Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Psychology of "triggers"

In psychology, triggers are events that elicit a response. Clinicians often focus on helping people recognize triggers or events that appear to produce a distressing response as if they had stepped on a mine that triggered an explosion.

People, places, films, songs, smells, words, and many other stimuli can trigger a response or a chain of responses. Some trigger-response pairs are innate like cringing in response to loud noises. But the relatively benign triggers may come to elicit extreme responses following traumatic experiences. For example, my mother was trapped under the stairs when a bomb exploded near our house. She remained hyper-reactive to fireworks, thunder, and gun shots throughout her life.

Although the concept of triggers is often associated with recognizing and coping with events that are upsetting. A different perspective would be to view triggers as those stimuli that routinely elicit a response or chain of responses. In high school, a few of us knew what questions to ask to get a particular teacher off topic, which we often did just to make class more interesting.

A variety of events can elicit pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant reactions. And, the same event may affect different people in different ways. A beach scene with ocean waves may trigger pleasant memories, a smile, and good feelings in some, but remind others of some horrible event. In fact, depending on context, the same stimulus may be perceived as pleasant in one context but obnoxious in another. Certain words are accepted as pleasant teasing from a friend but may trigger anger when coming from a stranger.

Powerful triggers can affect many aspects of our core self. Using the SCOPES model, we can think of a hypothetical response set of a person who survived a mass shooting in church.

Potential triggers could be someone who looked like the shooter, the sounds of gun shots, people who look like those who did not survive, news stories or movies of similar events, and churches.

Hypothetical responses to a trigger of surviving a mass shooting in church
Cry for help. Anger with God.
Recurrent images of the horrid event
Overt Behavior
Tensing muscles, closing eyes as if to avoid the image
Increased heart rate
Fear, anger
Social context
Response worsens in church setting

Psychotherapists have helped people recognize triggers of distressing responses and reduce the impact.

Developing life enhancing characteristics may help "trigger" positive rather than negative responses.

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