How to Manage Emotional Triggers: Part 2

It occurs to me that I might have been a bit hasty with Part 1 in this series on how to manage emotional triggers.

In my eagerness to get straight to the point, I’ve overlooked explaining what triggers are in the first place and why they exist. Are they always a bad thing and must we seek to avoid them?

Part 2 delves into answering these questions.                                   

What are Emotional Triggers

An emotional trigger is anything that evokes a strong emotional response, regardless of our current mood at the time. They could be from something external – a comment from someone else, or an event we witnessed – or something internal such as a memory or a thought.

Positive triggers, like the joy we feel at being reunited with a loved one, are also an important part of life. For obvious reasons, however, we’ll stick to talking about managing triggers that activate painful emotions, rather than pleasant ones.

We are triggered because of our basic biology. For much of our history as a species, we had physical threats that we had to deal with, like fighting off a lion or an enemy tribe. Even now, if a stranger comes at us with a knife, we will be automatically triggered into a fight or flight response. This is a good thing – a strong emotional drive to act increases our chances of survival.

Sadly, our bodies haven’t caught up to the fact that in the modern world, most of our threats are psychological/existential rather than physical. There is unfortunately little difference in how our minds and bodies perceive physical vs psychological threats – the same neural pathways are associated with processing both, and our nervous system is activated in similar ways. The bursts of emotion that were adaptive in the past when dealing with physical threats are not quite as adaptive in our current situation.

Why We’re All Triggered Differently

It’s easy to understand why all of us would be emotionally triggered by life-or-death events. But what about more ambiguous situations which don’t seem to affect some of us at all, while sending cold shivers down someone else’s spine? Many people, for example, are so afraid of public speaking that they would prefer dying to getting up on a stage.

It’s due to two things:

  • The fact that we each have a past, and that this past wasn’t all sweetness and light.
  • That fact that none of us can experience the world completely objectively. What we do is form our perceptions of the world around us, based on our familial/cultural upbringing, environment, and inborn temperament.

Basically, we are always filtering the present through the lens of our unqiue pasts.

This means if we had painful and/or traumatic experiences in our past that we haven’t dealt with or released from our system, this pain will continue to distort our perceptions of what is happening in the present. If you’re ever triggered, here’s a general rule of thumb to keep in mind: when triggered, we are living in the past, not the present. Intellectually we may know differently, but emotionally we haven’t quite realized that that was then, and this is now.

As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, painful emotion must be allowed to flow through the body and release itself from our system. If we don’t allow it to do so, it stays stuck within us and festers.

Our psyche is naturally multiple and divided (e.g. some part of us wants safety, another wants adventure). Our repressed pain will cause a part of our psyche (or sub-personality) to splinter off and remain frozen in time when the pain occurred. This part will be triggered at any time it perceives a similar threat. An example of such a sub-personality would be the “wounded inner child” so popular in Instagram psychology.

Let me give you a concrete example. Say we were an awkward kid that had trouble making friends. We will carry around the pain of our younger selves, no matter how old, high-achieving, or competent we become. It’s this part of us that will be triggered any time we are asked to do something we perceive as socially risky – such as going to a party filled with strangers, asking someone out on a date, or giving a speech.

Of course, not all pain that triggers us has its roots in our childhood. Adults experience hardship and trauma as well that can stunt us psychologically. You can take the happiest, healthiest person who had the best childhood in the world and ship them off to fight in a war, and they’ll still likely come back with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and struggling with coping mechanisms like drug addiction.

But no matter the age at which the pain occurred and has created a sub-personality prone to being triggered, we can access it and unburden it of the pain it carries. It’s a lot like getting rid of the ghosts that haunt us.

The next few parts in this series will explore this topic more in-depth.

How Should we Approach Triggers and Trigger Warnings

I would like to live in a more compassionate world where we are more mindful of other people’s struggles. Where we are less quick to judge each other for our failures. Where we are aware that the things that might not affect us can affect someone else deeply based on their history, and vice versa.

Is fostering a general climate of pain avoidance a step forward in that direction? Trigger warnings – statements preceding a piece of content that alert the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material – are now ubiquitous in social media and academia. Are we wise in looking to avoid triggering ourselves and others at all costs?

I’m not so sure.

The research so far indicates that trigger warnings do not make people safer or protect against emotional distress, including those who have survived serious trauma or who are suffering from PTSD. In fact, some evidence point to the opposite: trigger warnings can worsen the emotional distress they look to prevent.

The reason is simple. When we prime people about potential threats, we are priming our stress response system to be more reactive to them. The pain will then hit us harder than it would have done otherwise. This effect is heightened in people who believe that their trauma is a central part of their identity (rather than incidental), which is concerning as such a belief also predicts more severe PTSD.

Stress and pain are not inherently bad things. An excess is undoubtedly harmful, but we do need an optimal amount of challenge in life to grow. Just as we need to tear our muscle fibres to strengthen them, or expose our immune systems to a wide variety of pathogens for them to develop, we need a certain amount of frustration to grow psychologically.

And so, I worry that our contemporary practice of slapping trigger warnings on everything is not just making our emotional distress worse, but also actively enfeebling us. It contradicts the clinical consensus that the treatment for emotional triggers is to gradually increase our exposure towards them and build up our window of tolerance. This wisdom of not letting our demons hide and fester in the darkness is time-tested; a thousand years and more ago, the Stoics would advise us on the need to face what we fear.

Let me be clear – I am not advocating for anyone to force themselves to confront their worst fears immediately or jump into anything they are not ready for. This carries too high a risk of re-traumatizing the person. Each of us has the right to decide for ourselves at what pace we can confront our demons – both internally and in the external world. What I am cautioning against is the idea that we must optimize for comfort above all else.

As harsh as it sounds, none of us are entitled to a life without pain, struggle or being triggered.

Part 1

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5