Being triggered is your issue, and what to do

In this article, I will explore what I feel is happening for the individual in response to stress and how they can help themselves when triggered. The article covers a lot of areas, and parts are purposely provoking. What I offer is a portion of my views on the topic, hoping to help others.

I will lay out my perspective on being triggered, what I feel is going on, what you should do about it and why. I will cover as much as I can to help answer as many questions as possible for as many people as I can, and I will keep the language simple to make it accessible.

One difficulty I had writing this article was making it general enough to reach a broad audience while still explaining my points. Much meaning and nuance is lost when you condense ideas by generalising; it’s then easier to dismiss the ideas. The only way to counter the problem of my generalisation is for you to think a little while you read, change the context of the analogies, and keep the essence of what I am saying. Doing this will help you gain more by relating it to your situation.


One of the helpful yet troublesome aspects of being human is being aware of yourself and your surroundings with a drive to avoid risks; this is highly advantageous for survival. However, there are downsides to everything. You also have an innate ability to imagine the worst outcomes in any situation; not surprisingly, these two things clash, and at times you react in ways you regret later. We are all prone to overreacting at times, triggered in some way, we respond and make the situation worse.

As someone who has overcome a lot of triggers myself and as a therapist where I help others with their issues, I feel I may help you with yours. I aim to give you a detailed overview of a perspective I find helpful. I will break my ideas down to a level that most people will find easy to follow. I hope this perspective may offer you new ways to deal with your triggers, and it leads you toward self-mastery as it does for me and those I work with. The path to better outcomes, self-control, feeling better and getting more of what you want can start with changing your reactions and that’s possible when you shift your perspective. Learning to see your trigger for what it is can help you stay grounded and in control of yourself, where you are more able to get what you want and need in life, rather than hating or regretting everything.

First Things First

You are the one who is triggered; let’s say someone has called you a name or cut you off in traffic, maybe you have heard some words you dislike, perhaps you have seen something upsetting, and now you need to moan about it. At that moment, you are the one who is triggered as you are the one reacting. You have a problem; you are now distracted and, in a way, out of control. Being clear on what the problem is, who the problem belongs to and what you should do about it is where the challenge begins.

Being triggered is perfectly normal/healthy and extremely important; otherwise, you wouldn’t move out of the way of the oncoming bus. The issues arise from how you react to the trigger, as some responses leave you closer to your goal, and others don’t.

To explain being triggered to clients, I often use this analogy:

Imagine you’re pulling out of your driveway when suddenly, from nowhere, some fool speeds past you, only just missing you. You had to slam on to avoid crashing, beeping in frustration and shock, you hear the other driver beep back at you. Not getting a chance to see them, you imagine them to be that kind of idiot you hate to see on the road. Stereotypes run through your mind, “I bet that was a teenager being reckless”, or “Bloody delivery drivers”, or “Silly old fool”, you’re annoyed, right?

OK, and if that was an ambulance that flew past you, would you be annoyed like that? No, and that’s the point. Yes, you were triggered, but not by the other; you were more annoyed by the story you made up in your head rather than reality. Angry at an imagined other to whom you transferred a whole personality, and then you got mad at the story you invented about them. There is a good chance the other driver continued on their way without fuss or that you were at fault somehow. What if you get annoyed and angry at things that happen in your head? Maybe you even told others of this fool who should learn to drive, spreading the anger while taking the high ground to avoid reflection and responsibility. There are many distraction tactics to prevent you from seeing your faults; anything you can do to focus on the other rather than looking at yourself is smart in a way.

The Story You Tell Yourself

The subconscious/primitive brain continually scans for risk as you go about your day, looking for signs of danger and situations you hate. A trigger is a reaction to an observed stimulus, something you have seen, heard, felt or thought. For example, you may see something that reminds you of trauma, or you may listen to a song that reminds you of an old love. You might walk into a room and feel uncomfortable with someone there; a friend may call you something hurtful. In all these cases, the moment you become aware of the stimuli, it immediately triggers an automatic response from the older part of your brain.

The story generated subconsciously helps you interpret and respond in a way expected to keep you safe. These stories are one-sided and straightforward, short and discriminatory views, you = good, them = bad. The story is based on all you have experienced from your perspective, with younger and more intense feelings and memories generating more powerful stories. The story helps get you moving away from the situation, justify why you are correct for how you think, feel and react, and help you shift the locus of responsibility away from yourself. The story is experienced as flashes of thoughts and feelings. Take a little time and think of something small that annoys you. Ask yourself a few why questions and you should uncover the story you tell yourself in that situation

You may spend more of your life reacting to the stories in your head than you do responding to reality, and often you might be shifting reality to prove your negative story. The issue with being triggered like this and not understanding you need to do something within means you are always at the mercy of others. Able to be provoked at any time into a place you are not actively thinking and responding in a good way. For example, it would mean that in an argument, your partner could press the magic button and say those few words that make you fly off the handle and lose the argument. Being reactive like this leaves you feeling the ‘victim’, always at the mercy of the other, and you are powerless, or you feel righteous and justified as the hero in your response. It feels better to stay in control as an adult when others are losing it; ensure you are not putting fuel on the fire. Acknowledge that you will lash out to avoid an issue; therefore, others will do the same. Imagine in an argument, just after you made a good point, you noticed the other shift topic to pull you away from your point. If you aim to communicate effectively, staying in control by returning to your point politely would work better than changing the topic. If their trigger can trigger you, they are the one in control; think about it. The goal is to know your triggers to help you stay grounded and in control in more situations by choosing ahead of time how you are going to feel; regardless of the situation, you do this by staying focused and in control.

Let me demonstrate how fast you make up a story, answer these questions slowly one by one and note the thoughts that come up

Are you mature?

Are you fair?

Are you honest?

When you answer a question, you respond in such a way as to make yourself look better; this can be a false negative where you try to make yourself look worse (it’s still the same game). Not wishing to see the truth to all the questions above, that you don’t know, you find you still need to prove you are who you think you are one way or the other. You do this with the story you told yourself; it helps you see only the parts of yourself that you like, avoiding the risk of seeing those things you don’t wish to but may need to see.

Key Ideas (understanding the monkey)

I find the best way to think about everything is to break down the idea into its base elements and use first principles thinking to determine what action should be taken. The difficult part of this is the processing power it takes and the effort to consider a huge range of variables with varying degrees of certainty. It can help to lay out some of the ideas that underpin my perspective and highlight areas that can be easily overlooked. Below is a set of ideas I find useful to remember while thinking about the perspective I describe later.

  • The brain has multiple levels; the higher level is where you find logic and reason, the lower level being the old primitive brain driven by emotion with its own logic and reason. To understand the lower level, imagine the brain you would have if you were a dog; feelings and emotions are clearly expressed by animals but expecting them to understand a short story would be pointless.

  • We do not see reality for what it is, what we see, hear, feel, etc are signals from our senses and these are easily tricked.

  • We have evolved to notice and react to danger and threat. The system is always on, scanning for risk, it’s rather sensitive and outdated for our lives today, and we overreact to many things.

  • The primitive brain is aware of things you are not, and it will react to situations without you knowing. Imagine how you hold your breath just before saying something risky. You may feel stressed in situations you don’t believe you should be; this may be subconscious awareness.

  • The primitive brain can take control when needed. Imagine touching a stove before you even register the heat you have pulled away; this is the primitive brain in control protecting you. This part of the brain has a shorter pathway to action that bypasses the thinking brain. Helpful when you are in danger, not so beneficial when you overreact to everything

  • The primitive brain needs safety; imagine a puppy and its basic needs, and you understand partially. If you yell at a puppy, it will want to hide behind the sofa; humans feel the same need to hide in some way to protect themselves. This is extremely helpful for survival; however, the downside is that you can often feel like you are fighting yourself.

  • You enter a kind of flight or fight response when triggered. The primary function of the primitive brain is to keep you safe. Depending on the situation, your response falls into Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Flop; you will take the most likely action to keep yourself safe in the short term from the perspective of the primitive brain.

  • The mind is lazy, favouring seeing the world in black and white, fast, predictable thinking with everything grouped into easy-to-understand topics. Chocolate is good, and salad is bad; my political view is correct, and the other view is not. This is the home of stereotyping; the English are X, the French are Y, the US are Z; this is lazy thinking. Unfortunately, this is also a helpful trait, mostly, meaning you need to work with it.

  • The mind cannot tell the difference between imagination and reality. Note how scared you feel waking from a bad dream; the brain cannot tell the difference. If you were being chased, cheated on, or lost and alone, you react as if it was real the moment you wake up. Shaking that feeling off can be challenging as it is now a conscious memory.

  • The primitive brain doesn’t use words to communicate; think of how a pet would react to stress. This level of the brain expresses feelings and body language, and actions speak louder than words.

  • The primitive brain is fearful and pessimistic by default as this provides the best chance of you surviving long enough to raise the next generation. If we chose bravery and tried to face down a lion, the game would be over; it’s better to run away and live another day.

  • The mind can block and forget distressing events. Mostly, this ability is seldom needed. It shows up, however, in our ability to filter out a lot of what we perceive. We can miss things that are right in front of us.

Taking these ideas on board and reflecting on being triggered let me break it down further to explain what I think is going on a little more precisely. When triggered, you enter fight or flight, an automatic, predictable set of feelings, ideas and emotions based on the story you told yourself runs through your mind. Not knowing the difference between imagination and reality, your brain now reacts to the story generated by itself, twisting reality to fit the narrative. Assuming far too many things, you take action you feel reasonable only to have the situation stay the same or get worse.

Finding A New Perspective

To better understand, let’s look at another typical example of where you can be triggered and react to the story you told yourself, but now with the awareness of the above ideas.

Let’s imagine you disagree with a significant other (someone you usually spend time with). They have just said something very mean, upsetting, accusatory, blaming, or anything that upsets you. Maybe your partner just said you should leave, or they hate you. Maybe someone called you something bloody awful; perhaps it was someone rudely gesturing at you or simply because they are walking away.

The result is the same; you are the one triggered by something someone else has said or done. They may be the one you blame for being triggered, but you are the one seething and fuming, anger building as you react. You feel lousy, and you are losing a lot of higher reasoning due to the flight or fight response. The chances of you now reacting so it is helpful to you have significantly diminished. Seeing first you are triggered and need to focus gives you a greater chance to act constructively.

If I refer to the examples I used above with a new set of stories, you will see the difference it makes. Let’s say it was a teenage lad who almost smashed into you while pulling out onto the road, and of course, he was driving a sports car; why not? It adds to the annoyance. Let’s imagine your story this time, however, was, “Bloody hell, that was close; I’m glad I spotted him”. The story changes how you feel, and now you react differently. Or when your partner said, “Leave, I hate you”, this time you thought, “Ok, they are lashing out to end this situation”. I wonder how differently you would feel and react. It’s clear the story in your mind plays a part in how you respond to a trigger. I also find it common to observe a dozen such stories interwoven and played out in a single outburst.

So, how do we change our reactions to more helpful ones? You become more aware and learn to see things more honestly and then without trying; the change happens without forcing it because you desire better rewards and express yourself more clearly.

Understanding And Identifying The Issue

To fix the issue, you need to shift your perspective to see the bigger picture, see the forest and not the tree, to live in reality and not your head. Just as you no longer stress over the same things you did as a child, you can shift your view without changing anything external. The answer is in you, not outside; it’s a process that takes time; there are no quick fixes, although there are shortcuts, and there are ways to make it harder. The idea is to relax and take life less seriously in a particular way, pushing back against false views and ideas that don't serve you.

The way out of the issue can be through it, rather than around or avoided altogether. Welcome your triggers for what they are, a message from yourself telling you how you feel. Learning to trust these terrifying feelings can feel like asking you to jump on a landmine. There can be a feeling of stepping into the unknown, and at times, it can feel like dying. This is a typical response when you tell the fearful part of you you will now do the thing it tells you not to do, this in a sense, will be the death of that part of you. If you were willing to walk into danger without fear, I would worry more. Lighten up, breathe, learn to trust this inner voice with no words, and learn to work with yourself.

To be untriggered, you need to take control of yourself and learn to let go of everything else. In this way, you can set the tone for how you feel in any situation. You are not in control of the universe, and moaning about that doesn’t help, trust me. You are, however, in control of the way you react to a varying degree, and supporting yourself first, rather than trying to fix the other, gives you a guaranteed way to feel empowered and in control; you then find a productive way to move forward.

The difficulty is that you are not in control of your subconscious directly, meaning if you wish to feel better, you will need to do the personal work of retraining yourself. Doing this is more demanding than pointing the finger at someone else but is far more rewarding.

With the mind being lazy, you look for an easy external reason to explain how you feel, why you should not change, and why you should feel justified in your response. Learn to question the story’s you follow; you are always free to get more information before deciding what to do. I advocate for mistrusting the initial story (withstand real danger) you hear as experience shows you just how biased you can be. Consider those times you talked yourself into doing something you know you should not because the story justified how you felt. Taking the time to reflect on the trigger without critically judging it can help you see what is going on with other parts of you. From here, you can focus on how you are triggered and how you should help yourself.

The reward for taking the time to think first is that you feel considerably happier and more in control of yourself, with better relationships and outcomes across the board. You improve in so many ways it’s hard to explain without this sounding like a wonder drug advert. The tricky thing to see is that you are fighting yourself the whole time and not the other, unaware of it, becoming stuck in old loops that repeat over and over again.

How to change

Imagine walking a path through the woods every day; over time, the way would become easy, the ground solid, and you would fail to notice it. Imagine walking a new path because you could not use the old one. The grass, overgrowth, obstacles like branches and bushes in your way make it feel impossible to imagine walking this way every day. The realisation here is that you will not be walking the same path every day. The path gets easier exponentially as you wear in the new pathway; the most challenging part is starting and sticking to it.

To the question: how do I stop being triggered? I always answer. “You stop caring about the trigger”. Just as you no longer worry about things you did as a child, you mature up a level/stage and no longer worry about the trigger. The triggers stay the same; reality doesn’t change; your perception of it does.

When you look out of your window, you notice those things that align with your view/story, and you may see litter, graffiti, lack, famine, fear, and anger. You undoubtedly have a list of reasons to back up your claim this is the actual reality. The moment you realise that someone else looking out of that window or even you on a different day will somehow notice flowers, rainbows, happiness, and hope. You can become aware of how you focus on your triggers because you are trying to prove your view/story. Stop letting your primitive brain control you without checking you are happy with the expected results. Start by seeing as much truth as you can bear.

A considerable part of this work is in learning to let go, not to get hung up on the story you believe, to stop basing who you are on who you think you are/were or who you want to be, or who you think the other to be; live in the moment. If you assume you are constantly wrong in your initial instinct (withstanding obvious real danger), then you can challenge your story for what it is, one view on a situation. Learn to step back first and see the bigger picture of what is going on before responding. You have a better chance of seeing more of life as it is this way rather than how you think/feel it is or how you think it should be. You then stand a better chance of doing something constructive. If they interviewed five witnesses, any copper could tell you they get five different stories; why are you trusting your single view? Give your thinking brain something to do when triggered; before you act, consider, is your story black and white thinking? Are you biased? Realise at times, it can be wiser to strike when the iron is cold. How often do you wish you reacted differently after thinking about it? Clearly, the trick is to do the thinking first.

Paradoxically, you likely struggle with your trigger because you spend so much time being aware of it; you are what you focus on. When you spend all day trying not to think of something, you inevitably do the opposite. The idea is to focus elsewhere, to divert your attention to other things. It can sound like I am saying, fake it till you make it, but I’m not a fan of that approach. The idea is to genuinely move past the triggers by finding more significant meaning in life worthy of your attention. Think of the time you felt ill and still got the job done, or maybe you were miserable about something that happened, but you put that aside somehow and had a good time. These times show you how to let things go and prioritise your focus. Imagine someone on hearing they have a short time to live; and at that moment, they give themselves the freedom to say F-you to the world, and they predictably report feeling better and more alive than before. Nothing has changed in the external world, but a change in perspective can significantly affect your life.

Why should I change?

To help you answer your question of how to change, you first need to recognise that ‘how’ is useless without a good ‘why’. We don’t like to change as the norm, meaning you need a good reason to help motivate you. Let’s say you want to stop being grumpy and lashing out when stressed. Maybe you want to say the right thing at the right time. Perhaps you want to be free of triggers and live in peace. It would help if you had a good reason to drive all the work and changes you will need to do to get the thing you want. A good reason you will behave differently when it’s more work than pointing the finger at the other and claiming the issue is there.

How to change is both challenging and easy. Imagine an addict. It’s easy to change, just put it down, and you’re done. It’s easy to change the moment the addict has a genuine reason to change; until then, the addict is fighting with parts of themselves that want different things. How to see a longer-lasting change is to focus on why you want to change. If the addict had a good reason that worked on all levels, the addiction would lose some of its hold.

Let’s imagine you want to meet someone new, but you fear rejection. Or maybe you are desperate to travel, but you are terrified to fly. The thing that can make the difference here is the why change, imagine falling in love with someone in another country. If your reason to beat the instinctive reaction is good enough, you become compelled to change despite the fear. An excellent why to change can be more important than how you will do it. When you trust this process, you are working more in flow with yourself, and most of the fearful questions will no longer make sense or even come up in the first place. You will always have issues to deal with as this is part of life; the goal is to have productive ways to deal with them and to have better issues vs silly childish problems.

Listening to and taking responsibility for your needs gives you the best chance to feel the way you wish, let go of how you will change and focus on why you want to change with the emphasis on how you would like to feel. A great why change is to feel better/happier more of the time.

If you struggle with why you should change rather than the other, consider this. If you make it a rule that your happiness is determined by outside factors. You have already lost, as you have put your happiness in an outcome you can not control. Disempowering yourself using moves like this is a learned helplessness trait. If you can choose to feel what you wish in more situations you may find you look at life in a whole new way.

The best reason I have found to change is to ensure I am always the one in control of my actions: if I am easily triggered, I risk making things worse for myself. You can find self-control in understanding your triggers rather than fearing them. Let’s say you are constantly having the same issue in relationships. The response to why to change might be to have better relationships. Perhaps you want to feel different when triggered; the answer to why to change would be to feel more relaxed; focus on why you want to change, emphasising how you want to feel and what you can do to feel more like that now. This perspective shifts you into long-term thinking and here you will know what to do, but not necessarily how to do it.

How again?

It's around here, the question of how comes back. "OK, and how do I do all of that?" Let me try and explain how to change. These ideas can sound like platitudes and pointless new age thinking; if you believe that you are not trying to change, you're just dismissing. When you know why you want to change, let go of how and focus on a good reason that works for you on all levels. Align with who you are rather than fighting yourself, learn to express yourself more calmly and rationally. When triggered, teach yourself to take a breath and slow down before reacting.

Focus on how you want to feel and find small ways to feel that in the moment. For example, I would like it to be pleasant; therefore, I will be pleasant myself. When you act in this way you shift in ways that will help you change; you're putting out what you want to get back. It is impossible to know how you will react in the moment, meaning you need something to guide you and your why is your guid.

One obstacle to changing is thinking you have complete control of yourself when the primitive brain can have the final say. Recall a situation that deeply distressed you, one where you could not control yourself, maybe crying following a loss, perhaps you felt rage, or you found yourself paralyzed with fear. You are at the mercy of your primitive brain at times. You may not want to do something, such as eat all the ice cream or desire to do something like exercise. We are not in FULL control, and oddly this is a good thing, it keeps you alive. The downside here is that you can push yourself too far past your comfort zone, leaving you worse off. The primitive brain tries to keep you safe, so it’s essential to go slow and take your time when doing this work. Avoid triggering yourself, causing you to run and hind. Taking your time when changing can be faster in the end.

There are times you say stuff it, and you do it anyway, give yourself the freedom to be who you are just a little bit at a time and see how it goes; when it goes well, be a little bit more you and go again, when you hit a bump in the road and you will, as that is part of life, come back and reread this. You will feel the instinct to react in old ways, and you may at times respond in the worst possible way; in fear, we always default back to the more trusted path in the woods. There is no perfect pill for this; it requires you to change to make your life more acceptable, by changing your focus. Being kind to this part of yourself is an essential element; if you kick the dog, it will not help you.

If you can hear the stories you tell yourself, you can become more aware of how your primitive brain views life, giving you a way to identify this part of yourself. I have called mine the monkey/lizard, caveman, and inner-child. A name gives you a way to recognise that part of yourself and allows you to listen to and respond to it. Depending on the situation, I pick names I like; you are free to give this part of yourself any identity that helps you connect to it. The goal is to learn to listen to this part of yourself, like intuition or gut feeling, to know what you are feeling and what you want/need. Learn to work with yourself rather than sabotage yourself. By giving this part of yourself a voice, you can find answers and awareness that you cannot gain any other way. Finding balance is far easier when you are open to who you are.

Learning to see yourself more fully means you can see the other more honestly. It becomes easier to communicate the things you want, feel and need. You should have fewer issues expressing yourself when you are more aligned with who you are. For example, saying something simple like, "no, thank you" would be possible without fearing the other person's response. You react differently as you see the other, more as they are and less as you fear. When you move through change, your fears shift in response to your new perspective. Paradoxically you find that you care more about the reaction from the other, but now you don't fear it; this is something you need to experience for yourself to understand fully.

The primitive part of your brain would have you run away or hide when confronted with fear, precisely as it should suggest you do. You can see there is little point in fighting a feeling that is there to help you. The answer I find is to listen to your gut feeling and respond so it calms you. Let's imagine you want to ask someone out on a date or you need to give a presentation. The primitive brain is very clear on this, run away. Let's say you have messed up, and you fear you will look stupid, and people will see a part of you that you hate, run away or hide is likely to be heard. Arguing with this view is pointless, it's your view after all. Acknowledging the feeling and the message without adding a story to it is a skill that helps you learn how to calm yourself. It starts with acknowledgement, not denial, recognising the feeling for what it is, a message from yourself alerting you to a risky situation. If you talk to this part of yourself in a way it can understand, as in feelings, you can teach yourself to relax, to choose how to feel in any situation.

I find agreeing with the negative/fearful feeling works far better than denying how you honestly feel. Ultimately, the primitive brain can find a way to meet its safety needs by forcing you to pay attention.

To acknowledge the subconscious/gut feeling/inner-voice/yourself, say something simple in your head like, “Yes, I see the danger; thank you, I'm fine though". You don't believe yourself if you hear/feel resistance, such as negative feelings/thoughts; if so, work on why you don't believe yourself. You will likely feel uncomfortable until you develop the skill to calm yourself. You risk overreacting in stressful situations if you are unaware of your feelings. Here is likely where your real issues start, you react to stress in a way you could have avoided leading to negative loops of feeling disempowered.

What I find helpful is to lighten up and playfully exaggerate a little with your fear to show yourself that you are ok and managing. Say acknowledging statements in your head with a slightly sarcastic tone. "Yes, that is a lot of people, and yes, I'm sure if I slip on stage or say something silly, it will be fine; it could get me a lot of publicity. Yes, they may not go for my idea, and they may even hate it; that's fine, at least I will have a better idea of what they don't like". Maybe in an argument, you say to yourself, "Yes, what they did was awful, but pointing that out right now won't help". The idea is to manage yourself honestly, rather than exaggerating the issue, humorously agreeing can oddly help, try it.

You might expect agreeing with your fear to trigger a more unpleasant feeling. However, you are setting the tone and focusing on how you are ok rather than not. Acknowledging your feelings in this way lightens the mood and affirms that you get it, that you are relaxed, that you are ok and aware of the danger.

You are braver than you believe and more resilient and able to cope than you realise. Change your story by focusing on how these statements are true rather than false.

Ways to help and practice

To help consolidate what I have said and clearly show you what you can do to help yourself when triggered, I will summarise the key points below. There is no easy way to know what could help you specifically. However, when you read these suggestions, note the things that stand out. If you have a negative reaction to any point, start there and spend time reflecting on how that fits the bigger picture.

When triggered:-

  • Shift your perspective to see other sides. Assume you're mistaken and try to see all the angles. Other people don't see things the same as you.

  • Acknowledge how you feel, don't deny feelings hoping they will go away.

  • Focus on how you can control your state of mind. Find things you are in control of, like your breathing, and let go of needing to control everyone and everything else. You are responsible for how you behave.

  • Create space between the stimulus and your response. Exercise restraint on your instinct to respond until you are calm.

  • Focus on what you want to feel and feel that regardless of the situation.

  • Decide you want to win more often by ensuring you fight the right battle at the right time in the right way.

  • Conducting yourself like an adult would also help ensure you're not responding childishly and adding to the issue. Ask yourself how a respectable adult would handle the situation and aim to do that.

  • Lighten up; you cannot be stressed and playful simultaneously.

  • Be kinder to yourself, forgive your mistakes and allow yourself to change. Feeling guilt or shame for errors is important; beating yourself is counterproductive.