WHY ARE YOU FEELING TRIGGERED?
Counselling Psychologist Dr Bonnie Wims helps decipher those negative emotions
Have you ever noticed how a certain word seems to suddenly work its way into everyday communication? We may have heard the word before, we may even have a vague idea of what the word means, but we rarely if ever use it in general conversation. Suddenly it seems to be everywhere and before we know it we too are using the word to express ourselves!
I’m talking about the word TRIGGERED.
Have you used this word to describe how you are feeling? Or have you heard someone else use it? If so, what do you think it means?
Mental health professionals have been using the term for years to help people understand why they are feeling such strong negative emotions. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary triggered means:
occurring in response to a stimulus typically perceived as negative or harmful
caused to feel an intense and usually negative emotional reaction : affected by an emotional trigger.
So is it useful for us to understand what a trigger may be for us?
More importantly is it helpful to delve into our triggers at all or are they better left buried deep down and avoided?
Years ago I decided to donate platelets. My father had died of colon cancer about 6 months prior and during his illness I had visited a hospital many times. However, my mind was not on my father that day. I had squeezed the appointment in between meetings at work and was feeling rushed and a bit stressed about the time away from the office.
I wasn’t paying attention to the small but significant reminders of my frequent hospital visits just six months before. In spite of my being in a completely different hospital from the one where my father had died, the donation room was on the same floor as the Oncology Department and as I got off the elevator I was greeted by many images of older men pushing IV poles in hospital gowns. The smell hit my nostrils immediately too and I began to get an uncomfortable feeling in my belly. I attempted to shrug it off as I rushed to the donation room to get started on the process.
The technician was a lovely woman who spent some time explaining what was going to happen to me and even helped me pick out a movie for the VHS machine (I told you it was years ago!). I settled back into the recliner, took a deep breath and began to watch the movie. I don’t remember what movie I was watching. I wasn’t really watching. In fact, I was watching another movie that was going on inside my head as I now understand was flooded with memories of my father’s illness and the complicated unresolved feelings I had about his death.
As the movie continued in my head, I began to feel afraid. My heart rate went up and I had to consciously resist the urge to jump up from the chair and run out of the room, out of the hospital and get far, far away from the images and smells that had instigated these difficult emotions. I attempted to take more deep breaths but I began choking back tears. The technician noticed my distress and attempted to help calm me down but she had no idea what was going on inside my head. I needed to run and no amount of deep breaths, calming words or romantic comedy movies was going to help.
After I was disconnected from all of the needles, I grabbed my bag and I ran. I felt the emotions bubbling up inside me like a volcano and I wanted to get to my car before they exploded out of me. I remember sobbing and sobbing in the car for a long time while simultaneously wondering what was happening to me! I hadn’t cried this hard at any time during my father’s illness and subsequent death so what was going on?
I understand now how I was triggered by the hospital. I was triggered by the men I saw with the IV poles. I was triggered by the smells in the hospital. I was triggered by the needles in my arms and the hospital staff walking around me. I hadn’t noticed the small voice inside me that began to warn me that I was uncomfortable. I ignored the slight anxiety in my belly as I walked toward the donation room and wrote it off as nervousness about the procedure.
But more importantly, I had ignored the difficult feelings I had been carrying since my father’s death. I hadn’t allowed myself to grieve this complicated relationship.
When we are triggered, old feelings can be reignited. They can feel as if the event just happened. The feelings can be so strong that we are taken right back to an unpleasant memory as if it is happening again. My urge to run was a fight or flight reaction to get away from what my mind knew was coming. The emotions were no longer going to be denied and the flood of tears was a result.
This wasn’t the end. I knew I needed help sorting out these unresolved feelings. I worked with a therapist for several months to acknowledge this pain and to finally grieve in a way that helped me move through the emotions I had tried to bury months before.
Triggers are telling us something is wrong.
Triggers are not a sign that we need to continue to avoid our emotions. In fact, they are the exact opposite. Leaning into these emotions with support can help us resolve anger, sadness, anxiety, overwhelm, loneliness and even physical pain. Our bodies carry this pain until we work to release it.
The good news is we can release the pain that was triggered. In fact, once resolved, most people realize they have been carrying the weight of this pain for a long time. Once released, we feel lighter, happier and more in control of our responses to external or internal events that might remind us of the previous trauma.
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