What’s Your Trigger?

I know the panic which rises, gripping and pulsating, when a certain number flickers on the phone. I am a well-seasoned avoider as my heart races and I wait for voicemail, confident I am in trouble. I stall. Do laundry. Later, I listen.

The same anxiety wakes me on days I meet with her. Well before the sun rises, my stomach begins its tumult, flooded with adrenaline, fueled by an incoherent fear. Because no matter the voicemail, no matter the meeting’s topic, I am never in trouble. Ever. She thinks the world of me, yet evokes such a visceral response I grow ill.

I endure this crazy for years while wondering its source; Until I begin preparing for a trip back to a time and place when another woman triggered similar panic. Suddenly, finally, I realize how alike they are. The firm, set way in which they share opinions. The sweet salty manner of disagreeing with me. The method of inviting participation while maintaining control. And with the former woman, the one whom I would vividly recall on my trip down memory lane, I was always in trouble.

My recent panic has nothing to do with the present day person, but everything to do with the one from before.

I wonder how many of us struggle with these current triggers unaware of their source? The marital fights over seemingly benign things: he gets uncharacteristically angry when the fridge is empty because deep down are unprocessed emotions from his childhood home, with its little food and arguments over money and diminished father. Her blood rises on the playground and with every emotional recounting of the day from her five-year-old, not remembering, but feeling, all the playgrounds and lunchrooms in all the new schools she entered as a child.

We are an undigested people, latent with memory and emotion whose roots rear their heads in the most unexpected ways. Like stomach aches before meetings and avoiding phone calls. If we do not deal with the before, will we fully move beyond?

I’ve never been to a counselor, but I’m married to one. I think this counts. He’s taught me the importance of story. He’s shown me the value of metabolizing our narrative, digesting the themes and making sense of the bits and pieces that make up our lives. Together, we’ve seen the power of naming the before and truly moving beyond.

We’ve named the rather humorous: fear fills us when we go through airport security and passport control from years of missionary life in the Middle East. And we’ve named the painful: a recent question to his mom surfaced a litany of her memories about his disabled sister, to the exclusion of him, poking at all the wounds of feeling unknown by his own family.

In the beautiful mess of daily life, memory abounds. If we allow it. If we allow our heart to see past the triggered response and if we are able to read our own narrative.

I am the new girl on the playground: Exclusion is my fear. I am the micro-managed teammate: False-stepping is my fear. I am the missionary in a Muslim world: Power and authority still make me cower.

What’s your before?

When we’re able to name the trigger, it’s hold on us releases. I may still tear up when my youngest feels rejected at recess or wait for the call to go to voicemail before screening it, but these emotions no longer rule me without domain. I can handle a few tears or a little uncertainty when I know what’s going on. I’m not crazy. It’s not that time of the month. Nothing drastic has to occur, like we change schools or I quit the team.

It’s going to be okay.

Because I’ve metabolized these memories. I’ve chewed them over and chewed them up and given them a place in my story. They aren’t erased or thrown out, they’ve shaped me and belong. They get to stay. But they stay on my terms.

I’ve moved beyond.

Until the next trigger.

Beth Bruno

Founder & Director at A Face to Reframe
Beth Bruno is working to uncover the glory of girls through her work to prevent human trafficking and raise strong daughters. Her work has appeared at Relevant, Today's Christian Woman and The Well. She is a proud member of Redbud Writer's Guild and can be found at www.afacetoreframe.org or www.bethbruno.org or in the mountains of Colorado with her husband and 3 kids.

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  • Joanne Peterson

    This is worded beautifully. It is indeed true that the memories don’t have to trigger us, and we can tell our limbic system we are safe now, there is not a threat, this event is in our past. I like the story telling you refer to. Very good piece. Joanne

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  • Satya

    I have known my Before, the struggle is the Trigger is so immediate and spontaneous, though I face it, cant seem to handle it, like spewing a tone that is so strong and harsh for my little beings. In those moments I and they both know its not theirs, and that its not mine as it was only passed on while a child, would really love to not get triggered, how can I easily assimilate and move on, own it in a detached, respectful way? Thanks so much, I was asking for answers and got to get into the Mud for the cleansing. Love.

  • I love this way of looking at the not so pleasant memories – “They aren’t erased or thrown out, they’ve shaped me and belong. They get to stay. But they stay on my terms.” They have helped shape us but they don’t define us. We choose how we use them as we tell our stories. It really does help when we can identify the triggers and then move through them.