Stress Triggers: Where they come from and why we react
A facial expression, a loud noise, a scene in a movie, someone's remarks, movements or behaviors; seeing anger, someone crying, experiencing silence, or being around certain animals … all of these can be triggers that cause painful past memories, events, or traumas to time warp into our present reality. Triggers are emotional and physical responses to an activated amygdala when the body and the brain sense threat.
When we are triggered, the body goes into high alert. We might respond rationally or irrationally depending on what coping skills we have in our toolbox. We can respond irrationally through hitting, yelling, or screaming and having tantrums (the fight response). Bursting into tears or shutting down (the freeze response) or getting in the car and leaving for hours to days or refusing to talk to anyone or shutting ourselves in our bedrooms (the flight response).
I Feel Threat, Aren’t I In Danger?
Not necessarily. Interestingly, the brain stores memories through sight, sound, smell, touch, as well as through imagery and logic. Even memories we cannot recall are still in there and can be evoked by positive or negative stimuli. Have you ever smelled something cooking and strangely had an overwhelming feeling of calm and peacefulness, like arms being wrapped around you? That smell is correlated with a pleasant memory. This memory was stored together with this smell. The same is true for negative feelings based on bad memories, trauma, or past fear related memories.
When we sit in our living room watching a scary movie, we are safe. Only the people in the movie, although a fiction, are experiencing threat but our own stress response can activate and experience physical reactions: a heightened pulse rate, shortness of breath, a startle response. Are we in danger? No, but our brain thinks we are. We’ve been triggered. The Amygdala has just been carjacked … or amygdala hi-jacked.
I Hate Being in the Room with That Person and I Don’t Know Why
Chances are that person’s actions, facial expressions, body size, or body language is triggering something from the past that you may not be able to recall, and that forgotten experience was unpleasant. We call it intuition when we feel good or badly about someone or something. A feeling that we’ve been this way before. It’s true, something about this moment is familiar, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you are in danger.
Doing a simple safety check and deep breathing exercise can help identify if you really are in danger and calm you down. A quick look around, scanning for threat. Ask yourself, am I in danger right now? If not, there are techniques that help the Vagus nerve put the brakes on that fear and desire to take flight, freeze, or shut down.
According to Elizabeth Scott M.S., we may not really be in danger, but our brain has been triggered and believes that we are; thus, it is sending out all available forces to attack the enemy (whether real or imagined) through our stress response.
What’s Wrong with Me?
Your body is reacting, doing what it was intended to do when danger approaches. Though at times, the brain perceives and senses threat even when you are not actually in danger. Yes, I said, perceived. Elizabeth Scott M.S. dictates that “the stress response is related to the level of perceived threat rather than an actual, physical threat.” How each of us responds to threat is determined by how our brain perceives the threat, real or imagined, and this is based in our past, our present skills, and how we see the world. That’s why four grown siblings may react to aunt Marylou differently, as well as have different reactions to differing opinions, a job loss, isolation, and on and on.
A Different Response: Wise Mind
Learning what our triggers are can be the first step to experiencing a different reaction. Learning new coping strategies so that our response is noticed through greater awareness, and implementing the tools needed to calm our bodies down is key. Owning that what we’re experiencing is not all about this present moment, but also about our own past, history, fears, and experiences can be eye opening in bringing about a different response.
Utilizing these coping strategies can help avoid panic attacks, overly high levels of anxiety, and irrational reactions to perceived threat.
If you want more on other challenges, check out my newsletter and blog. Learn to understand what makes you, and others, tick -- so that when sudden triggers surface, you can adopt a more appropriate response. This will be appreciated by everyone around you.
A calm person communicates much more effectively than a hysterical and fearful person. After all, our irrational behavior can also trigger another person.
I encourage you to begin a trigger journal to find out what your triggers are and where they come from.
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Proverbs 15:1 (NIV)
Until we meet again, God bless and keep you,
Lori Carol Maloy, M.A., LMHC