of the feelings. If it’s a ‘fear’ trigger, let go too of the need for (and illusion of) control and certainty. Take the existential step of realizing that there is only this moment, now, and that I am not my mind, not my thoughts, not my feelings.

In reality, after doing step 1 I tend to jump directly to 4. I can’t help myself. And the problem with that is, by discharging what I feel too quickly and emotionally, I can trigger others, creating a vicious cycle of triggering. It can take me a long time to get around to 2, and if I were to be honest with myself, I probably don’t really do 3 or 5 at all.

The theory behind the ‘discharging’ step is the argument that all wild creatures do this after a stressful ‘fight or flight’ incident. They explode with anger. Then, immediately, they ‘shake it off’ physically — you can see this in animals that have just fought or just escaped danger. And then, supposedly, it’s done, forgotten.

Except it doesn’t seem to work that way for humans. Perhaps our brains get in the way, or perhaps our bodies are just not yet well-adapted to the types of triggers and stresses we face in modern civilization. In his book You Are Not So Smart, David McRaney cites studies that suggest that catharsis — venting our anger — does not discharge it at all, it keeps it in our system, and makes us more aggressive and more prone to seek ways to vent our anger when the next situation arises. Perhaps this is because of our egoic minds (it is doubtful most other creatures waste their time inventing stories about others’ motivations) — another facet of being ‘too smart for our own good.’ McRaney explains:

Catharsis will make you feel good, but it’s an emotional hamster wheel. The emotion which led you to catharsis will still be there afterward, and if it made you feel good, you’ll seek it out again in the future… Smashing plates or kicking doors after a fight with a roommate, spouse or lover doesn’t redirect your fury, it perpetuates your rancor. If you spank your children while infuriated, remember you are reinforcing something inside yourself. Common sense says venting is an important way to ease tension, but common sense is wrong. Venting – catharsis – is pouring fuel into a fire… [Instead, cool off]: delay your response, relax or distract yourself with an activity totally incompatible with aggression.

McRaney sites other studies that suggests catharsis (crying) often doesn’t help people recover from emotions of sadness, either — especially if it’s ‘protest crying’ — a plea for help rather than an expression of sadness.

But how are you supposed to start by ‘cooling off’ when your emotional reaction — the anger, fear or sadness you feel — is so powerful, so overwhelming that it just comes out, spontaneously?

There are a lot of sometimes-conflicting views on how to ‘manage’ the emotions that these triggers evoke:

  • So-called “anger management” programs focus on dealing with people who express their anger in physically or psychologically violent or threatening ways, and I think we can all agree that violent venting, directed against others, is abhorrent behaviour.
  • Some people argue that we need to be angry before we are ready to act to change something that needs changing but where advocating change poses a great personal risk — that our anger can effectively be ‘channelled’ into positive intention and activism.
  • In some cases (e.g. some childhood trauma victims), where external expression of anger or fear was or is taboo, people may internalize this feeling, and it may end up being expressed as sadness, shame, or grief. In these cases, some therapists would say it is better to be angry, to re-externalize this emotion. Might ‘anger catharsis’ work better for these sufferers than ‘sadness catharsis’ (crying)?
  • Grief counsellors often advise working through sadness at your own pace, aiming to reach acceptance, to the point the sufferer can to some extent ‘let go’ of their grief.
  • Most would agree, I think, that learning something new is always a good strategy, whether it’s just a distraction from the negative emotion, or acquiring self-knowledge or more knowledge about the situation or people that triggered the emotion, in order to better understand the psychological dynamics at work.

But none of this really answers the question: What can you do if you can’t ‘help yourself’ from immediately (non-violently) discharging your feelings of anger, fear or sadness, when there is (apparently) no cathartic benefit to doing so — in fact, your discharge may make you feel worse, may trigger others, may provoke additional or more extended negative emotions in you, and may increase your tendency to seek similar (unhelpful) catharsis in future recurrences?

In the diagram above I propose two ‘self-healing interventions’ we can try to invoke in the moment when we feel ourselves being triggered. The first entails changing the story we tell ourselves, either by finding a more benign one (in the case of anger or sadness triggers), or by having a ‘reality check’ on whether the threat is real and what mitigating steps we can take immediately to reduce it (in the case of fear triggers). The second entails, as McRaney suggests, delaying response (just giving it time), using relaxation techniques, or distracting yourself with a peaceful activity. I suspect this second intervention works best for anger triggers and is less effective for fear or sadness triggers.

Neither of these interventions is cathartic. But neither can (in my experience anyway) be invoked quickly enough to prevent the immediate response to the triggered pain — the created stories that explain what happened, and the negative emotions those stories evoke, in a vicious cycle. It’s fine to heal the damage through interventions after it’s happened, but isn’t there any way to prevent the pain responses (stories and negative emotions) from arising in the first place, with all the commensurate damage they can do?

Or is it just natural (and human nature) to react cathartically first and try to heal later? Our our primal “fight-or-flight” selves that badly maladapted to our modern culture and its triggers?

Anyone have any thoughts on this?

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7 Responses to Coping With Triggers

  1. terrapraeta says:

    Hey Dave —

    Interesting stuff. I’ve come a long way in understanding my own triggers and in finding ways to deal with them more effectively. For me, all triggers are personal. In other words… your example of the dude in traffic would never affect me unless I had experienced a dramatic/dangerous case of road rage. I might get irritated and feel embarrassed (if I had been driving poorly) but it would be totally in the moment and gone again.

    Real triggers for me tend to describe patterns. Part of the way my head works. People in my life can do just about anything and it won’t bother me — unless it is a pattern of behavior that is in some way an issue. A good innocuous one — someone in my household can blow off housework repeatedly before I start to see it as a pattern of behavior. If I can affect that pattern of behavior the first time I raise a complaint then everything is fine. If I comment and get a response, just for the pattern to re-emerge then it becomes an issue. This was a major issue with my ex for years. Not only did he not do much to help to begin with, but over the years I was manipulated(as much by myself as him) to the point that he was almost completely exempt from any work that didn’t pay him a salary. So now, whomever I have in my life, I can get very angsty, very quickly, if I perceive a similar pattern emerging.

    As to dealing with it, I have a coupel basic strategies. First and most important — recognize that a lot of the pain and angst I am feeling relates to those earlier experiences. That never *invalidates* the feelings. But it does change my perception of the experience of pain in the now. Second, vent to my heart’s content. Luckily for me, I have people(or at least a person) in my life that will allow me to do so without allowing themselves to *react* until they now the full extent of what is going on. Then, when the emotional baggage has been dispersed, I am capable of rational breaking down what just happened. Explaining the past pattern of experience that is my trigger and relating it to the current environment that set it off. Again, the man in my life is amazing in his ability to allow me this process without internalizing my upset. Once that has all happened and I am calm and rational again, then we can set about looking for ways to avoid the trigger in the future. In this case, the effort would be to get my housemates more engaged in taking responsibility for housework. Simple, but at the same time, with my history, a real bugger of an issue.

    Finally, my own efforts at avoiding my triggers kicks into gear. My big contribution to this: I work on recognizing emerging patterns before they trigger me (not that hard as I am usually at least somewhat aware of them all the time) and, more importantly, saying something, doing something whatever that something needs to be, to disrupt the pattern formation *before* i lose it. Back to that whole “honest, open communication” thing I always go on about. And really that part works before and after. With my partner — he helps me work through it so he gets the crazy me to deal with. For others in my life, instead of or after an event I can tell them “hey, this is making me crazy and here’s why” or “if you noticed I was outta sort last weekend? I was upset with you because….”

    Now, for singular event triggers — these processes won’t work. Or at least they won’t work in advance. No way to see it coming. But afterwards, and in future defense, I think perhaps they might be useful to some.

    I have gotten to the point that a few of my triggers have ceased to effect me much if at all. I have managed to analyze them away, perhaps. Although I am certain they are not truly gone, I have just gotten to the point that they have no power over me unless I am already in a weakened state. Perhaps metaphorically like a disease that I have built an immunity too. I’m good, unless I happen to already be sick and vulnerable from something else…

    But not to worry (sarcasm), I’m forming new triggers every year so I am sure they will always be a challenge. I don’t believe that this particular psychological ill is *caused* by civilized society. I think all humans everywhere are susceptible. But I do suspect that the sheer volume of such disconnects in our lives/minds can be laid at civs doorstep. So the skill set is important for all of us to develop, with hopes that eventually we humans will only occasionally need to pull out these tools…..


  2. Nicola Avery says:

    Hi Dave,
    Thanks for an interesting point, I don’t have the car one but other ones. I do taekwondo and if it comes down to an immediate relaxation I count to ten in Korean which I have found more effective because it is a reminder of what taekwondo is about. What I struggle with are the aftershocks more. Somone recently referred to me as a work in progress.
    I wish you all the very best in the meantime, take care x

  3. Marie says:

    I’ve found that Pema Chodron’s Buddhist approach to life/grief/suffering/change is quite helpful. When I feel that depression is threatening to return, I pull out her books. Her perspective has helped me avoid serious depression for several years now. YMMV.

    I applaud your attempt to learn more about your own triggers. Understanding why we respond the way we do is essential if we want to respond differently in the future.

  4. Pawel says:

    You ask:

    “Anyone have any thoughts on this?”

    Yes, I have. There are systemic triggers we have to deal with. To put any meaning into the statement the systemic meaning of “we” must be applied. “WE” are the presently living specimens of the only species possessing consciousness – ability to think. “WE” are a tiny fraction – in time and space – of the universal process (whatever we – individuals believe it is).

    Broadcasting/sharing own beliefs, demonstrating own helplessness we do not fit the system’s dynamics. Shared individual beliefs are not much different from group beliefs, great religions. They are part of the global problem. To move forward, to create, we should communicate – listen, add value, feedback. Instant communication all over the planet is a chance offered by the Universe, by the one whole system we are part of, to our generation.

    I am an outsider to American web life, but not quite a newcomer. I think that to save the world means to solve the global problems we have been dynamically creating using our ability to think. To succeed we should understand thinking as the evolutionary process.

    Presenting this attitude (in many discussions, during 4 years) sooner or later I bounce off your (American) feeling of individual conscious (or spiritual) power. It makes you active (it attracted me, thats why I have tried to join). On the other hand it makes you helpless. You can’t understand that thinking (or spiritual Enlightenment) are the products, not the source, of your (anybody’s) power (of course they feed back, but one needs the systemic approach to visualize the process).

    I live in Poland and I share with all people in central Europe the experience of the illusory power of revolutions – first the soviet, second the “Solidarity”. One (you, OWS) can believe in their creative power – human collective, objective, thousands years long experience tells us the opposite. Maybe I should have said the first was Cromwell’s, second the French…. Or first was Jewish uprising in Jerusalem?

    Aren’t you obliged – by the heading of your site – to actively “listen” to human experience in search for solution? I do not mean listen to me – in this post I try to somehow represent the wisdom of the web, possible to construct upon recognized authorities input (direct or made accessible), since Buddha, through Aristotle, Einstein, Jung to the few currently living, understanding cybernetics, unfortunately absent in “common knowledge”.

    “We have absolutely no idea what it is, or what it will look like, or how long it will take. But Don’t Tell Us …”

    What for do you ask the question I quoted at the beginning?

  5. Martin says:

    In my experience there are triggers and then there are TRIGGERS. I have learned over the years that for the most part the lower-case triggers can be shrugged off and/or the inevitable reaction/catharsis can be pretty much allayed by saying to myself “This is now-that was then; move on.” – provided, of course, that I am able to recognize the connection, which isn’t always the case. In which case I usually vent profoundly.

    As for the upper-case triggers; I have done a good deal of work over the years using techniques such as meditation, hypnosis, NLP, Timeline, & etc. to either eliminate them entirely or at least defuse them to the extent that they no longer pose much of a problem. These techniques work very well with such things as chronic anger (noting, however, that a little bit of anger is healthy, if warranted), fear (as in paranoia, phobias, etc., – again noting that a little bit of fear is also a healthy thing, if warranted), sadness, jealousy, and so forth.

    However, I must also note that in spite of what the ‘experts’ in these techniques may say, it is often the case that such ‘cures’ are not initially permanent and they must be revisited a number of times before the TRIGGER is eliminated or even diminished to any great extent. It depends, I suppose, on the degree to which the original event is implanted in one’s psyche or programming.

  6. Ouspensky says, and I quote :
    “Be aware of the fact that those things that you find annoying about other people are the things you are still struggling with yourself. Things you have overcome will only result in compassion.”

    This is akin to Jung’s work on shadow side of the human personality, where Jung says that the shadow, being instinctive and irrational (and most of the time un-self conscious), is prone to projection: turning a personal inferiority into a perceived moral deficiency in the other.

    A lot of the conflicts tend to disappear when one has come to terms with one’s shadow self, and dissolved the shadow in full light of consciousness. The shadow side of the psyche was depicted in the 19th century novel Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

    How does one dissolve the shadow? It is long, painstaking work which begins with recognizing all manifestations of the shadow. Whenever we get disproportionately angry or start questioning someone’s motives even in their innocuous actions, we can assume that it is the shadow side at work. It can be countered by multiple means. Two of the important ones are Gurdjieff’s work with consciousness, and the New Age way of creating positive associations.

    However both of the above methods are useful only in the long term. They cannot be used by beginners, to resolve a crisis. When one is the heat of the moment, one will not have sufficient self control and restraint necessary to consciously change one’s reaction. What has worked for me over the past few years is to be cognizant of the negative emotions arising in the body. These negative emotions might feel like a constriction in the chest, or a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach, or some such unpleasant feeling. If one pays attention to that feeling, it turns out that after a while the feeling tends to lessen in intensity and dissolve. This process accelerates when one pays attention to the tension in the body, and consciously relaxes in the area where tension becomes manifest.

    When the body is relaxed and the mind is at peace, the body feels a certain way when one is conscious of it. In any stress situation the aim should be to try and return the body to that state, through conscious breathing and relaxation. Needless to say one becomes better at it with practice.

  7. Nathan Shepperd says:

    I’ve been having trouble with some combination of anxiety and depression that’s recently that’s bad enough to stop me functioning properly. It has been apparently triggered more often by being in the office environment of my work, but I’m having trouble noticing what’s starting me off. I’m stuck in the tense or despairing state before I’ve realised I’m getting down there.

    Probably it’s the common problem where one is rationally capable of understanding things that one is generally supposed to do to counter these traps, but lacking whatever it is that’s required to “shake it off”.

    My theory is that my dumb human brain is actually just stuck with thinking and analysing. Well I say it’s my theory, but it’s only what I’ve read in a mindfulness based self help book. I think what you’re saying makes sense to me, but I can’t say that I’ve experienced a successful avoidance of the “negative thought spiral”, well I can’t remember one. I’m usually trying to recover from the aftermath by going out for a walk or shutting myself in a quiet room. Lately even that’s not working.

    Like many people I have a life without much breathing space, but I’m less able to cope with it. In the end I’m looking at some form of counselling because I clearly can’t move forward without some external help. The trouble for a lot of people is that they think that there’s something terrible about trying to get help if none of the usual stuff works.

    I’m not quite sure what I was intending to say in relation to what you’ve said there. Perhaps it’s that there’s a difference between understanding what’s happening and changing your reaction to it. I’m more convinced by the little I’ve derived from learning about Zen Buddhism – the answer is that there is no way of stopping your mind, you just have to learn to let it flow past. I’ve had one or two experiences of mindfulness leading to a calming of the mind, which was possibly like Satori or Kensho.

    Well it seems to make some sort of sense, as I’ve never actually managed to cut off these triggers by bending my thoughts, as that is just more thinking. I think one may need to be in a state of not paying attention to that part of the mind, or observing it without participating.

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