You may be asking yourself: “Why do I get triggered so easily? Where is it coming from?” First of all, I commend you for asking this question. Not many people have the self-reflection and courage to want to investigate their triggers.
You may be faced with internal or external triggers and may get triggered because of past traumas and experiences, your current emotional state, or biological factors.
For many years I would get very, veeery easily triggered. However, it wasn’t until I decided to go to therapy and do some deep soul-searching that I began wondering where this was coming from.
In this article, I wanted to share with you my experience and offer you 3 reasons why you might be getting triggered.
What Are Triggers?
In the psychological landscape, triggers are stimuli that evoke strong emotional responses. They aren’t necessarily negative; however, we most often talk about being triggered when it relates to intense and low emotions.
Feeling fear, anger, frustration, irritation, despair, etc. When it comes to triggers, there are external and internal ones.
External triggers relate to specific events, situations, places or people. For example, a song might remind you of a past relationship or a behavior from a person might evoke irritation.
Internal triggers involve our internal world. Our thoughts, memories, bodily sensations and emotions. A random thought of a past mistake might trigger feelings of shame or guilt.
You might get triggered if you go to a specific place that you have negative memories from (like a hospital) or you might get triggered when your partner says something.
For the purpose of this article, I would like to mostly focus on internal triggers. If we get triggered very easily, and regularly, it most likely has to do more with our internal world than our external world.
How Does It Feel to Be Triggered?
Experiencing a trigger can be a deeply intense and personal experience. Despite the individual differences of how each person experiences feeling triggered, there are still some common feelings and experiences.
- Intense Emotional Response: This is perhaps the most defining aspect of being triggered. The emotions can range from anger, sadness, fear or shame to even rage.
- Physical Sensations: The body might react with symptoms like a racing heart, tightness in the chest, rapid breathing, sweating, shaking, or even nausea.
- Flashbacks: Particularly in cases of traumatic triggers, you might feel as if you’re re-living a past event. This can be particularly intense for individuals with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
- Dissociation: Some people describe feeling disconnected from their surroundings, themselves, or both. They might feel as if they’re observing things from outside their body or feel that the world has become “unreal.”
- Urgency to React: There may be an impulse to confront the source of the trigger, flee the situation, or to engage in some other behavior to cope (like using substances). The reaction might also cause yelling, lashing out, or responding in a harsh and sudden manner towards another person.
- Confusion & Overwhelm: Especially if you don’t recognise or understand the trigger, what is going on, or what is happening, the experience can feel very confusing. You may feel out of control and lost on what you feel or what you should do. You may feel overwhelmed by all the emotions and their intensity.
- Shame or Embarrassment: Especially if the reaction to a trigger involves another person or happens in public, you might feel embarrassed about the response and worry how others perceived them.
Why You Get Triggered So Easily
Throughout my personal development journey and working with a therapist, I realised just how easily I would get triggered. My triggers also always seemed to involve other people and their behaviors.
I would get triggered the most towards my partner and my family. I couldn’t understand what was going on and why I felt constantly on-edge and unstable.
I didn’t want to keep feeling this way, therefore, I needed to go deep within my psyche and understand why I was so sensitive to everything around me. I wanted to understand why I kept having such strong emotional reactions.
Veryyy long story short, I was able to uncover patterns of codependence, low self-esteem, trauma from my childhood and having a highly dysregulated nervous system (due to said trauma).
By working on my patterns, trauma, and nervous system, I was able to soften my responses to the things I most often would get triggered about. Even though my reactions were in response to something, it was 100% my responsibility.
Because no matter where I went, I took my internal world with me. I couldn’t escape feeling triggered, because it wasn’t so much about what I was triggered about, it was about my hurt inner self who felt constantly scared and unsafe. Feeling triggered would be an automatic response.
3 Possible Reasons
1. Past Traumas and Experiences
To understand the profound impact of past traumas and experiences on our present reactions, it’s vital to recognize how trauma affects both our minds and bodies.
The brain tends to form associations between the traumatic event that we may have experienced as a child and certain stimuli present at the time. For instance, a person involved in a car accident during a rainstorm might later find the sound of rain or even the smell of wet asphalt triggering.
Another example might be that if in your past relationship you got cheated on, and your ex-partner used to tell you he’s working late at the office, when in reality, he was unfaithful, you’ve now begun to associate working late with the fear of being cheated on.
You might be in a healthy relationship, but when your current partner calls you to let you know they’ll be working late, your heart rate increases, you tense up, and a feeling of fear and panic floods your body. You are linking a past traumatic experience with the current “trigger” (working late) and feel like you’re re-experiencing the situation all over again.
As posited by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a leading trauma researcher, our bodies physically store traumatic experiences.
When we’re reminded of a traumatic event, even subconsciously, our bodies can react as if the event is happening all over again.
Without proper interventions or therapy, trauma can remain unresolved, and its impact can linger. Unprocessed traumas sit like landmines in our psyche, ready to be activated by even remotely related stimuli. The less we’ve confronted and dealt with the trauma, the more potent its triggering potential.
When I began going to therapy I realized just how many landmines I had in my psyche. I kept getting triggered constantly because I was unaware of how many unresolved pains I was carrying around.
With the help of therapy, I’ve been able to heal certain parts of my psyche, and as a result, the things that used to trigger me – trigger me less. I won’t say that the triggered feeling has completely disappeared, but it very much relates to the second point.
2. Your Current Emotional State
When we are already in a more vulnerable or emotional state, small things can hurt or trigger us more than usual.
Imagine our feelings being like a protective bubble around us. When we’re overwhelmed or upset, this bubble becomes thin, and it’s easier for things from the outside to poke and pop it.
Being upset or stressed can also make our minds feel full. Emotional distress consumes a significant amount of our cognitive resources. This means that when we’re already overwhelmed, we have less mental bandwidth to process new information rationally.
Thus, something that usually wouldn’t upset us (or might upset us very little) can suddenly feel really big and hurtful.
I’ve noticed in myself that when I’ve had a bad night’s sleep, when I’m worried about work, or feel emotionally and socially depleted from a busy day or week, I’m much more vulnerable to get triggered.
Mind you: I was functioning in this heightened state of stress and exhaustion for many years without even knowing it. It wasn’t until I went to therapy that I realized I’ve been so vulnerable to triggers because I’ve been so exhausted from living in a constant state of fear.
And there’s another thing: when we know we’re feeling fragile, we might expect things to hurt us or expect bad things to happen. If we’re waiting for something to upset us (or for something to go “bad”), we might notice it more.
This anticipatory anxiety can make us hyper-aware of potential triggers and as a result affect us much more intensely. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
3. Biological Factors
The human body is a complex interplay of biological processes and systems, many of which influence our emotional and psychological responses to stimuli.
The nervous system is our body’s command centre, responsible for everything from basic survival functions to complex emotional responses. It’s divided into two main parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
The sympathetic nervous system prepares us for “fight or flight” in threatening situations, while the parasympathetic helps us “rest and digest,” bringing our body back to a calm state after a perceived threat has passed.
When the nervous system is dysregulated, there can be an imbalance between these two functions. You might become stuck in a heightened “fight or flight” mode, even when there’s no apparent danger (that was me for many years).
This means the body is constantly on high alert, making you more reactive and prone to being triggered by even minor stimuli. External cues that might typically be ignored or rationalized can be interpreted as threats, leading to exaggerated emotional and physiological reactions.
Similarly, imbalances in neurotransmitters, which are a type of hormone, like serotonin and dopamine, can profoundly impact mood and reactivity. Lower levels of serotonin, for instance, have been linked to increased irritability and sensitivity to external stimuli.
Consistent hormonal imbalances can make a person more prone to mood swings, heightened emotional reactions, and thus, an increased susceptibility to being triggered.
This is not just a psychological phenomenon; it’s deeply rooted in biology. External triggers, when combined with an already sensitive internal environment, can spark intense reactions.
If you’re someone who gets triggered easily, my heart goes out to you. It is not an easy reality to function in when we constantly feel on edge and experience intense, heightened emotions.
The reason I say “not an easy reality to function in”, because our reality can be changed. Trust me, if someone told me 4 years ago that I could feel different about my biggest triggers, I wouldn’t have believed you.
Through my work with my therapist, journaling, meditation, healing my traumas and regulating my nervous system, I’ve been able to change my emotional reactions. There are things that used to trigger me that don’t trigger me anymore.
There are also things that are so deeply rooted in my psyche that they still trigger me, but the intensity is nowhere where it used to be.
I truly believe that we can heal ourselves and heal our triggers. If we show up, face ourselves, and keep doing the work – we can change our reality and how we experience things.
If you enjoyed this article, you might find it interesting to read my article “How To Stop Feeling Triggered By Your Partner.” Additionally, if you’d like to deepen your inner work, consider checking out my online class “Journaling For Self-Reflection.”