What are ‘triggers’ – automatic responces

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What does a therapist mean when he/she talks about triggers… when they say that my son was triggered by something?

Quick answer – a trigger is anything in the environment (person, place, thing, thought etc) that causes a predictable reaction in a person. Very often people are unaware of their triggers… they might be fully aware of the reaction… but they are not always aware of why they seemingly reacted automatically and without intention. Triggers very often cause an emotional reaction that does not fit the current situation.

As in the literal case of a gun (from which the metaphor was probably taken from) if you pull a trigger… very predictably, a bullet will shoot out. 

Some of you might remember the study in which the scientist trained the dog to salivate every time that he rang a bell (the bell is then the trigger and the salivation is the automatic and unconscious response)… the very same thing can happen in humans. 

the reason that therapists talk so often about triggers in the context of relational or behavioral difficulties is to help people to understand that one, often people are reacting automatically and they truly did not ‘think before they acted’, and two, often a ‘triggered person’ will have a reaction that seems to be out of place given the current circumstance.

For example: lets say there is a guy named Bob who seems to always get ‘excessively angry’ any time that someone enters into a room without knocking first. Bob has a wife named Suzie and they are currently seeking counseling as Suzie feels that she is being unjustly treated as Bob yells at her for “small things like not knocking before she enters her own house.” When Bob was 12 he was in the bathroom using the toilet and his sister and her friend walked right in as they forgot to knock. The girls all laughed at Bob and he was incredibly embarrassed (note: it is possible that Bob remembers this story very well and it is possible that he only vaguely remembers this occurrence). Bob believes that he is justified at getting angry at his wife when in truth his emotions are mostly the result of being ‘triggered’ as he has an automatic emotional reaction to people entering rooms without notification. Therapy can help people to uncover their triggers so as to avoid acting automatically as Bob did.

Why do we have triggers then? Triggers are very important to survival. If we did not react automatically to certain stimuli we would never be able to consciously make choices in time to avoid potentially dangerous situations.

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

Postmodernism – making an ‘out there’ philosophy useful

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Quick summary – By allowing yourself to investigate how your relationships, actions and emotions are governed by your perceptions you may find that by offering yourself a freedom of perception you can change the way in which you are impacted by your reality. – By using open-mindedness and an adaptability in relation to your beliefs and ways of perceiving, you free yourself from patterns of seemingly automatic reaction. Postmodernism suggests that reality does not exist… it is a construct of your belief system… a radical postmodernist would say that if you believed that you could walk through a wall, then you could walk through a wall… perhaps this is not particularly helpful to the masses, but what if we took this down a notch… what if you allowed yourself the freedom to perceive a situation differently so as to reduce your discomfort related to the subject? What would be the benefits of letting go of some of your deterministic thinking (‘when this happens I must feel this’ ‘If I did that I would be bad’ ‘I should_______ because _______)? Sometimes we trap ourselves in suffering by rigidly holding on to what we label to be objectivity… postmodernism suggests that objectivity does not exist – there are not facts. Perhaps if we took a small piece from postmodernist thinking we could all say that “I don’t have to feel or behave in a set way… my reactions do not have to be predetermined… I have a consciousness which is evolved enough to allow me to live without being controlled by my environment… I can choose to perceive or believe my reality to be different.” Embracing your subjectivity is an emancipation from atomization. 

According to the philosophies inherent in postmodernism reality is a construct which is ever changing… reality is simply what we have chosen to believe… anything can be a fact if you believe it to be a fact… and facts become more factual when we use communication to get others to believe that those facts actually exist. According to postmodernism, if everyone believes the world to be flat… then the world is flat.

 

Through language we allow the collective to live within a reality which appears to have objectivity and continuity… a radical postmodernist would suggest that if you want a different reality you must simply believe that a different reality exists.

Now this theory might be fascinating to certain people (such as myself) but it is not particularly useful for a society which still seems reluctant to accept modernism (modernism basically states that the world is governed by logic – math and other sciences can accurately depict and explain reality… reality is quantifiable).  

Our reactions and actions are related to the beliefs which we project onto a stimuli or event etc. I view postmodernism to be useful if it is used as a means of increasing adaptability related to perceiving… this could make a person less reactive and perhaps more content with the random happenings of existence.

As a therapist there are many themes that I have seen surrounding the subject of deterministic thinking.

Here are some very common examples of rigid deterministic thinking patterns that often create unnecessary suffering in people’s lives. (Remember to be nice to yourself… I am well aware of all the below cognitive distortions and I still find myself caught up in them anyway… this is not an exercise intended for you to cast negative judgment on yourself… notice which phrases you use and explore the subject with open curiosity.)

“I have this characteristic so I should to this.”

“I am a ________ so I must ___________ .”

“Anyone who __________ is a _____________ and must __________.”

“This happened with a family member so I must do this.”

“I have to feel this way because this happened.”

“Bad things never happen if you do things the right way.”

“I can’t do it that way or else I would not be me.”

“He did this so he needs to do this.”

“When someone does this the only solution is to do this.”

“We don’t do that or we don’t emote like that or we don’t think like that in my family/culture/community/country.”

“I should _________because ________.”

“I can’t support her because she is a ________.”

“___________ is always wrong or bad.”

“If I did that then I would be a __________.”

“I am a _______ and we believe _______ should always be handled by ______.”

We all have intuition and we all have subjectivity… countless times I have witnessed people fall hopelessly into suffering because of an inability to overcome their rigid ‘shoulds’.

What would happen if you allowed more of your actions to be governed by what felt right in the moment as opposed to adhering to a rigid ideology which states objectively what you should do?

Postmodernism is then useful to every one if we use it as a tool to better understand how our lives can benefit from lessoning our grasp on deterministic thinking… lessening the degree to which we are controlled by the ‘shoulds” in our lives…lessening the degree to which we believe that we must react a certain way to certain stimuli.

This process will also likely have a nice affect on your relationships… people don’t generally like it when you force your own subjective reality onto them… people tend to get along better when they are less concerned with proving objectivity… proving that someone is right and someone else is wrong.

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.