Alright, let’s get into this heavy topic. What is triggering? Why is it maybe not actually a good thing? And what are it’s connections to mental health?
What is triggering?
In spiritual circles, it hasn’t become uncommon to hear about triggering someone.
In this context, triggering someone refers to an interaction (the stimulus) in which an emotional response is elicited. The emotional response varies, but usually the phrase references what are typically deemed as negative emotions – anger, frustration, sadness, etc.
I have seen people refer to this much like a badge of honor. “I trigger people. It just means they can’t handle the truth.” “I triggered a friend of mine and they unfriended me on Facebook. Good riddance. I don’t want that kind of negativity.” “I will trigger you. You will be uncomfortable. And when you are triggered, you should think about why you feel that way.”
It is spoken about in the sense that triggering someone is a good thing. If you are triggering people, then you are on the right track – that’s the connotation that is given.
But, what if triggering isn’t such a good thing? What if it isn’t just a cue for the other person to reflect but also for us to reflect on what happened?
This idea of triggering someone being a good thing, is typically also used in conjunction with the idea that the individual doing the triggering is a mirror for the other person. But mirrors are objects, people are not. And couldn’t the person being triggered also be acting as a mirror?
My apparently, unpopular opinion:
Triggering someone else, isn’t inherently a good thing. And the way it is presented, seems to put the person who is acting as the stimulus in a position where they can’t be questioned and don’t have to think about their own actions or words. (They are the object remember? Objects aren’t held accountable.)
Instead, if I trigger someone, for example, then maybe it is a cue for me to reflect on what happened as well. Maybe I said something racist. Maybe I was being rude. Or maybe I touched on something sensitive that I could have taken more care about. Maybe I triggered a trauma reaction. (We’ll get more into this mental health connection in a moment.
I think these are all instances of triggering someone, where we could probably agree that in the cases above, I should probably do some reflecting myself. And maybe I want to reach out, if possible, and have that vulnerable conversation with them about what happened.
And since we touched on reflection. Maybe this is something we should reflect on. Because I don’t think any of us want to find ourselves in a position where we are potentially hurting other people.
The Mental Health Connection⠀
Now that we’ve talked a little bit about triggering and what it is – specifically from the perspective of how people are using it in spiritual circles nowadays – let’s talk about how it is used in mental health.
Typically to trigger someone means to elicit the a trauma response. So for example, smell might be a trigger and bring back memories of a trauma and then that person’s nervous system reacts as if they are going through that trauma again.⠀
The reaction then may include panicking, fearing for one’s life, sweating, racing thoughts, seeing the memories, and more. It basically puts them right back in that space again.
And this can be harmful, not just to the body, but because the person can be re-traumatized. And that isn’t healing. That is re-harming. Re-wounding. And can even compound the trauma.⠀
It is serious and painful stuff.⠀
And the trigger can be anything – because the brain links certain things that happened or certain sensory pieces to that experience. (Tip: the brain isn’t as logical as we think it is.)
Triggering: It Shouldn’t be the Goal.
So if triggering is something that could actually be seriously harmful, where do we go from here?
Well first, we need to have these conversations about triggers. Because there is so much that is getting wrapped up in the word “trigger,” like everything from cognitive dissonance to a trauma response.
And we need to have conversations about what it means to actually hold space for someone as they face things that they consented to dealing with. (Because a lot of times, triggering seems to be done in a non-consensual way, which can further harm the person being triggered.)
Then we also need to reflect on ourselves not only when we trigger someone, but before it happens.
And talk about how we care for someone after they are triggered. (I’m talking about aftercare. We don’t just trigger someone, even when they have consented and then leave them to deal with it on their own.)
But we also need to stop teaching people that this is the goal of coaching, mentoring, or spiritual guidance. We need to stop teaching people that triggering their clients is something to strive for. It shouldn’t be the goal.
And it is why when someone says “I’m glad I trigger people.” Or “I’m proud to trigger people.” I get concerned. It’s a red flag.⠀