Triggers: How to Outwit Them

Triggers–we all have them. That word, smell, comment, gesture, song, childhood memory that brings back a bad memory in full, vivid color. We are snapped back in time and behave as we did the first time–although we may be decades older.

In mild cases, they cause us to cringe with the old memory. In severe cases, they cause us to behave badly, drop years of therapy, coaching, or conditioning. In the worst cases, they aren’t  just flashbacks, they are the symptoms of PTSD.

From the album "Love Trap" --what a trigger feels like.

From the album “Love Trap” –what a trigger feels like.

In this case, I’m talking about the milder triggers. The relative who says something thoughtless, taking you back to childhood. You uncharacteristically snap at them. A friend teases you and pushes an old trigger, you reply harshly.

This afternoon, I was on the phone, chatting with an acquaintance, who pushed a trigger. My guess is that it was a casual, teasing move on her part. In my head, it felt like a slap, a reminder of a mistake I made that I’d rather not re-hash. I was at the point where my tongue already was sharpened to smack down the remark along with the acquaintance, when a thought flashed across my mind:

“You aren’t the same person as you were back then. Time has passed. You have changed. Circumstances have changed. Use the new reaction. You won’t be sorry.”

Just as fast as it came, it was gone, but the truth it left behind was huge. I paused, pushing away the hurt and embarrassment of the mistake I made, and stepping into the different person I have become since that incident. At that second, I could see the acquaintance meant no harm, I could see her remark from her perspective. I could take that sharp tongue, swallow the remark, and say something light-hearted back.

I was shocked out of my eyeballs pleasantly surprised. Instead of letting the trigger pull me back into the past, I brought the event into the present and saw that it had lost some of the power to shame and hurt. Time had made me capable of different behavior. Enough time has passed. I am different. It will always be a trigger, but I do not have to fire.

–Quinn McDonald still surprises herself.