What is triggering? Trauma, stress symptoms and why they resurface
‘Triggering’ describes an experience which sets off a stress reaction response. These stress symptoms can take many forms and mindfulness can help us cope with them.
From traumatic event to triggering event
‘Being triggered’ is when you feel in distress as a result of an experience or event. While the initial incident that causes trauma is called a ‘traumatic event’, a ‘triggering event’ is something reminiscent of the first cause, or feels fear-filled or dangerous.
Types of stress reaction
Stress reactions include fight and flight. These reactions are commonly spoken of. But other stress responses can be triggered too.
a) ‘Tend and befriend’: this is often the first attempt to stay safe. Being kind to the aggressor, trying to placate or appease them to calm the situation is often the choice of women in threatening situations.
b) ‘Freeze’: like a rabbit in the headlights, we can become totally unable to make a decision. The symptoms usually involve feeling trapped, possibly unable to speak or make much sense. The body may feel unable to move. Or you may want to curl up like a hedgehog. Deer also have a strong ‘freeze’ mechanism, which you may have noticed when they stand stock still, watching you.
c) Collapse, or dissociation: you may feel weird, lost, out of touch with your body, or it may feel too big, too small, not yours. You may have an out-of-body-experience, faint or feel dizzy – all these may be part of a dissociative experience. So is losing chunks of the memory of past events.
This page on emergency mindfulness can help if you are experiencing panic, anxiety or overwhelm.
How mindfulness can help us deal with triggering
Triggering is a very good thing when used to cope with stressful or life-threatening situations. When there is danger, this mechanism keeps us safe.
However, when something is not in fact dangerous, but we interpret it as a threat, we may experience these triggered reactions. Triggering can cause us distress and get in the way of feeling settled and/or happy. How we respond to triggering is at the of heart of where mindfulness can be useful. This is addressed in almost every practice on Just This Step. To learn more, take a look at what trauma-informed mindfulness is and what trauma is. When you feel ready to start, ease yourself in with some bite-size chunks of mindfulness.