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Trigger Happy: How To Manage Those Automatic Reactions

By Andrea Schmitt
Triggers are actions, words, gestures or your own thoughts that cause you to have certain feelings. They can also be sensory reminders that make some symptoms or memories resurface. These can be smells, sounds, sights or physical sensations. They can be positive or negative.
A positive trigger could be a dog where you “feel triggered” to run up to it because it reminds you of the puppy you had when you were small. Or you smell a perfume and suddenly you vividly remember your grandmother.
A negative trigger could be someone asking, “Why are you always so sensitive?” and you feel yourself getting insecure, shy and wanting to hide (yet again). Or you hear a song that reminds you of a bad memory from the summer of 2019.
These are all triggers that can “upset” others or ourselves. There are also triggers that refer to very traumatic events (war, kidnapping, sexual assault). These can result in serious mental health disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but I am not addressing these here.
When we feel triggered, our minds react automatically. We do not think about our reaction and often cannot think at all. Our response can surprise people who are with us, and they might suggest that we are over-reacting, being too sensitive or exaggerating. They may tell us, “Just chill out!” (By the way, I can assure you, nobody has ever chilled out because someone asked them to… just saying.)
You can also trigger someone without you even knowing it. Maybe your voice reminds the other person of a lost relative. On the other hand, you can trigger someone on purpose by intentionally pushing their buttons.
So, what to do when you feel triggered? Here are a few ideas:
1. If you feel sick to your stomach because of a memory, concentrate on your body. Feel your feet, wriggle your toes, clench and unclench your hands, look around and think about where you are now and that all is okay.
2. If someone made a hurtful comment, think about the comment coming at you like a big red wooden arrow. Just elegantly step aside and, voila, the arrow didn’t hit you. Or divert the red arrow up into the sky (upwards and onwards), swoosh… Can’t hurt me!
3. If you are with people who are known for hurtful comments and you cannot get away (at school, for example), put up an imaginary shield in front of or around you. That way the comments cannot get to you. Use your imagination.
4. If the comment ,“You are so such a loser!” did reach your heart and you can feel it, ask yourself if it is really true. Maybe it feels a bit true because that is what the little voice in your head tells you when you doubt yourself on a bad day. But really? Is this 100% true? Of course not! You just passed all your exams. You got into the school band. You played a really good golf game last week. You finally ran 1km for the first time. If you are having a really bad time, this can look like: “I did get out of bed, I brushed my teeth and put clothes on!” and that counts on those days. So, the answer to the accusation is, “That is not true!”
5. Recognize your triggers. We all have our “favourite” ones. For some it is (I am just going to say it) skin colour, hair texture, weight, height, the list is endless. Maybe you have heard the comment, “Oh, your freckles are so cute,” since you were young, and you are just sick of it. Here is the reality: you will most probably keep hearing those comments all your life! People will be people, and there are some thoughtless, rude and mean ones out there. So prepare for them.
What about responding, engaging, or having a heated discussion? Like many things in life, the answer is, “It depends.” Sometimes you need to respond immediately to create a clear boundary, sometimes it is better to talk when all parties have calmed down, and sometimes it is best to just walk away!
What we need to learn is to not care what others say, but that is so much easier said than done, right? Ask your parents and friends, everyone has been struggling with this at some point. It depends on many factors, and it only affects you if you let it affect you. If I told you “I think you are disgusting because of your green skin!” you would be like, “What? Me? Well, no! You are crazy!” But if I said, “I think you are disgusting, look at the green shirt you are wearing!”, and you were not convinced about the shirt when you put it on that morning, then you might be like, “Yeah, she is right, I thought it looked horrible too... Why did I even put it on? I am disgusting!”
So, what do you think could be your favourite way of dealing with triggers? Try different tips out, keep the ones that work best. You will get better at using them when you repeat them over and over again until they affect you less and less.
So, try these tips and let me know what works!
Be kind to others.