Examining What “Triggered” Feels Like

In my Monday therapy session, E and I are exploring what it feels like to be triggered by a rupture in an important relationship.

“What’s the right word for what happens to trigger you?” E asks.

“Um… I guess it’s a sudden moment when I feel that the other person doesn’t understand after all, or doesn’t care, doesn’t think the relationship is important… or doesn’t think that I’m important,” I am searching for words, never having tried to name this thing before. “It’s as if the floor I was standing on suddenly disappeared, and I find I’m falling through empty air.”

“So a disruption of trust…” she muses.

“Yes, a breakdown, a rupture.” I only learned the term rupture after I experienced it in therapy, but it’s a good description of what happens. Something is broken–the trust, the safety, the sense of reliable connection.

We have initiated this conversation the week before, beginning to explore the feelings associated with being triggered and starting to obsess. (For now, we are specifically focusing on feeling triggered by a relationship rupture, not by a traumatic memory.) E invited me to dive deeper into this over the weekend, maybe by making a collage. I never fully got to the collage, but I have brought some potential pieces with me to today’s session, and I spread these out on the floor between us (yes, we still sit on the floor together in all our sessions, and I love the greater sense of intimacy that creates.)

not a collage 2 TD

“This is what it feels like,” I say, pointing to the intensely red monster face. “It’s intense and hot and all-consuming. It’s screaming and doesn’t allow me to set it aside to do something else.”

I pull out a few of the words I had selected for the collage-that-wasn’t: emergency, pain, severe, garbage…

E says it’s good to recognize that the alarm is something very primitive and basic, very young, like the screaming of an upset baby or wounded animal. In that moment, it is urgent, it is an emergency.

When I feel that, E tells me, I can say something empathic and kind, maybe: “Oh, my injured animal has come out,” or “Oh honey, you are so distressed!”

I frown and say, “The thing is, when I feel like that, I don’t have a lot of access to the wise part of myself that might talk like an empathic witness. I’m not in my frontal lobe any longer. It’s a physiological response, complete with a release of hormones and a lit-up primitive brain. The injured animal takes over my mind.”

She agrees and says that’s why calming down the body enough to remember the wise woman is an important first step. “Slow, focused breathing might help.”

Maybe, I think doubtfully.

“Cold water on the back of the neck,” she suggests next. “It brings you into the present moment.”

Perhaps. I haven’t tried that one before, so I’ll give it a chance.

I talk about one thing that can interfere with self-care when I’ve become super-reactive: my internal critic goes into overdrive and scolds me about being “immature” and “childish” and “making a big deal over nothing.” I can see, objectively, that I’m overreacting, and I feel embarrassed about that.

E points out all the judgment I’m bringing to the reactivity. We’ve talked so often about feelings just being feelings; they don’t carry any inherent goodness or badness to them. I don’t need to shame or blame myself for a “childish” feeling.

This might not sound like a big ‘aha’ moment to you, but to me, it felt like one. You mean to say getting triggered, becoming highly reactive, is not something wrong? It’s not something I need to work harder to fix? I could just accept it?

After we talk a bit more, I scribble some notes, and then say, “Okay, wait, let me see if I have this right…”

I read out what is for me a new way of looking at things: “There is nothing inherently terrible or even negative about breaches or ruptures in relationships. They happen between humans all the time. Because of my history, however, I am very reactive to those ruptures. They set of a physiological responses in me, which, given my history, is normal and not something I have to be embarrassed about.”

I look up, and E is nodding, so I keep going, “The physiological responses in turn can set off a lot of negative thinking and sometimes self-defeating behaviors. If I’m able to address the physical discomfort, it might help break some of the negative thinking and give some space for my wiser self to use coping strategies I have learned. It’s not always easy to do this, but I can get better with practice, over time. Also, things I practice when I’m not triggered, such as mindful meditation, make it easier for me to observe my emotions and thoughts without letting them take me over.”

It feels good to make those connections. They may all be things I have read before or heard E tell me before, but I don’t think they’ve come together for me before in such a coherent story that applied to me, personally.

It’s okay to be reactive sometimes. It doesn’t mean I’m broken or defective.

You may be rolling your eyes or shaking your head, thinking, “Oh come on Q, you are just now learning that?” Yes, I am just now learning it, learning it the deep way, in my heart, not just in my head. I am just now believing it. And it feels good.


  1. I can’t like this enough. It seems that whenever I’m going through something that your writing nearly perfectly describes what I’m feeling. On my way to therapy this week I began feeling overwhelmed. Everything and nothing. I get to her office and lay down on the floor. Maybe I cried but then I sat up, never looking at her and I can’t do this. Told her I needed to leave and walked out. That night I emailed her with the subject line “Next Week?” I still don’t know if we are on for next week because she never responded. That was Tuesday. I’m not emailing or texting again. It’s up to her and I’m just so flipping hurt. March (st. Patrick’s Day in particular) is a difficult month. She knows that but after all this time she is probably ready for me to move on. Ughhhh. Your words always help me. Not sure if I’m going to work through this rupture. I’m just feeling so done and it doesn’t matter because she doesn’t care or she’s just too busy. Evoking my wise women part is ever so difficult. Just breathe. Feel the pain. Accept these younger parts, my immaturities, my irritated state of being without judgement. It’s gonna be alright.
    You my dear, are making such great progress.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s okay that you felt overwhelmed. Given your past, it’s a normal reaction; you will feel like that sometimes. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It is a completely normal consequence of trauma. And it makes it hard for you to access all the wisdom you have within you.

      If you can remember that these intense, painful feelings will pass, that might be a consolation. I know sometimes in the middle of it, however, it doesn’t feel like it will ever end or like the rupture is reparable. That is your terrified brain talking to you. Its pain is very, very real, but that doesn’t mean that it necessarily assesses the current situation very accurately. It won’t appreciate having people argue with it, though. It just wants love and comfort.

      Sending warm hugs to that frightened part. May you find love and compassion for it. xxoo

      Liked by 1 person

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