Over the past several months Custom Counselling blog has looked at the beginning links in the LIFE EXPERIENCE CHAIN. This month we will discuss TRIGGERS and how they can impact a person.


A trigger is something that sets off an old memory tape. Triggers are encountered through the five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. A message is sent to the brain which then recreates a situation or scene from your memory. The memory can take you “in a time machine” back to the original event and you can think, feel and react just as you did back then.


Here’s an exercise to do … as you read each of the following words, jot down the first thing that comes into your mind.

Snow _____. Car ________. Police _________. Christmas __________. Cigarette ________.

Bath _________ Teddy bear __________.


What were your reactions? There will be different responses from different people to the same word. This is because a stimulus affects no two people in the same way. Our perceptions do not come from what we see; they come from within us. We do not see with the eye (physical) as much as with the I (ego, our experience that makes up who we are). For example, with “Snow” you might have responded cold, tobogganing, crunch, getting stuck, snowman, wearing boots, Christmas, … a variety of responses, some pleasant, some unpleasant, some involving more than one of your senses, all involving memories from the past.


For people who have been traumatized, triggers reactivate memories of when you were vulnerable physically or psychologically. When your computer brain brings this all up on your memory screen, you begin your series of self defeating, illogical thoughts based on your irrational beliefs about yourself, your abilities, about other people, and about life. The resulting feelings kick in and then you are in the frame of mind where you feel unprotected and respond accordingly. This process of trigger >> thought >> feeling >> behaviour can occur quickly or it may develop at a slower pace. You can also trigger yourself by ruminating or reflecting on the past, calling up certain scenes from your memory.


Here are some examples of how the senses can trigger:


  • You see a man wearing suspenders walking towards you >> trigger >> you were assaulted a few years ago by a male wearing suspenders.
  • Your neighbour’s Christmas tree has flashing lights >> trigger >> the night your husband asked for a divorce you were sitting at home watching the blinking Christmas tree lights.


  • You hear a car door slam >> trigger >> your dad is home; now comes a beating
  • You hear sirens >> trigger >> the police frequently came to your house to break up a fight between your parents.


  • You attend a seminar and someone sits down beside you wearing Old Spice aftershave >> trigger >> your uncle who sexually molested you wore Old Spice.
  • You smell the smoke while driving home past a burning house >> trigger >> your family weren’t able to reach your little brother in the house fire.


  • While shopping, your arm accidently brushes against a silk dress in the store >> trigger >> your mom used to tie your hands together with silk scarves for hours when you misbehaved.
  • A friend teasingly tugs at your hair >> trigger >> your foster parents used to drag you around by the hair whenever they were drunk.


  • At a party you pop a potatoe chip in your mouth then realize it’s a salt and vinegar chip >> trigger >>  your babysitter used to make you drink vinegar.
  • Your friend made a casserole with peas in it >> trigger >> you had to eat them even if you vomited as a result, and then got a spanking for vomiting.


When you are triggered, you will respond in a way that may have been appropriate then (at the time of the initial event), but not now at the time of the trigger.


An important factor to know is this: have you been triggered (a memory of something from the past) or is this something happening now? The analogy I like to use is the fire alarm. When the alarm rings at the fire station, they do not know whether it is a real fire or a false alarm but the fire personnel get on the fire truck and respond regardless. If it is a real fire, they attend to it by putting out the fire; if it is a false alarm, they get back on the truck and return to the fire station.

Likewise it is with your brain. It receives a signal from one of your 5 senses and responds to that. Your brain doesn’t know whether it is a real situation or not so it alerts you anyway (sets off the alarm). You now have to determine whether this is a situation occurring right now (a real fire) or a trigger (false alarm). If it is a real circumstance, then you need to deal with what is happening (put the fire out); if it is a trigger (false alarm) there is no fire to put out so you deal with the trigger (go back to the fire station).


Next month we will look at how to manage triggers. In the meantime, try to start identifying your own specific triggers. This will help when determining what method you will use in managing them.


What sights trigger me? Why is this a trigger?

What sounds trigger me? Why is this a trigger?

What smells trigger me? Why is this a trigger?

What touch triggers me? Why is this a trigger?

What tastes trigger me? Why is this a trigger?


Reactions in the past don’t have to continue in the future.

Choose today to start making changes. Change will occur as you continue to:

  • Identify what your triggers are.
  • Recognize how you respond to those triggers.
  • Be receptive to trying new ways of managing the triggers.  


Judith S. Carscadden