Ep. 150: Triggers and Building Resilience

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Are we obsessed with trigger warnings and being too sensitive? This is an active debate, and one we explore on this episode.  


A few weeks ago on the Rebel Buddhist podcast, we chatted about Shadows and how we can identify our shadows by noticing when we’re activated by someone before we even really know them. And more recently than that, we jammed on the word “trauma” and whether that word has been overused. Both of these definitely relate to today’s topic, triggers.  


While we tend to be more aware of triggers and what they may be for us, they also give us insight into our internal process and what’s going on inside us. 


Because we all come with our own stories, experiences, and self-image, we can all get triggered. It’s the nature of our existence. And many of the things that contribute to those triggers are hidden from us, especially when we’re living life on autopilot, doing things we aren’t even fully conscious of. 


So, what exactly happens when we’re triggered (I like to say “activated” as I think it’s more accurate) and we feel that energy surge, agitation, or confusion? Well, it’s different for everyone, but all in all it’s an activation of our nervous system, our trauma response, and it’s often scary or really uncomfortable. 


But what’s also actually happening is that our inner healing wisdom is saying, “Hey – wake the f*ck up and notice this. There’s something here that we need to pay attention to and heal.” 


Here’s an analogy to help us understand and properly address when we feel this activation: the physical trigger of a weapon. That trigger is a small piece of a larger weapon, like a loaded gun. The more dangerous part is the bullet and the explosive inside the weapon, right? So, we could focus on that little trigger…or we could put our attention on the whole mechanism.  


In the same way, if we get triggered, it’s because we are a gun ready to fire. There this explosive material in us that we’ve carried all our life. And the potential here is to get curious about what the ammunition inside of us is, instead of focusing on that little trigger. 


Now I’m sure many of you are aware of the concept of a “trigger warning,” like on social media videos when someone is going to talk about a topic that may trigger a viewer. And they can be helpful because sometimes even when we’re aware of our triggers and we’re doing the work, we don’t want to “have” to do it when we’re not prepared and our nervous systems can take us by surprise. 


But how can we all be more resilient when we walk around the world – trigger warnings or not? Because for the most part, when we are activated, we aren’t expecting it. 


One step we can take is that we can remove the armor that we’re using to try to shield us from those triggers – constantly trying to protect ourselves from being hurt by avoiding potentially hurtful situations – and instead live in vulnerability. This is easier said than done, but when we can do this, we can also get to the root of the problem and start to help our trauma heal, taking back our power in the process. 


So when we’re activated and triggered, it’s a great time to turn the focus back onto ourselves. We can ask ourselves, “What’s all this about for me?” This is a way for us to take responsibility in an empowered and self-compassionate way – not a judgmental way. 


Early in our marriage, my husband would forget to do things he said he would do, or he would break a promise. And oh my GODDESS I would get so activated. Then my reaction would usually be disproportionate to that event, even if I didn’t feel it was at the time. I felt every rage event was valid…and while others may have agreed that it was valid, the main point was I didn’t have access to other ways of responding when I was activated. I had decreased response flexibility. 


Over time (lots of time), as I owned my role in the challenges in our relationship, I began to see that it was possible that it could both could be true: It could be true that he was letting me down AND that my response was disproportionate and not how I wanted to show up. That took a sh*tton of mindfulness, and my meditation practice was key in seeing it. 


There isn’t anything wrong with being triggered. It’s something that just happens to all of us; a part of our humanity. AND every time we are triggered, we have options with how we respond: 


We can fight/flee/freeze/fawn… get away from who or whatever triggered us. Withdraw. 


OR – we can stay with the emotion and allow it, experience it, work with it. Get to the juicy bits of it. Dive into self-inquiry. 


If we do the first thing – attack or withdraw – we’re perpetuating our role as a victim. 


But we have the option – the opportunity – instead to consider that every time we get upset by somebody or something, a part of us has guided us there because there’s something we need to learn, and we can use it as a chance to learn more about our inner world and what we need. 


There’s a Tibetan buddhist practice where we actually PRAY for challenges – that we have just the right degree of suffering to awaken. There is wisdom in that practice, knowing that when we work with suffering, we can progress on our path of awakening. 


That doesn’t mean no boundaries, tolerating abuse, or not engaging in self care. It means using our suffering, when it arises and when we have self-compassion in place, to awaken us on the path. 


And what if, after we’ve engaged in our self-compassion and related our nervous system, we could entertain the possibility of being grateful for the challenge? What if we could get curious about that? 


Usually this inquiry leads us to realizing we have wounds involving our self worth and livability. But when we choose to focus on that instead of controlling triggers, then we have access to different responses. 


If I was able to do this and over time learn to fully connect to and know my worth and value as a human being, then my husband could forget to do something and I’d see that whoa there’s that wound of mine again. And instead of raging, I could get curious about what I need to take care of myself, and even maybe have the bandwidth to get curious about what’s going on for him. 


I could look at the situation from a place of compassion – for myself and him. And not come from rage, which didn’t feel good to me. 


So there are other options to the activators when we have that freedom of response flexibility that healing can bring us. 


Resilience, which is when we can bounce back better, is the capacity to not be devastated by an experience, like triggers. In a human being, it’s a relational setting that cultivates this. We have relationships with people – like our parents – that help us gain resilience by mirroring our self worth and loveability. 


But as we all painfully know, human relationships are imperfect, so of course we’ll mess up and get messed up by them. However, we can heal them, and the path is often one of deep learning and growth, and that’s one of the blessings of being human. 


So you’re not alone in being triggered. It’s not unhealthy. It’s challenging. In all of us there a wholeness available. A Buddha nature. No one is inherently broken. 


We have the capacity to build resilience to our triggers. We can know we have these wounds within us that we are trying to protect from the world. And we can make requests and use discernment with what we expose ourselves to as we heal. 


AND when we do get triggered, we have the option to – once we’ve generated self-compassion and engaged in self-care – to take the u-turn and get curious about our internal experience. We can ask ourselves, “What do I need right now? What are my tender spots, my wells that need filling? What wound was just touched and how can I tend to that … myself?” 


When others get triggered, we can also remember my favorite quote my Ram Das, “We are all walking each other home.” Ah yes sister, yes brother, yes friend…yes beloved… I see you, I have been there too. 


You will learn: 

// Why and when we become triggered in the first place 

// Are trigger warnings useful and necessary? Or potentially enabling? 

// How to use mindfulness practices to realize our triggers 

// Two ways we can respond when triggered, and which way leads to healing 

// How creating resilience can help us when triggered 

// The balance between protecting ourselves from excessive activation, and using challenges as opportunities for growth 



// Episode 145: Your Wild Mind – The West & Our Shadows 


// Episode 146: Suffering vs Trauma 


// Rayya Elias & Elizabeth Gilbert: “Sex, Drugs & Hair” 


// If you’re new to the squad, grab the Rebel Buddhist Toolkit I created at RebelBuddhist.com. It has all you need to start creating a life of more freedom, adventure, and purpose. You’ll also get access to the Rebel Buddhist private group, and tune in every Wednesday as I go live with new inspiration and topics. 


// Want something more self-paced with access to weekly group support? Check out Freedom School – the community for ALL things related to freedom, inside and out. Learn more at JoinFreedomSchool.com. I can’t wait to see you there!