Being Triggered

by Adrian W. Hall, MFT, ATR

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Oh, wow.  Being triggered is not fun.  Especially when you don’t know it is happening.  In this section, David Richo is talking about fears that come up, particularly old ones that cause us to act from the space of the neurotic ego (I just think of the neurotic ego as a space of unhealed pain.  And, because we are all human, we all have a little bit of it).  Usually this pain is showing up when you are really upset about something or you’re involved in a disagreement with someone…during your least favorite moments, let’s just say.

The fear David Richo talks about is related to what he calls a “cellular memory” which connects the mind and body.  So, something unpleasant happens, adrenaline is released because of the fear being experienced and it is encoded as a fear in the body.  This usually happens early in life.  The tough part is that these fears aren’t always being activated with a picture memory to help us know it is happening. 

David Richo gives us a couple of hints to help us know a fear is being triggered:

1.        You revert to your worst fear or most disabling belief (i.e. I can’t survive alone,        there’s something deeply wrong with me)

2.       You feel powerless which can often times translate to rage

3.       You experience a visceral response (it makes you want to tear down a telephone pole, hurt someone or yourself…not for real, but almost)

4.       You may be indignant and looking for validation and agreement from others to prove that what you are upset about is not irrational

The way to handle the fear is to know it is happening (use those four points to check yourself when you’re upset or some of my suggestions below) and create a pause between the experience of the fear and your response to it.  When I talk with my clients about this in therapy, we look for different ways that my client can know they are triggered.  Is it a feeling in the body?  It is a re-occurring thought that comes up when the fear is activated (maybe something minimizing “this is stupid” or maybe something self abasing “everything is always my fault”)? Is it self destructive behavior?  Once you find your cues, you can know the fear is coming up and you can create space, a moment before you react. 

This takes practice, so be patient.  Once you know the fear is happening, stop the action.  Let it pass by.  Do things that don’t require emotional effort.  I let myself go to the grocery store, run errands, listen to music, watch TV, exercise, vent to my sister because she makes me laugh.  It also helps me to remind myself that I am just triggered and that it will pass (even though it seems unbearable sometimes).  It always does!  Some things that are definitely not on the approved list: making any big decisions or having any big talks with anyone about the state of your relationship.  Seriously.  If we can stop ourselves from automatically reacting (i.e. attacking your partner, quitting your job, deciding you need to move immediately, doing something to sabotage yourself), we can eliminate collateral damage.   The more practice you get with recognizing the fear and stopping the action, the easier it will get.  Also, the more you will be able to show your body that you are safe even when the fear is activated.  This means you are resolving the fear experientially (i.e. scary stimulus is paired with a non-scary reaction) and addressing what David Richo talks about: the fear being stored in our cells.  You are literally changing your body and your brain, moving toward health, when you create the space by having the presence of mind to have a different response.


*To learn more about this blog and the author, please visit the About section of this website.

 *This post based on the section "The Past of Fear: Cellular Memory" (pp. 21-26).