I used to get triggered really easily. Something seemingly innocuous would set me off – sometimes I was good at hiding my feelings on my face especially if it was in a work or social context, but inside I would be melting down: there would be this sinking feeling, followed by a deep emotional pain flooding my senses, and after the incident I would be replaying it over and over again in my head and thus reliving the painful moment over and over again.
I didn’t know that was not normal. I thought this happened to everybody. Occasionally in intimate relationships I would explode, not in anger but in tears. I attributed all of this to my personal character: that I was just emotionally sensitive.
Only in the recent years after reading a ton of books I learnt that not being able to self-regulate is not only a thing, but an unhealthy symptom of a much deeper cause. It seems so obvious now but I was not even aware of the concept of triggers. I was melting down so frequently I just thought I was sensitive to everything and was easily upset, I didn’t know there were specific triggers to me.
I started to notice. At first I was fearful of my triggers, and tended to avoid them. For a very long time I even avoided any human interaction (apart from my partner) because they were a major source of triggers. I accidentally found out when I was in a phase of unprecedented emotional stability when I was addicted to playing Stardew Valley so much that I ignored my phone for two weeks. Of course I thought it was being immersed in the game, but I slowly realised it was because I hardly interacted with the outside world because of the game.
I don’t know when, but there came a time when I started becoming amused by my triggers. I guess that is a sign of healing for me. I was amused that I was so easily set off by something so small. I could note the uncomfortable sensations and yet not spiral downwards. Sometimes I would still spiral, but feel incredulous afterwards. Once in a while I laughed at myself with my partner (of course I have to be the one to laugh first). One day, I suddenly had this thought that my triggers were a source of knowledge for me. It identified areas I was still struggling with, where I still felt broken and hollow. It was an alarm bell for allowing me to notice where I was still hurting, and where I could work towards healing.
For example, I get really upset if my partner interrupted me while I’m talking. If we look at it superficially, it may seem as though it is because of my fragile ego. But upon deeper reflection, this is a strong trigger for me because it subconsciously reminds me of all the times (especially during my childhood) when people talked over me all the time, shut me up with a sssshhh, making me feel unheard and unimportant. It was as though I didn’t matter, that I was invisible or annoying. Practically this seems like a very small issue, no one is going to die if they feel unheard. But existentially, it provokes a deep sense of despair – we might as well not exist if everything we say does not matter. It is part of human nature to want to be acknowledged and be seen. Perhaps when we were cave people this could be an actual threat because being unheard could mean we were being left out of the tribe which has real life and death consequences.
When I get triggered now instead of spiralling deeper and deeper into “I don’t matter to anyone I might as well cease to exist” territory, I take the opportunity to ask myself questions. Is it true that I don’t matter? Why do I feel like I don’t matter? Does it matter if I don’t matter to this person or this situation? Am I able to calmly manage the situation with the other party, either picking up the conversation where we left off, or explain to the other person why it is disruptive to be interrupted?
I try to see these as chances for me to work on my emotional resilience and self-regulation. If I’m emotionally stable such an infraction wouldn’t bother me, because I am able to look at the reality of what’s happening and be fully aware that the worthiness of my existence does not hinge upon somebody not paying full attention to me. Maybe I’ll feel slightly annoyed because I am only human, but I wouldn’t start feeling despair.
While searching my private journal I came across this entry I noted about Lady Gaga, who wrote an open letter about her triggers:
I also struggle with triggers from the memories I carry from my feelings of past years on tour when my needs and requests for balance were being ignored. I was overworked and not taken seriously when I shared my pain and concern that something was wrong.
…her psychologist added a note at the end in response:
It is my opinion that trauma occurs in an environment where your feelings and emotional experience are not valued, heard and understood. The specific event is not the cause of traumatic experience. This lack of a “relational home” for feelings is the true cause of traumatic experience. Finding support is key.
In that journal entry I wrote that I was triggered by reading that open letter, because it made me relive my own memories of “my needs and requests for balance were being ignored”.
This was in 2016, which is interesting to me now because I don’t feel much emotional reaction from reading the open letter again. I think this is where taking notes and writing journal entries on our reactions and responses to various stimuli is useful, because it demonstrates the emotional distance we’ve made between our past and present selves. I take it as a sign of healing when I am no longer triggered by what used to upset me so much in the past.
When we are chronically wounded, we need time and distance away from our triggers. I think I would not be able to heal if I kept putting myself in situation where I was being repeatedly triggered. Neurologically our nervous systems would not be able to rewire its neurons if the same pathways keep getting activated.
I aspire to become more whole as a person, and instead of running away from my triggers I see them as a source of wisdom. What do I find threatening? Why? is there truth in the degree of threat in that particular situation, or are they shadows of my past haunting me even though I am no longer that fearful and vulnerable child? Once I find the answers, I try to see if there are ways to mend that crack in me, or is it something I would need to carefully manage for the rest of my life. I am not sure if I would ever get over my fear of abandonment, so I try to communicate to my partner the sense of safety I need to feel, even if it feels frivolous to other people.
Not everybody is able to get some distance from their wounds and triggers. Some people have much deeper wounds, many are trapped in a circumstance that does not allow them a space to even breathe. I know I am lucky in the sense that I was able to alter my environment as much as possible. I am also lucky to meet a partner who is willing to work through both our triggers instead of just attributing it to our “tempers” and personalities. We don’t erupt for nothing, there is always a root.
I feel like because I am able to work with my triggers and examine them, I am able to expand as a person. In general I am more aware how I cause hurt to myself and to other people, reducing my hurt footprint – how much my footsteps are causing hurt to other people – in the world. This is partially why I strongly believe our civilisation as it is now will never progress much as long as we don’t provide a strong psychological support to people, instead choosing to focus only on economic success. Heck, we don’t even provide a strong physical health infrastructure, much less psychological. We as a species really don’t prioritise our selves, despite contrary beliefs. We prioritise our self-short-term-material-interests, without knowing we’re pain distributors. Maybe we’re all just trying to survive in the ways we know how.
If only we can collectively progress towards examining our pain with curiousity, instead of directing it towards ourselves and other people.