The difference between strong feelings and a trigger

A big part of dealing with mental health stigma is to drown it out – talking so openly and loudly about what you’re going through that your voice drowns out the voice in your head telling you to “get over it” or “fake it until you succeed.” or encourage people in your life to do the same.

As a result, many of us have developed the habit of interspersing clinical terminology into our casual conversations in order to establish an emotional connection with one another. But when we use the language of mental health and trauma too casually (or worse, inaccurately), we soften its impact, ultimately reinforcing the mental health stigma rather than neutralizing it.

A more obvious faux pas in talking to rejection is saying things like “you have such an obsessive-compulsive disorder” just because you sort your socks by color, or using “bipolar” as an adjective to describe something how unstable. (Think: “Today is such a bipolar weather.”)

The last trauma term to become a buzzword? Saying you are “turned on” when strong feelings come over you.

“In everyday language, ‘trigger’ usually means a strong negative reaction in response to an event or situation, such as feeling angry or upset, but psychologists don’t understand the term.” Anton Shcherbakov, a New Jersey licensed clinical psychologist, told HuffPost. “Like any language, now that it’s become popular, it’s being watered down and misused.”

However, if we learn to use the term properly, we can begin to collectively break down one of the biggest barriers to stronger bonds: misunderstanding.

“We are committing what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error, or the tendency to attribute the negative actions of others to their character rather than their circumstances,” Shcherbakov said. “When someone is open about their triggers, it can help us understand them better and show more empathy, which is one of the best ways to strengthen relationships and communities.”

To develop this power, experts recommend a crash course on triggers and strong feelings so you can express yourself appropriately.

How Mental Health Professionals Identify Trigger Conditions

The term “provoked” was originally part of the concept of trauma to understand the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as flashbacks, anger dissociation, and other intense or extreme reactions to seemingly innocuous events occurring in the present.

A more famous example of this is a war veteran who panics and is ready to fight when he hears the return fire of a car.

“A trigger in this sense literally means that something in the present triggered a past traumatic memory that caused the body’s fight-run-freeze system to take over.” Noel Hunter, director of integrative psychotherapy MindClear in New York, told HuffPost. “The person is no longer completely in the present, but rather, their mind has returned to the trauma.”

Hunter added that the person is completely out of control, and it is often difficult for them to function during such episodes.

In modern psychology, experts also apply the concept of triggers to other mental health conditions such as addictions and eating disorders. “The idea here is that certain triggers (seeing someone light a cigarette) can then increase the likelihood that you will behave in the way you want to change or avoid (smoking),” Shcherbakov said.

How is a trigger different from a strong feeling or reaction?

Feelings vary, and strong feelings don’t necessarily mean you’re provoked.

The distinction between a trigger and strong feelings can be confusing. Not only are there many parallels between the two emotional states, but the experience of each is different for everyone. There are a few subtle differences that may help clarify what you are actually experiencing.

Triggers are past oriented; strong feelings are mostly present oriented.

“When someone is triggered, it means they are experiencing a strong negative emotional or physical reaction to the stimulus.” – Megan Markum, Chief Psychologist AMFM Healthcare in California, HuffPost reported. “It could include a response from any of our five senses.”

If someone was abused when they were young, they may not remember much about the person who abused them. Many years later, the smell of that person’s cologne can trigger a flood of unpleasant memories and emotions, cause a panic attack, or cause the person to dissociate.

Someone who recovers early from alcohol and attends an event where they did not expect alcohol to be served can also be provoked – say by a bartender or bottles of liquor – and be consumed by feelings of fear or anger (repeat shallow breathing and excitement ).

Triggers reactivate painful, traumatic memories or cravings for the unhealthy and self-destructive behavior you are trying to change, while strong feelings mostly cause discomfort or upset in relation to the moment that triggered them.

If someone comments on your weight or appearance, it can lead to a negative emotional reaction in the moment, such as feeling insulted or betrayed. However, these feelings, while terrible, may be present-oriented and not rooted in past trauma or mental health behaviors.

But for a person with an eating disorder, those same comments can trigger a cascade of painful memories and distorted beliefs that make them feel like their past trauma has resurfaced and can lead to a relapse.

Triggers don’t exist on a sliding scale like feelings do.

As originally intended, the term “trigger” is an all-or-nothing phenomenon.

“A person may retain some awareness of today’s reality and not be fully immersed in memories, but it still works,” Hunter said. “You either are or you are not.”

Triggers can be more or less powerful and lead to more or less intense reactions that can exist on an infinite continuum, but something either triggers you or it doesn’t.

On the other hand, feelings can be influenced by any number of factors.

Back to the comments about your appearance: if you’re enjoying a cold weekend, you might respond with a shiny clap and move on, whereas after a hard day’s work, you’re more likely to get pissed off. (However, constant comments about your appearance or another type of stressor that is specific and persistent in nature can build up in your mind and become a trigger over time.)

Triggers can interfere with your daily activities.

Because triggers are so individual, there is no one-size-fits-all way to distinguish a trigger from strong feelings—however, when a thought, action, or feeling gets in the way of us living a better life or gets in the way of us living. -day job, professional help can help you get a better perspective.

“If someone has a reaction that is far superior to other typical reactions, it’s worth investigating” Marlene McDermott, vice president of quality and therapeutic services for Array Behavioral Care, a telepsychiatric practice, told HuffPost. “Avoidance, extreme fear or reactivity, and nightmares are all examples of topics that should be discussed in treatment to explore the trauma response versus the fear response.”

Signs You’re Using the Term “Trigger” Disrespectfully

Even though the term “trigger” has come to be understood as a synonym for strong and unpleasant emotions (which is technically one way of describing how people react to a trigger event), this does not mean that we should not be more careful about how we integrate it into our everyday conversations.

“One of the times I often hear the term being used disrespectfully is when someone says, ‘Wow, you got so excited,’” Shcherbakov said. “This not only devalues ​​the experience of the trigger person, but also tells him that he is acting inappropriately, which is harmful and ultimately useless.” (Not to mention it’s not true.)

The trigger person usually knows they are having a strong reaction out of proportion to the present moment and may be embarrassed about it – heartless comments do nothing but further stigmatize and trap them in their trauma.

Similarly, when you tell someone that they provoked you or that the situation was so triggered, you may inadvertently downplay the person’s experience with a mental disorder.

“Being upset that your friend is late because that’s his pet peeve is not the same as seeing a reminder of your injury, which causes a lot of fear and anxiety,” Shcherbakov said.

How to deal with a trigger

Therapy Can Be Incredibly Helpful If You'Re Experiencing Triggers.

Georgievich via Getty Images

Therapy can be incredibly helpful if you’re experiencing triggers.

There are many ways to deal with a trigger, and their effectiveness will be different for each person, Shcherbakov says, but there are three strategies that tend to work for many people.

“When your fight-run-freeze system is activated and you start having flashbacks or panic, this strategy can help you reconnect with the present moment and lower your activation levels,” Shcherbakov said. “The easiest way to do this is to tune in to the five senses.”

Try: Start by saying five things you can see, then touch four things in your environment, identify three things you can hear, notice two things you can taste, and find something that you can feel (for example, a candle or essential oils).

Like grounding, muscle relaxation allows you to reduce the level of muscle tension that can accompany a trigger.

Try: “Start by clenching your fists for three seconds and then letting go,” Shcherbakov said. “Repeat the squeeze for another three seconds and release again.” Work all the major muscle groups of the body one after the other, doing two sets of three seconds of tension – biceps, shoulders, face, stomach, legs and feet (squeeze them into a ball).

Talking to a friend or family member can help reduce your activation and stress response levels, even if you don’t talk about what triggered you.

Try: As soon as you notice trigger symptoms (rapid heart rate, heavy breathing, racing thoughts, feeling cold), contact someone to help you feel at ease.

According to McDermott, irrational thoughts do not pay attention to logic, so there is no point in trying to negotiate with them – the only thing you can do is to accept their presence and distract yourself until they subside.

How to be around someone who is provoked

“Usually when someone fires, their reactions or behavior seem out of touch with the reality of the present,” Hunter said. “They may not seem to be looking at you or talking to you—they may even scream, run, freeze, attack, or hide while you wonder what just happened.”

The best thing you can do is not react or shame them during such an episode. Make sure you’re there to support them and do what they say is good for them—whether it distracts them, gets them out of a situation, or makes them laugh.

If they haven’t shared their triggers or coping mechanisms with you, “you can try to bring them back to the present moment, but it’s more about rapport,” Hunter said. “In some cases, the best help is to do nothing at all.”


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