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.

11 thoughts on “Triggers: How to Outwit Them

  1. Always take a big breath before even thinking of triggering….anger is not
    good and thoughtless sharp remarks returned only make you look bad!
    Smile after the deep breath and find the humble words to go along with
    your humble personality that took decades to come into being! You will
    not lose sleep over saying things you wished you didn’t and happy with
    yourself because you kept your cool!! Amen…Gramma Donna

  2. Traci’s comment made me recall the amazement that greated my saying to children that I couldn’t make them change their behaviour and more than the teacher, the principal or their parents had been able to, that it would need someone much more powerful . . . them! They had to recognise what caused the behaviour and work on the change and it would be hard work and if they were to be successful, they’d have to be an investigator and know the triggers (or foe, ememy, depending on the child’s language) so they could be successful. We might enlist a team to help but the real work was theirs.

    I still have a few that can cause me to feel like a gauche 13 year-old for an instant.

  3. I’m working on this exact same thing, not responding to familiar triggers or “taking the bait.” I think family members are the best at pushing our buttons and it’s very difficult to change old patterns and behaviors.

    Another big hurdle I’m working on is realizing (at the age of 50) that I can’t make someone do something, even if it’s for their own good. I know, I know…I’m a little slow on the uptake. No matter how I try to convince or cajole my Mom to do the right thing after her surgery, I can’t make her do it. Now I just have to accept the outcome. I’ve changed my word for 2015 to “Acceptance.”

    • You are getting all the hard lessons in one year, Traci. Oh, and don’t feel alone. I keep learning them all over again. I’m not smart enough to learn ’em once. No, I keep repeating it. No one flips the triggers like family. SOOOoooo right!

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