Being Triggered

by Adrian W. Hall, MFT, ATR

photo (12).JPG

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). 

Let's Make Life Easier

by Adrian W. Hall, MFT, ATR


In the first section of David Richo's book, “When Love Meets Fear: Becoming Defense-less and Resource-full", he talks about four basic truths of existence:

1. We are ultimately alone

2. Things are transitory

3. Life is unpredictable and often unfair

4. Suffering seems to be a universal experience

Looking at these, they make logical sense, right?  Now look at the things that irritate or upset us on a regular basis in life.  From things as simple as traffic to deeper pain like losing a relationship or someone we love, if we check back with these truths and flow with them rather than fight against them, we could make life easier.  There is enough suffering involved in being human, why add fighting against realities of life?!  

I am not suggesting that we not experience our true responses to what happens in life.  Losing someone is sad.  We need to grieve our losses.  I'm simply saying: let go of the resistance to the things that are bigger than us, that we cannot control.  

Let’s take a second to touch on each of these truths.

1. We are ultimately alone:  This is not to say that other people are unimportant.  Being connected with other human beings is a necessity (to understand this on a scientific level, refer to A General Theory of Love).  At the same time, the most true and fulfilling connection we can have to others and the world around us is through ourselves.  If we do not have clarity and a conscious relationship with this conduit to the world, it diminshes our access to the beauty around us.  More simply put, the strength of your relationship with yourself is the strength of your experience of, relationship with and access to the world around you.  No one and nothing else can achieve this for you.

2.  Things are transitory:  You have heard the saying that the only constant is change.  We all know this yet are upset by someone's feelings changing, by a protocol at work changing or the fact that construction started next door.  Relax.  It is just change.  The brilliant part about it is that we are very adaptive as human beings.  

3.  Life is unpredictable and often unfair:  My wise mother informed me of this truth at a young age.  Guess how much I liked that?  Right.  It's annoying, but why should we waste our time being upset about things beyond our control?  Next time you are irritated, check to see if what you are upset about is something you can't change.  Then laugh at yourself for being ridiculous.   

4.  Suffering seems to be a universal experience:  Suffering is one of the most powerful ways we learn as human beings.  Think about it for one second.  If we were always happy, there would be very little motivation for growth or development.  Suffering or discomfort gives us the signal that something needs attending: a feeling needs to be processed or action needs to be taken.  Suffering shines a light on parts of us that need healing attention.  Check out "There's more to life than being happy" if you are interested in some research and another perspective about this.

This is also important to remember when we see other people's suffering.  When we see suffering in another human being and we care for them, we want to soothe their pain.  Of course.  But here's the thing: if we rescue them from it (when or if that is actually possible), we are foreclosing on their opportunity to learn and experience human life.  This doesn't mean we have to act like we don't care.  It means we need to just be with them, listen, love them.  If they need something from us, they will let us know.

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

*This post based on the section "Fear and the Conditions of Existence" (pp. 11-15).