How to Avoid Being Triggered

The use of the term “trigger” is widespread in our culture today. In my practice, I hear about many ways people are triggered by people and circumstances: co-workers, random people on the street, a news item, our children, our spouse. Usually the “trigger” refers to a strong, unpleasant emotional or affective response – a sharp spike in anger, irritation, anxiety, fear, or discomfort.

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Technology and triggers

Our increasingly mediatized lives feed a general climate trigger. Think of popular tweets or videos on Twitter or TikTok. What are trending threads and comments? These are often the most virulent comments, designed specifically to “trigger” responses from general or specific audiences. Indeed, baiting particular groups is one of the most common practices we see on Twitter, with the use of memes designed specifically to irritate or upset very specific political or cultural groups.

This has always been partly true in the media landscape (“if it bleeds, it leads”) but it is more dominant in digital culture. Triggering other people online can attract more attention, which is often monetized as “clickbait”. It can be beneficial to get triggers online.

The usefulness of naming our triggers

Naming how and when we are triggered can be helpful, both in our online interactions and relationships and in real life. Naming our emotional responses can make them conscious and help us act more intentionally. Many mindfulness practices aim to slow down our response times to various affective states. If I can notice a change in my body, thoughts, or feelings, it can help me plan, slow down, and make more deliberate actions or reactions.

Recognizing and naming a trigger can interrupt an immediate reflexive response that can prove detrimental to interpersonal relationships. A common example is the pause we should always take before responding to emails, especially groups or mailing lists. How many times are we “triggered” by an overzealous or irritated colleague and immediately retaliate with a hasty, misspelled response that we regret an hour later?

The risks of “trigger” language

However, not all instances of naming triggers can be useful and effective. In many cases, the use of this term can be weaponized and used as a means of deflecting oneself and attacking others. Saying you are “triggered” by someone can immediately be used to blame, judge, and attack someone else for being solely responsible and accountable for your feelings. It can be a way of exercising power and demanding perceived interpersonal justice.

This is one of the arguments made by Sarah Schulman in her book, Conflict is not abuse. Being triggered usually indicates pre-existing suffering that has been brought up in the present. The triggered person often unfairly blames the person in front of them for events they did not cause in the past: “The triggered person suffers, but they often cause other people to suffer as well,” Schulman writes.

We can see this play out in all sorts of situations online, in person, and in close relationships. Something triggers and often our immediate action is to lay blame and responsibility on whoever triggered you. In many cases, the one being triggered takes no responsibility for their own emotional reaction (i.e. past experience or particular sensitivities) and therefore does not become active in the healing processes.

It’s less complicated in the online settings when the triggering is intentional – someone deliberately presses buttons that they know will disturb their audience. However, it gets much trickier in interpersonal scenarios, where the triggering word or action may be unintentional, unintentional, or even unconscious.

This frequently happens in close relationships when people are emotionally escalated. In this case, a genuine or reflective emotional response (such as irritation or anger) can be seen as an intentional trigger for the other. This can set off a cascade of mutual triggers that can escalate into heated conflicts, including name-calling, blocking, and even violence.

How not to be triggered by your partner, family member or friend

The next time you are triggered by someone in your life, consider the following thoughts and actions as you process and act on the unpleasant experience:

  1. Pause immediately and, if you can, take a break from the triggering situation. This allows you to avoid immediate, reflexive, and habitual reactions to stressful experiences, reactions that can ultimately compound your own emotional distress.
  2. Think about feelings similar or familiar to those felt at the time of triggering. Chances are you’ve felt something like this before, or had other experiences parallel to this one. You may be acting defensively and automatically based on negative past experiences. Maybe that past reaction was appropriate at the time, but it doesn’t serve the current context.
  3. Practice radical empathy. When you’ve taken the time to settle in, reflect on the person who triggered you and what might be motivating their actions. If they are a close acquaintance, you probably understand a little about their background. If you believe there is a legitimate, intentional pattern of harmful intent, make changes to your relationship and set boundaries. If you don’t, maybe they’re acting out of their own defensive structure, insecurities, or discomfort. Understanding this will help dilute the feeling of being intentionally targeted by their words or actions.

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