Healing our triggers

The word ‘triggered’ is used in many ways, to describe anything from discomfort to extreme PTSD flashbacks. For this article, I’m adopting this definition from Healthline: ‘something that affects your emotional state, often significantly, by causing overwhelm or distress. A trigger affects your ability to remain present in the moment. It may bring up specific thought patterns or influence your behaviour’.

Being triggered refers to an intense negative emotion that is out of proportion for the situation that apparently caused it. The reaction often occurs before we even understand why we’re so upset, and may lead to snap behavioural responses that we don’t have time to consider or make rational decisions about.

I’m talking about losing your temper over a minor inconvenience, crumbling into despair and worthlessness after receiving constructive feedback, and an all-consuming panic response to someone not texting you back. When we’re triggered, our fight-or-flight response can hijack our ability to think clearly and rationally, sending us spiralling instantly into behaviours that are difficult to control.

The neuroscience of triggers

When people or situations hurt us, threaten us, or traumatise us, we may create protective neural pathways in our brain, activation responses that fire automatically in response to perceived danger. Since these responses are designed to protect us, they are processed quickly via the limbic system – the brain’s centre for emotional and behavioural responses. Our frontal lobes are where rational decisions are made, but this is a much slower pathway.

When our ancestors saw some form of four-legged animal burst from a nearby bush, using the frontal lobes to consider what kind of animal it was and the pros and cons of different approaches would have swiftlyy removed them from the gene pool via natural selection.

Even though feeling insulted by someone’s criticism of your work is unlikely to kill you, evolution is slow and a similar response to perceived threat still applies.

If you find yourself repeatedly triggered by a specific kind of event, it may hold information about unhealed trauma from your past. If something hurt you or made you feel threatened as a child, it may have created a neural pathway and learned response so strong that it persists into adulthood.

What are your triggers?

When I notice that I am having an overwhelming and out-of-proportion response to something, I try to remove myself from the situation to buy myself some time. Reacting from a place of feeling triggered can lead to an escalation of events, and regret or shame later. I conceptualise the part of myself responding as my inner child, a younger me with fewer resources and less knowledge than I have now.

It helps to know what your triggers are and name them, in broad categories. I know that mine are related to feeling rejected or abandoned, and feeling ‘less than’ or ‘not good enough’. These intense emotional responses can be triggered by different things; for example, giving me unsolicited advice or telling me what to do is a surefire way to kick me in the ‘less than’ story, and may elicit snappiness and withdrawal from me. There have been times in the past when a partner’s failure to respond to my text message has led to multiple panicky wake-ups and phone checks through the night.

While I still react to these stimuli in some way, I now recognise these responses and stories almost immediately, which takes the urgency and overwhelm out of them and makes space for healing and more adaptive responses.

Dealing with trigger responses

Neurons that fire together, wire together, and what is learned can be unlearned. When you recognise you’ve been triggered, these are some steps you can take:

1. Name the trigger and recognise that it may be out of proportion. If you can remove yourself from whatever has triggered you to buy yourself time, do that.

2. Recognise and release physical hyperarousal. Take slow, deep breaths, and consciously relax tensed muscles.

3. Use a mantra to reassure your frightened inner child. I use ‘We’re okay’, ‘You’re safe’, and ‘I’m here for you’, but find what feels authentic and soothing for you.

4. Check what stories have come up that might be in a feedback loop with your feelings. Notice them and reality check them. If they’re not helpful, perhaps you can release those too.

Once the intense reaction has eased, you can employ the rational frontal lobes to consider an adaptive response.

With practice, you’ll create new neural pathways, and this response will become easier and more automatic.

Maintenance and support

Any good inner child work will help the vulnerable parts of yourself feel safe, strong, and protected, which can reduce triggering.

A mindfulness practice will help anchor you more firmly in the here and now, with improved awareness and presence.  

And of course, talking things over with a therapist will help you understand your stories, heal the traumatised parts of yourself, and take charge of your responses.


To talk to us about finding the perfect Gestalt therapist for your situation, reach out for a free consultation call today.