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Understanding Adult Child Triggers and Reactions
Countless people have experienced this scenario. They calmly sit in a chair and after someone in their vicinity utters what he believes to be a well-meaning word or phrase, the originally relaxed person unexpectedly experiences a physiological sensation, as if some unidentified spark has pressed his detonate button. That spark can be considered a trigger and his response, which can vary in length and intensity, can be considered his reaction. Because all brains are formatted the same way, everyone experiences this phenomenon.
Triggers take numerous forms, such as a person’s words, his voice tone, a frown, his physical appearance, a scene from a movie, a location, the color of a shirt, and the person himself. Anyone and anything, in fact, can serve as one, and those who live or work together can unknowingly create mutually escalating physiological response, as each presses the other’s “buttons.”
They harness the soul, leaving the person off-guard, helpless, detached from his logic and reasoning, and little more than a bystander when they fire. They disconnect him from his Source and his interval resources.
“When any of this happens, we can be sure a trigger has been pulled,” according to David Richo in Triggers; How We Can Stop Reacting and Start Healing (Shambhala Publications, 2019, p. 1`). “We find ourselves in a stimulus-response experience that happens to all of us.”
Although triggers are excessive, inflated, overwhelming, temporarily power-suspending, and often longer-lasting than the catalyst or event that sparked them, they alert a person of a potentially dangerous or detrimental circumstance. Ironically, he may not be able to identify what it is.
They emanate from an area in the brain that causes a person to first duck when some unidentified object or item suddenly flies over his head and then ask, after the threat has passed, “What was that?”
“Triggers and reactions happen so fast that we don’t have a chance to pause, look at what is really happening, and make a wise choice,” according to Richo (ibid, p. 2). “This is because triggers activate our limbic system, where the emotions reside, not our prefrontal cortex, where rational thoughts preside.”
A trigger is not a thought. It is felt throughout the body, originating in the stomach, where it implodes, and then rises to the brain, like an internal explosion that can seldom be predicted or anticipated, releasing stress hormones, constricting blood flow to the extremities, and elevating the heart rate, respiration, and the blood pressure, as if something inside has detonated. It rekindles the fight-or-flight response experienced during the original threat, whether that occurred the day before or a decade before.
It results from an original incident-approximating stimulus, leading the person to believe that the threat is present, whether it actually is or not. Indeed, it does not have to be real-only “real” to the person experiencing it.
“A trigger takes us by storm when it reinstates painful experience from early life,” advises Richo (ibid, p. 37). “Our more hard-hitting trigger points may have been implanted by abuse or trauma that happened in the past or in our adult life, and are now archived deep within our somatic memory.”
ANATOMY OF A TRIGGER:
Understanding brain functioning can aid in the understanding of the reactions these triggers create.
Incoming stimuli, which can number in the hundreds of thousands on any given day, enter the brain through the thalamus, its router, which then relays it through two possible paths-the slower, upper one or the faster, lower one.
In the case of the slower, upper route, information entering and routed by the thalamus is sent to the cerebral cortex for processing and understanding, and the hippocampus.
In the case of the faster, lower route, the information is sent directly to the amygdala. This pathway, sparking the characteristic overtaking and controlling sensations because the amygdala is inextricably tied to the hypothalamus, results in several fundamental differences.
It is faster, overriding the logic and reasoning of the upper route through the cerebral cortex, whose path it cuts off. It floods the blood with adrenalin stress hormones, which increase the heart and blood pressure rates. It activates the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system, which increases airflow to the lungs and redirects blood to the muscles, initiating the survival-promoting, fight-or-flight response. It drives the person’s response behavior, controlling him with floods of stress hormones to either combat or flee from the danger, real or perceived. It is reactive in nature. It creates, via the sympathetic division, a rupture in the autonomic system, which the parasympathetic division cannot counteract or reregulate, leaving the energy locked in. Because it cannot be discharged, later retriggerings create post-traumatic stress disorder.
Triggers are created by past unresolved, unprocessed, dangers, detriments, and traumas that proved threats to a person’s safety and survival at the time. They are replays of these earlier exposures and experiences. So powerful are they, that the person believes they are taking place right before his eyes. But they have several other aspects to them.
They are regressive. Once pulled, they activate a neuropathway between the original event and the current restimulating one, deluding the person into believing that he is once again of the same tool-less, powerless, resource-devoid age, and depositing him into a suspended-time reaction. A 50-year-old man, for instance, can be regressed to a five-year-old boy in a nanosecond, stripped of any of the capabilities he may have.
“The big adult in the world is still often at the mercy of these internal conditionings, no matter what her or his accomplishments, intelligence, or even self-confidence,” advises Richo (ibid, p. 23).
Triggers are incomplete. Aside form their regressive tendencies, they lack the feelings, emotions, and expressions that could have lessened their impact at the time of their original occurrence with exclamations such as “Oh, my God;” “Don’t hurt me;” “I’m scared to death;” “Why are you doing this to me;” and “I’m going to die.” Filling in those blanks now can ameliorate the physiological eruption.
The more the same trigger is pulled, the more automatic and hairpin it becomes, with ever-decreasing intervals between its activation, resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, in which the person is unable to clear the original reactive flooding from his system.
Triggers are timeless.
“The brain’s amygdala, part of our limbic system, stores original traumas and fear reactions with no sense of time, of impact, or of intervening years of growth and self-strengthening,” according to Richo (ibid, p. 41). “This is why triggers today can give us the sense that we are still as powerless as we were in childhood.”
Perhaps the ultimate-and frustrating-irony is that an external person, event, or circumstance pulls the trigger, but it goes off in someone else, and the catalyst is often blamed for doing so, as in “You hurt me” or “You caused me to scream.”
ADULT CHILD TRIGGERS:
Adult children who were raised by alcoholic, para-alcoholic, dysfunctional, and potentially abusive parents or primary caregivers and were thus exposed to unsafe and unstable environments are highly and sometimes chronically retriggerable-so much so, in fact, that their fear of “people, places, and things” encompasses everything in their lives. That they were unable to understand, protect themselves from, and escape such circumstances during powerless, undeveloped times and had little recourse but to squelch and swallow sometimes-volatile emotions, became the very reason their physical aspects developed into adults, but their souls and selves did not. Suffused with insecurities, doubts, and arrested development, they were forced to negotiate the world in such a debilitated state. Their reaction-prone tendencies, in fact, are stated at the beginning of every Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) twelve-step meeting.
“We lived life from the standpoint of victims,” according to the Adult Children of Alcoholics textbook (World Service Organization, 2006, p. 598). “Having an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, we preferred to be concerned with others rather than with ourselves. We get guilty feelings when we stand up for ourselves rather than giving in to others. Thus, we became reactors rather than actors, letting others take the initiative.”
“Actors” implies the positive, spontaneous emotional flow from the soul toward relationships and life’s events. But so mired in the past are they because of their insurmountable, bottled-up circumstances they could never resolve or even emotionalize, they often react, feeling, fearing, and viewing present-time conditions as if they were those that existed during their childhoods.
Continually replayed tapes that run in a loop they cannot exit from and contain their critical inner parents” voices are partially responsible for their reaction tendencies.
“This is the voice in our head that brings self-doubt and second-guessing from within,” the Adult Children of Alcoholics textbook continues (ibid, p. 48). “This is the voice that makes us rectors rather than thoughtful actors in relationships, work, and worship.”
One of the most powerful present-time triggers is the so-called “authority figure,” or the person whose physical appearance, mannerisms, voice tone, and societal role like police officer or employment boss suggests and restimulates his parent.
“Our childhood home was not supposed to be a hard-hat area,” Richo points out (op. cit., p. 60). “Distressing or abusive events that happened in early life can trigger us… We feel especially wounded by any trigger that taps into what is most unresolved from our interactions with our original caregivers.”
Triggers transcend time and transport a person to their origin, when no time at all was recorded during the brain’s off-line response to the danger.
“We are reacting not only to what is happening in the present moment, but also to the original transactions with our parents… ,” Richo continues (ibid, p. 60). “We see a parental face in the person in front of us. We are reacting as if the parent who triggered us long ago is triggering us again now.”
Triggers are certainly a part of one of the very adult child traits, which states, “Personal criticism we take as a threat.”
A parent’s harsh words or anger may well have preceded spankings or what the child then viewed as “justifiable punishment” for infractions he may never have been able to identify, lighting an anticipatory neuropathway that resulted in powerlessness, pain, and humiliation and hence was nothing short of the “threat” that was carried out on him.
“Our spectrum of attention from healthy, caring concern to unhealthy scrutinizing has been cut short,” advises Richo (ibid, p. 22). “We are able to feel only the negative end of it… We feel threatened and we react with the same fears we felt in childhood.”
Perhaps the ultimate trigger is the one that child represents to the parent himself who, ignorant of his own alcoholic or dysfunctional upbringing and in denial about his behavior, subconsciously acts out and attempts to finish it out on his own offspring, succumbing, almost like a string-pulled puppet, to his recorded, unresolved impulses and therefore serving as a link in the intergenerational chain of abuse.
To the parent, the child pulls his “shadow trigger.”
“… (A shadow trigger refers) to the unacceptable traits, desires, impulses, and attitudes in our personality that have been repressed, disavowed, and denied,” Richo explains (ibid, p. 59). “We do not want to admit we have what is called a ‘dark side.’ It remains unconscious. But when we see it in someone else, we react with criticism or anger. Actually, we are looking at another person as a mirror that forces us to see what we don’t want to see in ourselves.”
It is the helpless, abused child the parent once was that he sees in his own son or daughter. Triggered, he becomes victim to his impulses, transforming his child into the one he had been.
Although triggers and their resultant reactions constitute a proportionately higher percentage of an adult child’s life, everyone experiences them, and they vary in origin, severity, frequency, and duration. Nevertheless, like the needle of a compass, they point to a past experience that was not only potentially threatening, but was never identified and resolved.
“A triggering experience alerts us to a psychological issue in ourselves that needs to be addressed, processed, and resolved,” according to Richo (ibid, p. 10). “The trigger finger is especially our own when we simply let one triggering event after another occur, especially with the same person. He or she is not the cause of the trigger-only the catalyst. A trigger arouses, evokes, or induces; it does not produce.”
A recovering member of the Al-Anon twelve-step program echoes this sentiment.
“We need to recognize our own reactions,” she says in Hope for Today (Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 2002, p. 312). “Then we can decide whether we want to continue reacting in the same old ways or maybe we want to try something new.”
“Decide,” however, can only constitute the first step, since triggers are like playing with dynamite and the earlier their origin, the more explosive they become.
Only in twelve-step recovery, where a person places himself in the hands of a Higher Power, and in therapy with a trauma-trained professional who is versed in stabilizing the amygdala to avoid unnecessary restimulations, can a person slowly approach, process, and desensitize them to the point of nonrecurring extinction.
“Awareness releases us from the transferences of the past onto the present,” Richo concludes (ibid, p. 24). “We see how today’s trigger hearkens from the past.”
Adult Children of Alcoholics. Torrance, California; World Service Organization, 2006.
Ashwell, Ken. The Brain Book. Buffalo, New York: Firefly Books, 2012.
Hope for Today. Virginia Beach, Virginia: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 2002.
Richo, David. Triggers: How We Can Stop Reacting and Start Healing. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications, 2019.
Waldvogel, Robert G. The Emotional Aspects of Trauma. Course taught at the Thrive Recovery Community Outreach Center in Westbury, New York, on January 27, 2020.
Waldvogel, Robert G. Understanding the Brain and Trauma. EzineArticles. December 11, 2019.
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