March 1, 2019

How Can Mindfulness Help With Triggers?

By Dr. Manijeh Motaghy- Co-Founder of Perfectly Here, Founder of Mindful Business Institute and member of International Mindfulness Teachers Association.

How can Mindfulness help with triggers? First, it’s important to understand what a trigger is, how it is formed and its role in the present moment.
This morning while reading a group text with my family I got triggered. I felt fear and pain. My sister was talking about her 3 year old, beautiful Sofia, who has been ill now for 5 days. We all gave our motherly advice, lemon and honey, lukewarm bath, etc. She asked us to pray for little Sofia. Suddenly, I felt this immense feeling of sadness. It was overwhelming. It was the word, “pray.” No amount of prayer had helped me save my child. My heart felt broken. “What if she……” Dear God, I could not even imagine that line of thinking. It was grief that had hit me. I knew it. I let myself cry for 15 seconds. Then picked up the phone and talked with my older son. So, I can express my tenderness. While, he was so kind and compassionate, I realized that it was up to me to get myself together and come back to the present moment. The alternative was long conversations about wishing for this and that and listening to convincing reasons why I should be strong. None of which really helps grief.

Can we live a trigger-free life? We can do as close as possible!

Fortunately, with the development of the Mindful observer in me, I knew it was that word, “prayer,” related to the safety of a child, which alerted my fear center and from there triggered unbearable sadness felt by loss and grief. The same Mindful observer could tell me that nothing was happening in that moment. That this is an occurring and passing emotion. That if not careful, it can push me into the victim loop and trap me in prolonged suffering.

So, how does it work? How can Mindfulness help with triggers?

Often, I teach my therapist students to use caution with the word “trigger.” I encourage them to help their clients understand that it is not some permanent state of mind they are stuck with. This is important because, often people use the concept of being triggered to justify their own pain and or justify the harm they can cause others. The fact is that triggers are related to the past experiences. These experiences are recorded by the brain in the memory system for future use.

What are some facts about triggers:

  1. Triggers contain Memory and Emotion related to life events in the past. You experienced something in the past that accompanied some kind of emotion. This could be positive or negative. Painful or pleasurable. Exciting or frightening. Loving or hateful. It matters not. The memory system record all our experiences. The main reason for this is learning, so that we won’t have to re-learn everything from scratch.
  2. The old brain (Amygdala), who is in charge of saving our lives, also keeps a record of all strategies we used in the past in reaction to threatening situations so it can use it again to save us. From the amygdala’s point of view, we are alive. Therefore, for example, the screaming we did as a 7 year old must have worked. The running out of the room we did when 26 must have saved our life. The laughing or joking around we did when we felt embarrassed must have been effective. Again, because we did not die during those unpleasant or threatening experiences, then they must be great ways of dealing with them.
  3. The old brain is not well-integrated with the prefrontal cortex, which is the rational, cognitive, attentive part of the brain. Therefore, it does not incorporate intelligence and rationality. It takes all unpleasant experiences as life threatening and releases cortisol or stress hormones into the body so that the person would act to save him/herself.
  4. Along with the emotion and strategy used, the brain also records thought or story (perception) related to the past events and brings it up to explain what is happening in the present moment.
  5. Another aspect kept in the memory system for future use is sense experiences, such as through our 8 senses of smell, sound, sight, touch, taste, inner experiences like pain in the back or other feelings and our sense of the outside world.
  6. Hence, the smallest component of any of the above parts could trigger (touch something from the past).
  7. Science tells us that our brain takes care of 95% of whatever we need to take care of in our lives. Therefore, we live mostly on autopilot, unaware of the process of our minds and where we are in time and place.
  8. Unfortunately, when we are not aware and unable to distinguish between the past and the present we fall trap into the unintelligent abyss of the memory system, the amygdala’s memory system and suffer the consequences.

How Can Mindfulness Help Disarm Triggers?

With Mindfulness practice, one can develop the skill to detach from painful past events. There is some space available to the one who experiences the present moment. In that space, the person can pull him or herself out of the vortex and back to the present moment. This ability can prevent major issues, conflicts and enable the person to be rational and calm. Not to believe all stories and emotions as if they were absolutely true, cause and justification for actions and reactions. There is where freedom arises. Freedom from the impact of the past. So, I suggest all therapists and mental health professionals to be careful when working with their clients. Therapists to use the term “trigger” with an  explanation that the client is not stuck with triggers. And not to use “triggers” as permission to act unskillfully towards oneself and others.

I would love to hear your thoughts and questions.

For more expert blogs and Dr. Motaghy’s writings go to: