In this episode, I explore:
Different kinds of survival threats
What triggers are
How we get triggers
Why triggers are a good thing
Explicit vs Implicit memory
Minding the Gap
How to help others when they are triggered
And so much more...
There are TWO transcripts after the video (below). The FIRST transcript is of the onscreen text in the video. The SECOND transcript is of the spoken words. So if you just want to listen and then circle back later to scan the additional text elements here, I have made that easy.
Thanks, as always, for your time and attention. I hope you find this informative and/or helpful.
TRANSCRIPT 1: Onscreen Text Transcript
THE INSIDE OUT – Understanding Trauma Triggers & "Minding the Gap."
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings, perspectives, and experiences of others.
Triggers refer to stimuli or cues that activate a person's instinctive or automatic response to a perceived threat.
Triggers do not require and actual threat to be present in order to create a survival response. As far as the body is concerned, perception is reality.
Because of their profound strength, triggers often cannot be “talked down” or reasoned with by outsiders.
Perceived threats to survival come in lots of different shapes and sizes.
Threats need not be limited to the presence of a literal monster or predator.
- Emotional abuse
- Loss of faith
- Spiritual abuse
- Loss of community
- Intellectual suppression
- Denial of education
- Discrimination based
on ethnicity, nationality,
- Natural disasters
- Exposure to toxins
- Unsafe living conditions.
- Job loss
- Financial instability
- Chronic illness
- Suppression of
- Explicit content
- Artificial intelligence
Survival threats may affect far more than our physical safety. Things like self-esteem, belonging, freedom, autonomy, power, and the ability to self-direct also hang in the balance.
While psychological threats may not pose immediate or direct physical harm, they can contribute to a cascade of effects that can impact our overall well-being, including our physical health and safety.
Additionally, threats to these social and psychological needs can influence our ability to navigate and respond to physical threats effectively.
Triggers can develop through various mechanisms, and they are often associated with past traumatic experiences or significant emotional events.
It is possible and common to also develop triggers by witnessing the traumatic experiences of others, especially if the observer feels deeply identified with the individual or group being affected.
Research suggests that the impact of trauma may be transmitted across generations.
Epigenetics is a field exploring how environmental factors can influence gene expression without changing the underlying DNA sequence.
If trauma can be transferred across generations, then it is conceivable that an individual may experience survival responses that they cannot personally understand as part of their own story.
Without survival responses such as triggers, it is likely that the human species would not have survived throughout evolutionary history.
Through pejorative use, the word “trigger” has itself become triggering as it has been used to shame the natural survival response to trauma.
You may find it is helpful to think of triggers using different words like:
Explicit vs Implicit Memory
Explicit memory, refers to the conscious and intentional recall of facts, events, experiences, or
knowledge that can be consciously retrieved and verbalized.
Implicit memory refers to the unconscious or automatic memory processes that influence our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors without conscious awareness or intentional retrieval.
With its unconscious nature, implicit memory poses challenges to the concept of "free will" because much of our behavior is driven by unconscious processes.
How we can make truly free choices if we are not fully aware of the factors influencing our actions?
In the field of psychology, secondary emotions are emotions that are experienced as a reaction or response to a primary emotion. Primary emotions are typically more basic and immediate, such as fear, sadness, or happiness.
By analyzing our secondary responses, we may be able to understand them more-fully, thus
allowing ourselves the possibility to craft new secondary responses
which may serve us better.
A word about “trigger warnings”...
While trigger warnings are intended to provide a heads-up about potentially distressing content, they may not be effective or could have negative effects.
Here are some reasons why trigger warnings might not work or could be considered harmful:
Excessive exposure to warnings may impede the development of coping mechanisms that are necessary for managing one’s own triggers.
Trigger warnings may encourage avoidance behaviors, where people actively avoid situations or topics that make them uncomfortable. This promotes isolation.
Avoidance can impede personal growth, limit exposure to different perspectives, and hinder the development of resilience.
Setting of unrealistic expectations:
Warnings may sometimes create an expectation that life can and should be free from triggers or discomfort. This can serve to promote false security over personal growth.
Research suggests that avoidance- based strategies, such as trigger warnings, might exacerbate anxiety and other mental health issues.
Encouraging individuals to confront and process distressing material in a supportive environment can be more beneficial in the long term.
While it is important to support one another’s experiences, we must each manage our own trauma and develop strategies for navigating potentially triggering situations.
Believing our loved ones can achieve this for themselves and making sure to help them to get there is far more dignifying than offering to forever “chew their food” for them.
How to “Mind the Gap” for others:
- Give the gift of time and space.
- Withhold your “need” to be heard.
- Resist your own egoic urges.
- Respect all ages equally.
- Remember, a better time will come.
Thank you for listening!
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TRANSCRIPT 2: Spoken Word Transcript
Welcome to The Inside Out. I'm Luke Renner.
I'm a storyteller, a filmmaker and a trauma survivor. While I am not a therapist or a doctor, I do believe in the power of overcoming shame, finding courage and speaking through our fears. I produce this program to bring what's hidden inside out into the light, making the unspool knowable, spoken and the unknowable known. Together, we can feel less isolated, be seen and gain better understanding from others, and ultimately, and most importantly, from ourselves.
In part one, I talk about finding the courage to face your trauma and this concept I have developed called “The Myth of Special Wounding.” In this episode, which is part two, I'm going to talk about understanding trauma triggers and “Minding the Gap,” another little fun concept that I came up with that helps me. And then in part three, I'm going to discuss how to break free from your past and this idea I call “The Great Uncoupling.”
So, let's get started. So, in the previous episode, which is part one of this three-part series, I was sharing a story about how this friend of mine was experiencing the rage and the avoidance that her friend was putting on her, any time she would try to share with him about how she thought maybe some of his childhood junk was affecting his ability to be connected to his kids now. He just didn't have any room for that in his life.
Now, without getting back into the ideas behind the myth of special wounding, if you want to hear about that, check out the last episode if you haven't already. Broadly speaking, for this episode, I think it's safe to say that this friend of hers, this man that she knows, was feeling very triggered whenever she would challenge him concerning these particular issues that he was having because the issues were so intimately connected to his own personal trauma history.
It makes sense.
I would wager that a lot of my listeners are pretty up to speed on this idea. This is not a hard thing to wrap your head around.
From time to time, when trying to help someone we love with their problems, each of us may encounter these trauma triggers, or you could call them trauma “buttons” if you like… this idea of saying, you know, pushing someone's buttons. We've probably all said that at some point or another. And this can be a really frustrating experience.
On the one hand, as the person who loves the person we're trying to help, we know that we have our loved one’s best interests at heart. But on the other hand, it just doesn't matter what we want. These triggers will not allow our good intentions to break through, to take root, or to materialize.
In these moments of relational crisis or conflict, when my best intentions trigger the very same person who I am trying to help, I find that it can be a really great opportunity to employ my own sense of empathy and self-understanding toward the problem. So rather than allowing myself to become highly emotional in defense of my own good intentions, going dreadfully wrong, I like to take a moment to remember what triggers are all about in the first place.
When we get triggered, this is an automated and, at least initially, an unconscious element of our biological survival response, where our body is attempting to protect itself from a perceived threat or danger in the environment.
Now, it's really important to stress the word “perceived” here, because as far as the body's sense of survival is concerned, perception is reality. It does not matter if there isn't an actual threat or danger in the environment. If the body believes there is, then the body reacts as if there is. And when that happens, the individual's felt experience of threat or danger is 100% present and real, period. The outside observer doesn't get to say, “Nuh uh!” It doesn't work that way. It'd be nice if it did. It doesn't.
I do think it's also important to understand that when I say “threat,” this does not have to mean predator. Threats come in all shapes and sizes.
So, for example, let me give you a list:
These may include things like emotional abuse, manipulation or gaslighting.
Speaking of emotions, there are EMOTIONAL THREATS, things like rejection, shame, humiliation, isolation.
There can be SPIRITUAL THREATS, things like a loss of faith, spiritual abuse, or feelings of disconnection from one's beliefs or one's community.
There are INTELLECTUAL THREATS, things like censorship, intellectual suppression, or denial of education.
SOCIAL THREATS are real. Things like bullying, harassment, discrimination or exclusion.
ETHNIC THREATS are very real and present for lots of people. Things like racism, xenophobia or other forms of discrimination that are based on ethnicity, nationality or culture.
There are ENVIRONMENTAL THREATS. Natural disasters come to mind, exposure to toxins or pollutants or unsafe living conditions.
ECONOMIC THREATS. Hello? Poverty, job loss, financial instability.
MEDICAL THREATS. Oh, my God! Like, how many things fall into this category? Chronic illness, injury, disability. There are so many things that qualify as a medical threat to our brains and bodies.
POLITICAL THREATS. These can include things like oppression, censorship, suppression of individual rights and freedoms.
And let's not forget about TECHNOLOGICAL THREATS... things like cyberbullying, online harassment, exposure to violent or disturbing content online or the slow creep of artificial intelligence as it increasingly threatens our ability to earn a living wage.
And that's just some of the threats in the environment. All of these things can have a profound impact on an individual's self-esteem or sense of belonging. They can impact an individual's sense of freedom or autonomy. They can contribute to feelings of helplessness, feelings of isolation. They can make us feel that we will be unable to provide for ourselves or our families.
So even without a big scary monster or a T-Rex or something hiding out underneath our beds, the world is filled to overflow with legitimate threats that matter to all kinds of people
for all kinds of reasons. And they matter to you too.
So how do we get triggers? Quite often triggers are developed from earlier traumatic experiences in our lives. For example, trauma that may have happened to you directly, or perhaps you gained a trigger by watching something traumatic happening to an individual or to a group or something else outside of yourself.
So, the brain can construct these defensive scripts even through empathetic experiencing, which, if we're being honest, is a pretty impressive skill. It's quite badass to not have to experience a particular threat directly in order to have a survival sense that protects you against that threat in the future.
But even beyond developing self-protective responses from witnessing other people's experiences, research is beginning to show that things like transgenerational trauma or epigenetic inheritance can actually pass along these “lessons learned” from our ancestors, with whom we may have had no conscious connection.
So, it's entirely possible that you might never be able to fully understand some of your own triggers, especially if you inherited them and cannot access the stories that explain them or bring them into the light.
Now, let me just say this next part as clearly as I can. If triggers never existed, then there is a real chance that there would be no humans on earth today because we would not have been self-protecting against actual threats in our environment.
It's true that sometimes there is no threat or your experience of being triggered can be chalked up to, you know, a false alarm. But anyone who has been alive longer than a day knows threats are not all fantasy. They are fact. And without a built-in system to protect us against real threats, the human race would likely have died off from what our survival systems have actually been defending against.
Now, this is critical to understand and to remember, because on principle, survival responses are a good thing, including triggers. And because of that, they should be respected, not shamed or harshly judged or weaponized or turned into stigma.
It is imperative that no one should be made to feel bad for having a trigger or for being triggered. The word trigger, while meaningful in the ways that I'm contextually describing it here, has definitely become pejorative or judgy in some of the ways that it gets used out in the wild, among people who are leveraging it as code-speak for weakness, which is not how I'm using it, but people do use it callously.
As an aside, if you don't like the word trigger, consider using some similar but currently less stigmatized words. Words like stimulus or activator or catalyst. Those words do the job that trigger does, but are not currently being used pejoratively. At least not that I'm running into. Unfortunately, those words may also require a little bit of explaining because while the word trigger may sometimes be used pejoratively, there's generally a pretty ubiquitous understanding of what trigger means. Like, it comes pre-loaded for a lot of people with an idea about what we're talking about. So, it's still quite useful despite the fact that some people are using it to hurt each other or to shame each other.
I feel like this is a good place to talk about the difference between explicit and implicit memory.
Experiences that you're generally able to recall or remember, even if only partially, are often thought of as being stored in explicit memory. Explicit memory refers to memories that we are able to consciously and intentionally recall. These can be past experiences or things like facts or events. It involves the deliberate retrieval of information from memory, and it requires conscious effort. For example, when you remember that time you played with a puppy as a child, or maybe that time when you broke your arm. You have picture memory or factual recall, this kind of stuff... that's explicit memory.
Now, in contrast, implicit memory operates unconsciously and does not require intentional recollection. Now, implicit memory is really important to know about when we're discussing triggers, because implicit memory influences our thoughts are feelings and our behaviors without us necessarily being aware of it. So, there could be something that happened to you which you cannot recall explicitly, but it's still driving you unconsciously to behave in ways that you may be completely unaware of.
It's inside of the truth of implicit memories that some people push back on the concept of having a free will. Sure, you may think you have free will when you're thinking with your explicit thoughts, what you want to do, where you want to go, how you want to be in the world. But if you're being driven unconsciously through things like implicit memories, how free are you really?
I think a good way to remember the difference between explicit and implicit memory is to think about when you first learned how to either drive a car or type on a keyboard. In the beginning, the process of learning a new task can be really slow and clumsy and cumbersome. With a car, you're checking and rechecking your mirrors, making sure your hands are at ten and two. You're probably driving too slow out of an overabundance of caution. Maybe there's an instructor in the seat next to you or one of your caregivers. When you're learning a keyboard, you don't intuitively know where all of the characters are in relationship to your fingers, so you're moving very slowly. You're making a lot of mistakes. I was a pecker when I was first learning, you know, just my pointer finger on each hand, just... peck, peck, peck... trying to find the keys.
So, it's during these early stages of learning that you're relying on your explicit memory to keep all of those details in the front of your mind. But once you've really learned those skills, the brain does this really cool thing where it passes the tasks, in this case driving or typing, over to implicit memory, where your procedural memory lives. So, procedural memory is inside of implicit memory. It's not the only kind of implicit memory, but it's in there.
So, if you've been driving or typing for a while now, ask yourself, when's the last time you really had to think about the details of those tasks while doing them? You may have driven for hours at a time without ever thinking about the actual job of driving.
In fact, driving has become so automated for so many of us, laws have been passed to try to keep us from also messing with our smartphones or doing anything else besides driving. That task has become so automated for us that we are actually willing to risk our own safety and the safety of others by doing something else while we're doing that task, because we're doing that task automatically. Implicitly.
Now, think about this for a second. If you suddenly find yourself typing on a new keyboard that's laid out differently or you're seated behind the wheel of an automobile that is somehow very different from what you learned on, say, you learned on an automatic and now you're behind a stick. You're going to feel yourself locking up and slowing back down because your procedural memory no longer maps onto the world as you have learned it. The experience in your implicit memory doesn't work with the new scenario that you find yourself in. And that's actually why we shouldn't be texting and driving.
The truth is, you actually can text and drive safely when everything is happening as it does when things are normal and predictable and fine and are obeying the procedural memory as you've learned it. But when something unexpected happens in the environment ‑ and you have to be willing to admit you don't control everything in the universe, so unexpected things can and do happen all the time ‑ that's when, in a split second, your procedural memory for driving under ordinary circumstances will instantaneously no longer map to what is happening either on the road or in your car, or both. And if you have a phone distracting you at that time, your brain literally cannot do the extra juggling that is required to react quickly to these unexpected environmental changes.
Now, why does any of this matter when we're talking about triggers?
Sometimes a trigger may belong to an earlier trauma that you are aware of. So it's something you know about. You've identified for yourself as having been difficult. It might exist in your explicit memory, so you're triggered and then you remember why. Oh, it's this.
When you're triggered in a way that connects to an explicit memory like that, you may at least have the benefit, and there would be some benefit of understanding and or comprehending why or how that trigger is impacting you. That could afford you at least some capacity to endure or recover from that triggering event.
But when it comes to implicit trauma or trauma that is stored without your conscious awareness of it ‑ sometimes we refer to these as “the issues in the tissues” ‑ body trauma ‑ we will often see someone experiencing the trigger itself, and then, commonly, there may be a wave of anger or frustration that follows closely behind, and it can last a really long time.
And that's possibly because the person doesn't actually know why they're feeling the way that they're feeling. And that can be a really scary reality.
So, it's one thing to be triggered and to go, “Oh, I know why that makes me do that. I get that.” It's a whole other thing to be triggered, but not to know why you're that way, because you can't deal with it in any kind of way.
You may be familiar with the phrase that appears on signs in the London Underground or the subway system. The phrase, “Mind the Gap,” is intended to make travelers aware of this space that exists between the train and the platform that you're standing on, for the purpose of not tripping and falling or twisting your ankle or anything like that.
Now, I've co-opted that phrase for myself to put a name on the space between the moment when I am first triggered and the moment when I either react or respond. And for me, there's a difference between those two, reacting and responding. Without applying any effort toward improving my relationship with my own triggers, then the distance between being triggered and reacting is extremely small. So small, in fact, that I effectively have no control over the handoff. I get triggered, bam, I react.
So, for example, if I'm walking down a hallway and someone intentionally jumps out and scares the shit out of me, there's an extremely high likelihood for me that I will first jump and or scream, then... some people laugh when they get scared... historically, I have a tendency to get violent. I'm not proud of it, but it’s the way I react. However, if I have spent some real time working on the relationship between that trigger and my reaction, it is theoretically possible that I may be able to respond in a different way. And for me, it's a fact. I've been able to do this.
So maybe my friend group loves to prank one another and it's proven to be detrimental for me to keep punching them in the face or lighting their desks on fire. And so perhaps because they won't stop and I want to be in that friend group, I decide for myself that I'd like to change my automated reaction into a response, from an uncontrolled violence into an intentional laughter or something other than violence.
In some cases, it is actually possible to spend time and energy on updating our triggered reactions and transform them into predetermined responses.
There's the difference. Reaction is kind of automated. I'm not making a decision about it. Response is, I've been working on this and I'm making a change.
Now, this is really important.
It doesn't mean that you won't still get triggered.
We often don't get to choose whether or not we're going to be triggered, but it does carve out at least the possibility for you to respond more favorably or more to your own liking than you would otherwise have reacted.
So, in this case, I'm thinking of a reaction as being largely automated and involuntary, while thinking of a response as being something I have carefully chosen and, to whatever degree possible, trained myself on.
Incidentally, the military trains and drills soldiers specifically for the purpose of creating the precise kind of predetermined responses to wartime threats that the military wants from its soldiers. So, if a new recruit, for example, has a natural inclination toward running away from fear or threat, the military is going to want to replace that impulse with the urge to square up and fight. And you can do this same kind of transformational thing for yourself in lots of cases through things like therapy, mindfulness, breath work, body work. So, body work might be yoga, Tai chi, qigong, for example. Creative expression. So, art. Maybe you're a musician. Peer or social support, self-compassion. And here again, you're going to hear me say, curiosity.
You might be surprised at just how many of your triggered reactions can be modified into more helpful responses if you lean into some of those tactics and techniques and approaches to grow that gap.
Spending time paying attention to the distance between the moments of impact and the moments of response is what I call “Minding the Gap.” And here's the cool thing about minding the gap. You can mind the gap for yourself, which I just talked about, and, as it turns out, you can mind the gap on behalf of others.
So, when reflecting on the frustration that comes when someone you love is triggered, maybe by you, I find it can be really helpful to remember that this person you love isn't bad for being triggered. They are not any different from you, fundamentally. So in order to help them mind the gap, ask yourself “What could I use from the people who love me when I get triggered?”
When I get triggered, I would value someone who could allow the moment to pass, who could endure the time that it takes for the situation and for me to cool off, someone who can hold on to whatever brilliant thing they have to say or feel compelled to interject, until such a time when the energy has significantly chilled.
I do not need someone who feels the need to fight back or be aggressive with me or just say what they need to say. When I am triggered, the worst thing is to be confronted with someone whose own ego, possibly driven by their own triggers, demands that they get their point across at all costs, right now. These are people who insist... nobody gets to talk to me that way... or if you get to talk, then I get to talk... or I have my rights, too.
And it feels really important for me to say right here, right now, that I'm talking also about parents with their children. When children are having a meltdown and a parent feels the need to square up or somehow prove how right they are or how they're the boss or whatever, that's totally weak. A healthy supporter understands that not every problem needs to be solved this instant. Trauma tells us that there is no future. The only thing that matters is what's happening right now.
People who are unable to understand that the future will be there and that almost everything can wait until a better time, are people who are probably having their own trauma response.
Folks, when there is a fire, bring water, not more fire.
When your people are triggered, their bodies are attempting a survival solution to some perceived threat. One or many.
So, for the sake of loving your people well, you must not only refuse to curse their triggers, you must also be willing to allow time and space for your loved one to cool off. If they don't have the ability to self-mind the gap, then loan them your capacity to do so for both of your sakes.
There is nothing to be gained by treating those moments like contests.
Maybe you've designed a life that's less filled with threat. Maybe you were just more-lucky in the way your life circumstances have taken shape. Or maybe you've worked really hard through Minding the Gap to overcome the triggers within you. But don't pat yourself on the back and tell the person you love, “Hey, I have these triggers, but I'm keeping mine under control,” because that's just going to make them feel shame and drive them further inside, or make them more angry.
It is certainly true that we all have triggers, but nothing will ever give any of us any permission to dictate to someone else how their triggers ought to be experienced. In the end, if we can control our own side of the equation and work toward creating and maintaining safe spaces and safe conversations and safe interactions for the people we love to heal and grow, then something new and wonderful and necessary may finally be possible.
Now, that will hand off nicely to something that I call “The Great Uncoupling” or “The Great Unbecoming.” And that's what I'm covering in part three of this three part series. But for now, this is where I'm going to leave off.
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So, until next time, please be safe, stay curious, give grace, make love, and be truly alive!
Thanks for listening.