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What Happens When We Get Triggered?

Arguing with someone I care about is one of my clearest triggers. I’ll start out fine: I’ll stay rational and reasonably calm. I’ll be able to remember to have compassion for their alternative view. If the argument continues and I feel unheard, I may start to raise my voice and feel myself getting frustrated.

But there’s always a very obvious point at which some little switch flicks in my brain, and I totally lose the capacity to engage with the other person. I’ll feel myself quite literally freeze; sometimes I’ll notice that I’m opening my mouth but I have no idea what to say. I won’t be able to follow what they are saying anymore, or even if I can I certainly can’t form my own sentences. Sometimes I know that I need us to stop talking and hug, but I can’t ask for this, let alone move my body to initiate it.

I get caught in a freeze (unable to move or speak) or sometimes in a dissociate (becoming fuzzy and as though I don’t know where I am anymore).

It’s not always this obvious or dramatic. Sometimes the pressure I feel while trying to socialise in unfamiliar groups of people leads to a freeze response. I notice that I’d love to be mingling and chatting, feeling easy about coming and going as I please, but I’ll feel rooted to one place because it feels ‘safe’.

Or sometimes if someone I love is expressing anger over something totally unrelated to me, my brain will respond as though it is directed at me. Again I’ll feel myself lose the ability to follow what they’re saying, much less ask them to slow down or stop.

The problem is that our brain doesn’t really distinguish between real or perceived threat. Each of us have our own unique cocktail of developmental trauma (unmet needs from our earliest years) and also possibly event trauma (specific overwhelming events throughout life). These traumas felt overwhelming at the time, and when we get triggered as adults we behave as though these traumas are playing out again – even when we’re not in situations that pose any real threat to our existence.

Understanding what’s actually going on in my brain when this happens has been really helpful in finding more compassion for myself, and beginning to work with my triggers to give myself more choice when I can feel myself starting to lose capacity.

Which brings me to…

The Basic Neurology of Triggers

When we feel ourselves unable to behave in rational, measured ways, and we notice that we’re getting carried away by a strong emotional response (whether that looks like rage, freezing up, or dissociating), what we are feeling is parts of our brain temporarily shutting down. This means our capacity to choose how to respond becomes impaired.

The first part of our brain that goes offline is our neocortex. This is the newest and most advanced part, in evolutionary terms. We use it for social engagement, language, and complex problem solving. It’s the part of us that allows us to make rational judgements about situations.

When the neocortex stops calling the shots, control shifts to the limbic system, our mammal brain. This area is a little older and governs a lot of our emotional responses. When we go into a fight or flight response, or a rigid freeze where we’re unable to move or speak, this is likely because control has passed from our neocortex to our limbic system.

Finally, if our mammal brain’s response hasn’t resolved the situation and we find ourselves still feeling unsafe, then our brain tries one more strategy: to act from the brain stem. This is the oldest part, the lizard brain. If we go into a limp, collapsed state, or a dissociation where we start to lose sense of where we are, then this may mean that we are now responding from our lizard brain.

The fascinating thing about all of this is that it allows us to track exactly what’s going on when we find ourselves in situations where we’re not behaving the way we’d like to be. When that switch goes inside my brain and I’m not able to follow what my partner is saying anymore, I understand why – and understanding why is the first step in doing something about it, which I’ve written more about here.

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