Understanding Triggers

In our last lesson we talked about how the parts of our brain that integrate our experiences into time and context go offline when we experience trauma. In this lesson we’re going to explore how this process leads to some of the main symptoms that come with post-traumatic stress, and how they come about through triggers. Being “triggered” has become a bit of a buzz word, so I wanna talk about what it means when we say that. 


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Neuroception: interpreting the world around us

When our amygdala is scanning the environment around us, it is constantly communicating with the time-keeping regions of the brain — the thalamus and hippocampus — in order to use context from past memories to help the brain interpret if something in the ‘now’ is safe or dangerous. This is part of that process of neuroception I spoke about in an earlier lesson.

With an “optimal brain” that’s in the green zone and isn’t burdened by unresolved traumatic experiences, our brain can do this using neural pathways that connect these time-keeping parts of the brain to the cortex, which allows for more logical and refined interpretations. It could hear a loud sound such as a car backfiring and still access a sense of time and context that says “I am on a busy road right now, that sound was unexpected and a bit scary but I can see and hear now that everything is fine around me, and that it was just a car backfiring.” 

When we’ve experienced trauma that hasn’t been able to be properly integrated and recovered from, our neuroception is more likely to become faulty and our thalamus can misinterpret something based on these fragmented memories that are frozen in time. Suddenly what happens around us is no longer placed into a sense of context— instead, for someone who has experienced a traumatic event such as war, the sound of a car backfiring becomes interpreted as the sound of gunfire, and the amygdala responds to this danger as though they are still on the battlefield experiencing the traumatic event. 

What are triggers

This brings us back to our lesson on traumatic stress and perception — these unresolved experiences that are stored outside of time within us can then change the way our brains will perceive things moving forward. We begin to interpret events around us based off of old experiences, and this happens automatically whether the interpretation is accurate for the current situation or not.

This is what a trigger is — some sort of stimulus in the present moment that reminds the brain of some aspect of the original traumatising event, and then reactivates a stress response within us. 

Signs of a trigger

It can be hard to recognise when you are triggered, because this can look different for everyone. Below are a list of some of the signs that you might be experiencing a trigger: 

  • You might notice yourself going into a danger response down the ladder — into the yellow, red, or orange zones — without knowing why
  • You “flip your lid” and don’t have access to the thinking parts of your brain
  • Your reaction could be more intense than necessary for the situation
  • You may seem to watch yourself having the reaction as though you have no control over it
  • You could feel stuck in your reaction — feeling unable to take a step back, think about it or change it
  • You might dissociate, lose time, or feel on autopilot like you’re acting from another part of yourself
  • You could have a sudden flashback — intrusive memories, images, sensations or thoughts that replay a traumatic event for you as though it’s happening now

Types of triggers

The other important thing to remember is that because trauma doesn’t get integrated into long-term memory and instead is stored as sensory imprints, the things that can cause a trigger can vary and sometimes not make much sense to us. Below are a list of some of the types of triggers you could experience: 

  • One of the most common is a sensory trigger — you smell a certain perfume that smells similar to that of someone who hurt you, or you hear a sound that is similar to the sound of gunfire like that example of the car backfiring.
  • Another common one is to be triggered by relationships and social situations. This could look like seeing a facial expression on your bosses’ face that reminds you of getting into trouble from your parents, or hearing people laugh at a party and interpreting that to mean they are laughing at you, or being left on ‘read’ by your partner and feeling as though you are being rejected or left by them. Sometimes a relationship itself can be a trigger, especially romantic relationships. We’ll go over that more in the ‘Connect’ part of the course, coz that’s a biggie all on it’s own.
  • You can be triggered by a particular time of year, such as the “anniversary” of the loss of a loved one, or something less obvious such as feeling depressed or anxious at a particular time of day, or part of the year, without knowing why.
  • You can be triggered by a particular place. For example if you experienced some sort of assault on a bus, then any kind of public transport might trigger a stress response or flashbacks. Or sometimes it’s not as clear, and instead something like being in a crowded place such as a supermarket or school hallway can cause overstimulation.
  • You can also experience internal triggers. A lot of the time the experience of trauma can mean that certain emotions, sensations, thoughts or parts of ourselves become something we try to avoid because they feel too “bad” or overwhelming, and then if something happens where we experience that feeling or internal thing inside of us, we can become triggered.

I also want to point out that while for the most part we think of triggers as something bad, we can also have triggers that remind the brain of something positive. Think of a time where you’ve walked into a room that has a particular smell or fragrance, and suddenly you’re transported to a happy memory in your life. If you’re Aussie like me it could be how the smell of mangoes reminds you of Christmas. Learning to work with positive triggers is an important tool that I will be exploring more with you in the ‘Cope’ part of the course. 

Triggers as cues

So now that we’ve talked about what triggers are, I want to actually challenge us a little bit. I’d like to reframe triggers as “cues”. Our brain interprets something that happens in the present moment as a cue to feel, think and respond in a way that reminds us of our past stories or experiences. 

I offer this reframe because I want to bring some self-responsibility  back to this. “Being triggered” has become a bit of a buzz word, and part of me loves that because it means advocating for our mental health has become something that’s so much more normal for us — and I will always err on the side of us  being kind to ourselves rather than just being taught to deny when we’re hurt. At the same time, a part of me sees how it can get simplified as this catch-all term that people use — “this is triggering me, you’re triggering me, I’m out”. But what does that actually mean? 

To me, what being triggered means is — “this situation is a cue that then leads me to automatically and instinctively feel and behave in these ways that felt necessary at another point in my life. And, I want to learn to discern whether these feelings and behaviours are actually still necessary in the present.”

Doing this still allows us to say when we’re being triggered by something, but also prompts us to ask ourselves what we need in this moment of being triggered. Below are some options to think about:

  • Do I need to remove myself from this situation?
  • Do I need to give myself some kindness and compassion?
  • Do I need to find some ways to self-regulate?
  • Do I need to set a boundary with someone?
  • Do I need to communicate my feelings more assertively?
  • Do I need to talk to a therapist or trusted confidant?
  • Do I need to take some time to reflect on this situation more?

That is self-responsibility. That is choosing to use “trigger”, not as a catch-all word, but as a word that prompts us to reflect and take honest and assertive action that is kind to ourselves. 

Go gently

Now I know that this is easier said than done. Because of what goes on in our brains when we’re triggered, of course  it is hard to regulate ourselves and reflect on what we need — because our automatic reactions have taken over. The first steps towards healing, as I’ve hopefully drilled into your brains already, are awareness and self-compassion. If you can simply catch yourself when you’ve been triggered, and offer yourself even just a sliver of kindness, even if it’s only 1% of the time to start with, that in itself can make a huge impact. 

Lesson Review

This lesson helped us understand what triggers are and how to recognise when they happen. We have one last lesson in this module that explains some of the neuroscience behind how we heal from trauma, which is what the ‘Cope’ part of this course focuses on helping put into action.