The Trigger Is A Gift


Paint over gesso transfer.

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this before, but I have:

What you said/did really triggered me…”

I don’t know if you’ve ever said this before, but I have:

“I’m feeling really triggered…”

Yesterday, I heard and read about people being triggered by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death. Less recently, it was Cory Monteith, and even less recently, Heath Ledger. There are people out there who are quick to ridicule those who feel these deaths strongly. They ridicule because they don’t get it. These deaths are triggers to those who have lost loved ones to addiction or substance abuse. They remind us of our own losses. They are back hoes, digging up the things we thought we’d long since buried. And it’s okay that they don’t get it. It isn’t theirs to get. It’s ours to get, to unpack, to process, to make space for.

Those that don’t get it aren’t good witnesses for you in your vulnerability, anyway.


I learned the word “triggered” in group therapy for the abuse I endured in childhood. I was in a group session (with a beautiful group of women) and something one of the women said caused the floodgates of another to open wide and gush forth. The therapist asked “Did what she just said trigger you?”

My ears perked up, because I recognized the dance but I didn’t know it had a name.

In that session, our therapist taught us that triggers are gifts. Triggers are the Pavlovian bells that cause our wounded selves to salivate or cower, shrink or puff up. They alert us to the stuff happening within us, but outside of our conscious awareness – the stuff that’s there whether we know it or not – the stuff that comes barreling out all fanged and furious or full of tears, seemingly out of no where.

Our emotions *never* come out of no where. Ever. And they are never an ‘over-reaction’. We might not be reacting to what’s happening in the here and now. We might be reacting to something that got dug up, got activated by the present moment, but whatever the intensity of the reaction, it’s a cause and effect thing.

That it got dug up, got activated, is a gift, because you can’t heal what you don’t acknowledge and you can’t acknowledge what you aren’t even aware exists.


I used to be easily triggered. The world felt like a mine field and everything that happened it in got on my last nerve. I was triggered by tones of voice, certain physical postures, smells, sensations, songs, times of day, times of year…

Everything held a memory of something else. It was nearly impossible for me to be in the present moment without something from my history hitching a ride on some aspect of the moment. Beautiful day, sun is out, we’re having salad for dinner. Boom. The iceberg lettuce triggers a memory of my sister trying to shave her face when she was four – blood everywhere – frantic parents…we were having iceberg lettuce with dinner; someone nearby is cooking Lipton Chicken Noodle Soup and boom! I am standing in the hallway watching my father convulse on the bathroom floor while my mother stirs a pot of the same soup (whose smell has never changed in all these years) on the stove in our apartment.

Triggers used to make me feel angry at the one doing the triggering *even though it had absolutely nothing to do with them*. The person using that tone used it in a playful manner and had no intention of hurting my feelings. The soup on the stove, the chosen perfume, the particular phrase, none of any of that had *anything to do with me*, either. It was an accidental collision between the present and my past. Not planned. No ones fault. And yet, it is so easy to dislike/hate/reject/lash out at the person doing the triggering (however inadvertently) because our triggered self isn’t thinking rationally or experiencing the trigger as a gift. The triggered self is in flight or fight mode and wants. the pain. to stop.

I’m no longer easily triggered. I’ve got written journaling and art journaling (and an awesome therapist) in my tool box and I use those tools all the time to help me unpack and disarm my triggers. I still get triggered, but I recognize the opportunity to undo some nasty conditioning, to eliminate the power in that particular ringing bell so that it no longer sends me into a tailspin.

I’m also better at recognizing when what I’m feeling is about right now, this moment and when what I’m feeling has something hanging off of it – something from the past that has nothing to do with the present moment.

I couldn’t do that without years of hard work, self-inquiry, therapy…I couldn’t do that if I didn’t first learn that triggers aren’t there to be ignored, stuffed, minimized, denied, sucked up, gotten over…I couldn’t do that if I didn’t own my own shit, if I didn’t see myself as ultimately responsible for the way I experience the world.

If I’m triggered, that means there’s something yet to be felt about something I once experienced. The opportunity to feel it through is a gift.

The recent death of Philip Seymour Hoffman triggered unresolved grief over my sister’s death. His death has absolutely nothing to do with me. I loved him as an actor, but I didn’t actually know him at all. His death doesn’t change my life one iota. However, his death brought up my own stuff. And this is what happens when you’re human and live in the world. Your stuff comes up. You can deny it or lash out about it or numb it or ignore it. I’m making space for it, since this grief that *was in me anyway* was acting upon me in ways I couldn’t understand.

*Goes to fling paint*