These days, merely uttering the word “triggered” is likely to trigger someone.
There are many who mock today’s tendency to give a “trigger alert.” I notice intense reactions of contempt among some of my fellow Christians. I have a hard time imagining Jesus showing the same scorn. He compassionately sought out those who were weak or wounded. He met them with tender love. He did not expect them to pull themselves together before he would allow them to belong or to follow him.
At the same time, Jesus did not preface his teachings with a “trigger alert.” In his parables and conversations, you can see him intentionally eliciting a reaction from his listeners. He skillfully provokes in order to uncover what needs healing, to awaken desire, to proclaim Good News, and to invite them into a covenantal relationship in which they can grow and bear fruit.
To be triggered is to experience a bigger reaction to a situation than one might normally expect. Amidst a sudden influx of images or bodily sensations, a trigger might elicit a flash of anger, a surge of sexual arousal, a pang of dread, a paralyzing anxiety, or a dissociative numbness.
And it happens so very quickly. Hence the term “trigger.” Much like a speeding bullet, our nervous system and limbic brain have the capacity to be launched into a life-or-death response.
The reaction happens first. Rational thinking may or may not follow, depending on the intensity of the reaction. The activation or the shutdown of our body begins in a fraction of a second. We are already mobilizing, fleeing, freezing, or going numb by the time our rational brain gets the memo a few seconds later – that is, if the memo even arrives. Survival is the priority when it comes to our body’s trauma responses.
Eight centuries ago, Thomas Aquinas noticed and reflected on these reactions that are common to all mammals. Deer who have memory of being hunted experience a swift reaction in the presence of humans. Our bodies and brains have a capacity to remember, to form associations, and to expect what will happen next. Without having access to the findings of neuroscience, Thomas was already observing the principle that “neurons that fire together wire together.”
In situations of threat, getting triggered is a marvelous asset. The speed and intensity of our reaction are the very thing that helps us get back to safety. In day-to-day relationships, triggers can be frustrating, as we go on hurting ourselves and the ones we love by any number of reactive behaviors: raising our voice, interrupting, berating, glaring, getting small, fawning, avoiding, withdrawing, isolating, going numb, turning to an addiction, etc.
Most of us wish we didn’t have these reactions. We wish they would just go away. Or we feel resentful at those who so insensitively trigger us. Yet every trigger is an opportunity to experience authentic connection, healing, and repair.
I began exploring my own triggers seven years ago, in my early months of healing and recovery. I remember that summer well, slowly reading Seven Desires by Mark and Debbie Laaser. They gave names to my behaviors and experiences. I didn’t always like it. It was painful to see how often I had been putting expectations on others and on myself, rather than acknowledging and feeling my deep and unmet needs. It was also liberating to tell the fuller truth. It opened up more and more curiosity.
Mark described triggers as an opportunity to be curious about my unmet needs, to become responsible for them, and to communicate about them – rather than expecting or demanding or resenting. Daily curiosity allowed me to notice and share with friends my various overreactions. Little by little, I grew in an awareness of what I was really feeling and needing. I noticed how present-day reactions were connected to my story.
Debbie described her preference to imagine triggers as “anointings” – meaning that we can welcome the anointing balm of the Holy Spirit any and every time we feel a strong reaction. That was such a lovely invitation, and one that I also started practicing.
There began in me a “thawing out” process. After decades of minimizing my feelings and needs, I began paying attention, allowing time and space and care. There’s a real challenge there – thawing out hurts!! Over time, I discovered new layers in my story – long years of loneliness and heartache that I had never fully felt. With the strong and tender presence of the Virgin Mary, my daily prayer became a time in which I could bring my daily triggers, allow myself to feel more of them, and welcome the anointing of the Holy Spirit. It was so painful and so consoling.
These experiences unfolded over months and eventually years. Scriptures began coming to life for me. My body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). That means I can allow myself to feel intense sensations in my gut, chest, or throat. I can welcome the Holy Spirit there. He can anoint me there. The very name “Christian” implies being a “christ” – being anointed as Jesus was anointed. Jesus promised that very anointing in the Beatitudes when he said “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be paracleted.” (Matthew 5:4). I use the word “paracleted” in order to highlight the anointing of the Paraclete that soothes and encourages us whenever we are willing to experience our intense heartache and receive needed care.
Case in point: Just minutes ago, I received an unexpected and totally unwelcome interruption. It abruptly brought up all kinds of intense memories for me. So what did I do? I felt resentment and anger at the text message. I devoured an unhealthy snack, feeling shame as I ate it, along with the predictable and not-nearly-enough soothing sensation. Then I noticed myself just wanting to push through and move on. Then I felt the invitation to practice what I am preaching here. I took 5 minutes to lie down, allowing myself to feel more of it. I wept and shook and gasped for air. I realized how young I was feeling (like a 1-year old?). I realized how powerless and unprotected I had been feeling, and how familiar that was to my nervous system. I allowed time to receive comfort. I feel much more peace now.
Part of me feels frustrated at this “fragility” or that I still need so much. But if I tell the truth, what today required a 5-minute break would have set me in a rut for days or weeks in the past – and without me even being aware that I was triggered. The healing steps that I have already taken now give me a window of opportunity (usually) to notice and be aware, and to decide how to respond to the trigger. It’s a slow process that requires the faith of a child.
In healthy human development, as infants or toddlers or children, we have thousands and thousands of moments like the one I just had. Initially, that care comes from others; over time, we grow in our own capacity to notice what’s happening, to be resilient and resourceful, and to respond with good care and reasonable behavior.
As I get to know thousands of people’s stories, I am discovering an unpleasant reality. Most Americans I know did not experience myriads of moments of that kind of care as a child. We were more likely to be ignored, dismissed, judged, threatened, humiliated, attacked, or used. Many of us learned at a very young age either to keep our needs and feelings to ourselves, or that we will only get care if we perform or achieve, if we are dramatic or manipulative, or if we are giving something in exchange for it. We can expect as adults that it will take many thousands of moments of getting triggered, noticing our reaction with kindness, taking time to receive, and reconnecting. The alternative is to continue through life with unhealed wounds and unmet needs – which ultimately means remaining wounded people who wound people.
What about other people’s triggers? If we look at Jesus, we see grace and truth. Kindness seeks to heal ruptures, restore communion, and grow together in love. That requires a skillful combination of empathy and truth-telling. Jesus shows a marvelous awareness of what each person needs at a given moment. He neither backs away nor barges in. He loves them first, and then playfully engages their defenses, inviting them into more love and more truth.
To be oblivious or uncaring about what is obviously triggering to someone else is unkind or even cruel. But to expect others to tiptoe around my own triggers is egoistic and even abusive. I should know! I spent much of my life tiptoeing around others’ triggers. I’m learning that I don’t have to keep doing that. It helps neither me nor them. Their triggers and their needs are their responsibility, even if I genuinely care about them.
We all need people who care about what we need and feel, and who help us make sense out of life. Jesus needed that – and he experienced that! Not from most people, but from some.
Will we become again like little children? Will we admit and acknowledge the depths of our need, and be aware that those around us have their own stories and their own needs? Will we be responsible for our own needs and not expect others to do acrobatics around our tripwires?
May the true kindness of Jesus be an open invitation to each of us, in our own human growth, and in our relationships with one another.