Trauma and PTSD

Leaning into Reactions to Recognize Triggers

Leaning into reactions to recognize triggers: the role of introspection

It’s interesting what you can uncover if you lean into reactions, including triggers that weren’t initially obvious. In this post, I’m using trigger in a general sense to refer to one thing bringing up (triggering) something else that’s not directly related, rather than talking about trauma triggers that cause re-experiencing.

What got me thinking about this was the way I was reacting to something that a blogging friend was dealing with recently. There were issues with this person’s partner, and a treatment provider was planning to report concerns to the person’s employer.

My initial reaction was worry that this was going to end up causing some really negative consequences for the blogger. I legitimately thought it would, but the strength of my “this is a bad idea” response seemed disproportionate. So I sat with that reaction and poked around at it for a while until I was able to start consciously making the connections that my head had already been making in the background.

The more obvious connection that I came to fairly quickly was that I’ve had confidentiality breached to report me in the past. My province’s fucked up Health Professions Act requires that hospitals report any regulated health professional who’s hospitalized for mental health/substance use reasons. It was a legally required breach of confidentiality, but a breach of confidentiality all the same. The first time it happened, the hospital didn’t tell me that they’d done this, and at the time I wasn’t aware of this particular bit of the Health Professions Act. I only found out when my mom brought me a letter that had come from the nursing regulator saying that they’d received a complaint about my fitness to practice. It was only after I raised hell that the unit manager admitted that she’d reported me.

It was a massive pain in the ass, both that time and the other time that it happened, so I have very strong feelings about reporting people when there’s not reason to believe that they’re a risk to patients (and I certainly didn’t have any patients I was caring for that I could harm while in the hospital myself).

Okay, so that was definitely part of my reaction to this blogger’s situation, but it felt like there was still a piece that I was missing. So, more poking at the reaction. And then I realized what this piece was.

About 6 years ago, a coworker who had personal issues with me outside of work made a complaint to our employer that I was bullying him. As we had been close friends at one point, he knew that the person who had recently become our manager had previously bullied me at my last job. This coworker turning a personal issue into an official complaint at work, which gave the manager exactly the ammunition he needed to try to destroy my career, which he ended up having some degree of success at.

So those two separate issues were what the blogger’s situation was stirring up in me regarding bringing issues from the personal sphere into the professional sphere. I’m pretty sure I would have had concerns for the blogger’s well-being in their specific situation regardless of what the situation triggered in me, but the strength of my reaction came from what was triggered rather than the blogger’s situation.

Stuff related to the bullying doesn’t come up for me very often anymore, so it was a bit unexpected that it would come up now. Three years ago, I decided to work on a trauma account as described in the cognitive processing therapy (CPT) protocol (I didn’t have PTSD, but up until that point I had only partially processed what had happened). It made a big difference, and really toned down the emotion level associated with the memories. Still, it’s not something I have any desire to reactivate, so I decided that stepping away from this person’s blog for the time being was probably the best course of action.

I’ve always been a very introspective person, and this was one of those times that made me appreciate that willingness (at least some of the time) to sift through what’s happening in my head. It doesn’t always yield the clarity that it did in this situation, but I still appreciate it.

Do you have any mental processes that you tend to use if you’re triggered (either in a trauma sense or a more general sense) to try to explore and make sense of what’s happening?

25 thoughts on “Leaning into Reactions to Recognize Triggers”

  1. Mostly this happens with my children, where I start getting really upset about something they’re doing (or not doing) because I’m worried they’ll end up like me…

  2. I relate to easily to too many things – I have learned (Thank you Jesus – said tongue in cheek) to NOT react in the moment – no dashing off of emails or comments. Just sit with my reaction, or my OVER reaction. Let it rest. Let it pass through me – make it into mental conversations that don’t become real conversations – it’s saving me a lot of grief make it sure takes a lot of effort sometimes. Trauma triggers – those were dangerous and thankfully my life is such now (and has been for a few years) that they don’t occur.

  3. I’ve definitely had reactions of my own about different situations here and elsewhere. Once I introspect and reflect, I tend to learn more about my “unfinished business”. For example, I’ve been bullied really badly in different jobs and a recent well known indie bookstore in my country has been in the news. And it brought back memories due to the similarities varied ex employees described. Transitional age of 19 to 21, informal work environment, sleeping in the office, not being paid on time, singled out, coming from an abusive family so not understanding my legal rights or what’s “normal”… and so on.

    And of course plenty of other stuff friends are experiencing I’m various areas.

    When I get triggered, I try to ground myself or something (though I don’t feel those highly distressing memories are traumatic these days) so I can get my thinking brain online, separate myself a bit, remind myself there’s similarities but it’s not happening to me now. As i can over-identify, definitely on many situations – something my therapist pointed out.

    Then of course, if I can, I can choose a different response. Like boycotting the bookstore, for example, or typing up a caring comment on situations friends write about on various social media platforms and WP.

  4. What does poking at a reaction look like for you? I’ve had some success with writing a stream-of-consciousness to work out why I’m reacting a certain way, but it’s hard to do that quickly in the moment. When I’m not able to do that (because I’m out, or working, or the triggering conversation is still happening), I stuggle to even realise that my overreaction is out of proportion, let alone working out what it stems from.

  5. That’s great that you were able to be so introspective. I imagine that takes courage and curiosity.

    When I am suddenly feeling strong emotions out of the blue, or when I am suddenly thinking bad thoughts, my go-to question is: “Is this related to trauma?” Most of the time, it is. That is validating, and then I can relax a little because I know what’s going on, and I know that the danger is not in the present. I have dealt with this kind of reaction before.

  6. I was sent to shrinks my whole life and always ripped away when one realized my parents were abusive, the rents were afraid of being found out and hence I became focused on purging the problems within me that they scapegoated me with. Now as a therapist and having worked on my trauma in so many ways, I practice IFS Therapy which heals the negative brain pathways. All the other modalities brought some range of emotional healing from triggers but this model had me get to know the parts within my psyche that were triggered and to hear their reasons why. The concept has literally healed me physically and much of that pain was rooted in psychosomatic bonding. Triggers happen daily but do not trip me up like they once did if the part that suffered gives me an understanding of its job meant to help me today, even if I don’t like it. I do believe that a number of tools in the toolbelt is imperative for moments of healing that call for a different approach.

  7. I don’t know that this is quite related to “trigger” exactly, but I’ve found that both myself and my husband are each guilty of immediately reacting to another person’s situation as though that person were the same as us. I tend to assume that every woman is equally horrified by [insert Orthodox Jewish women’s role/issue] as I am based on my own experience/perceptions/opinions, etc., when in fact, many Orthodox women are self-described feminists and very happy in Orthodox communities, even though I would not be. Husband tends to immediately jump to the assumption that all-boys religious school is a horrible idea for everyone based on his own experience, even though many men do fine in that setting and go on to be happy, successful adults.

  8. With our brain, it feels like there can be separation between triggers and memories. They both exist but we can’t often see the dots or the connections—but therapists often can! And now that New T writes therapy notes for us every session, we can read them afterwards and try to understand. It’s not the same as processing probably and It is very unreal feeling, like we don’t feel real, but it’s the best we’ve got right now.

  9. The thing is, though, that I think it’s not a *bad* thing that you took that strength of reaction and applied it to that other blogger. Yes, you responded so strongly because of what happened to you. But, uh, what happened to you was shit. And, you tried to help someone else not have to go through their own version of that shit. This ‘let everyone make their own mistakes’ thing to me is bs. Why would any kind person ever voluntarily watch someone else potentially experience something deeply triggering to them that left such an impact? Yes, we have to learn that we have to put up boundaries to ensure we can give that advice without overly harming our mental health. We need to respect our own boundaries, and that the person we give that advice to may not be ready or able to take it. Or it might not work for a different person who sees different things differently. But, the idea we shouldn’t at least *try* to spare others what we went through just seems…unkind. So, *because* it was personal, it seems all the better you tried to help.

  10. I can totally relate to this post, Ashley. I was also bullied- at school then later at work. Thankfully, at work I was able to stay way ahead of my bullies and leave on my own terms. However, it left a huge mark on me and I do get triggered at times and that’s when I take a break. Thank you for posting.

      1. Thank you so much. My heart goes out to you, Ashley. I’m so sorry you were bullied at work. Please know that there was nothing wrong with you and you aren’t to blame. Their behavior says nothing about you but is only a reflection of their own lack of character.

        Wishing you much happiness and success in the future! 🌞

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