Become a member of Allies in Recovery and we’ll teach you how to intervene, communicate and guide your loved one toward treatment.Become a member of Allies in Recovery today.

Trigger Happy

Angry steam coming out of ears

What does it mean to be “triggered?”

For me, being triggered means something (or someone) has hit nerve. An emotional bruise has been poked, exposing a place of deep sensitivity. In some way a “button has been pushed.” I’m then launched into upset, stress, grief, anger, road rage, fear, insecurity, jealousy, etc.

Large triggers cause fight or flight or recurring symptoms of PTSD.

In the days before I aggressively did the work to calm my life, being triggered resulted in a bad mood that might last hours and even days. I was also triggered to feel despair, worry and bewilderment.

I no longer allow people or circumstances to take the reins emotionally, but it was a struggle for years, particularly when my life involved crisis.

I know that I am not alone. To prepare for our most recent Coming Up for AiR podcast on the subject of triggers, I took to the public to ask:

"What do you do when you’re triggered?"

Here is a selection of the answers I got:

Eat, watch TV, write songs, play guitar or listen to music. 

I tend to want a drink.

Go quiet, internalize my feelings until the burn is gone. Call and confide in someone trustworthy. 

One person elaborated and said “I’m at a point in my life where I know it’s best not to react, but my ego initially doesn’t want me to turn the other cheek. So I will plot all kinds of juicy, painful, brutal revenge. Then in an hour or so I remember I am supposed to be an adult and I always let it go. I believe we reap what we sow and I never want to be on the hook for some childish revenge.” 

One man told me “I find a distraction, call and bullsh*t with a friend, or listen to music.” 

A local Mom said “I eat lots of sweets! My daughter’s addiction caused me to pack on 20 extra pounds!” 


Even therapists get triggered

A therapist once described a habit to me that he turns to in moments of emotional triggering: ordering items online and then tracking their delivery progress obsessively. He explains that he usually indulges in this behavior to avoid some uncomfortable feeling. Perhaps he was needing to have a conversation with a colleague that might get heavy and is dreading it. “Ahhh, now would be the perfect time to order a new book on therapy!” He thinks out loud.

“It really doesn’t matter what’s causing my discomfort, this is almost always my go-to response” he told me, “Even though I am a therapist, like anyone, I can l get triggered. I have to remind even myself that what’s healthiest is to stop and just be with whatever I’m feeling.”

The vicious circle of triggers

Being triggered tends to kick us into procrastination and distractions.

When painfully triggered, I used to do all of that and then some. There were times for example, when I found myself triggered or knew I needed to face something difficult and deal with it. Before doing so, I would instead scroll mindlessly through social media. I would most often come across something that made me feel sorry for myself, insecure, frustrated or negative in some way.

I would then loathe myself for not only delaying what I needed to face, but also for procrastinating and causing myself to fester in gross energy.

These days, mindfulness and wisdom usually prevail. Now if something causes heat for me (when I’m able), I pull away for a few minutes to walk my dog, usually whispering what I am grateful for in order from A to Z. That never fails to calm my thoughts.

I also apply the “90-second rule” when I feel a nerve has been struck. Meaning, I pull away from whatever is triggering me for a 90-second break. Stepping away to refocus puts me in a different chemical and emotional space.

I am then much more clear and better able to deal with the issue at hand. Or maybe, not deal. If it’s something that doesn’t deserve a response, I find taking a break can give me clarity enough to not engage hostile situations that are best left to themselves.

One thing we can count on in life is this: triggers will always present themselves. Having a planned response will minimize regret over mishandling them.

Suggested responses for when triggers occur:

Deep breathing – Take a step back in the midst of the situation and inhale a four count breath, hold it for two counts and exhale it for four counts. Do this five or six times. This breathing technique floods peace and oxygen to our extremities and sets us on neutral just long enough so that we don’t rush too easily into madness with anyone. If I’m still surging with adrenaline I will do another set or take a walk alone, before allowing myself to react or make any decisions.

Get moving – Having a normal exercise schedule has many benefits. Additionally, when triggered, finding a hallway or a room you can go to and be alone for a minute or two and do 10-20 jumping jacks, will boost positive energy.

Five senses – Look around you and identify 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste.

Write it down, rip it up – When you are able, write down what you are feeling and why, what you feel like doing, what you hope happens (even if it’s evil in the moment, evil thoughts do not make you evil, acting on them is what gets us in trouble!) and then dispose of what you wrote.

A moment of gratitude stop to remind yourself of 3 things you are grateful for. Gratitude shifts energy.

Lift someone’s spirits give a sincere compliment via card, call, email or text to someone who might need some kind, uplifting words.

Again, triggers will always present themselves. It even happens to therapists. Instead of running with them, now I acknowledge them. “Oh, hi trigger, it’s you again. I need to get to a calm, peaceful place before I respond.”

Applying this in the moment is the key. It’s a process. Growth is always painful at first, but the acquired strength, peace and serenity is well worth the effort.

“And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to bloom.” Anaïs Nin


More on the subject of Triggers in the podcast “Coming Up for Air." 

Annie Highwater is a Writer, Speaker, Podcast Host and Family Advocate. She has a particular interest in family pathology and concepts of dysfunction, addiction, alcoholism and conflict. Annie published her memoir, Unhooked: A Mother’s Story of Unhitching from the Roller Coaster of Her Son’s Addiction, in 2016. Her story sheds light on the personal challenges facing the affected parents and family members, and illustrates how family dynamics both help and hinder the recovery process. Annie’s second book, Unbroken, Navigating the Madness of Family Dysfunction, Addiction, Alcoholism and Heartache was published in August of 2018. She resides in Columbus, Ohio and enjoys writing, long distance running, hiking, the great outdoors and visiting her son in California as often as possible.



In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)