Releasing Our Triggers

Nearly every day I use concepts from sociology, psychology, human behavior, and abnormal psychology in my work with the homeless of our community.  These disciplines also inform the way I function as a spiritual leader. I believe in what I’ve learned while studying social work at Anderson University. I also recognize that psychology and sociology have their limitations. Over time these disciplines have been the subject of many revisions as new theories and hypotheses have been made known. Some of the concepts we readily accept today may be viewed very differently in the future.

One concept I struggle with is the current usage of term “triggers.”  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a trigger is a mechanism that releases a process or reaction. I agree with the original use of the word trigger which referred to post-traumatic reactions in which those who experience PTSD would re-experience symptoms that originated with their trauma outside the traumatic event itself. This process involves intense fear and is rapid, unconscious, involuntary, and automatic.  These trigger warnings were intended to alert traumatized people, who had experienced rape and sexual or physical assault.

There are have been recent adaptations of the term that dramatically broaden and loosen the definition. Presently the use of the term triggers doesn’t just cover sexual or physical trauma, but also relates to material that is potentially offensive, disgusting, or politically/religiously questionable. This recent adaptation of the term trigger attempts to release people from the responsibility of their actions. At this point a “trigger” could include almost anything that could be a focus of strong emotion or conflict.

This dramatically broader and looser definition is often used as a way to release a person from the consequences of an emotional response. The phrase “You triggered me!” is loaded with permission to shirk full responsibility for one’s actions.  One of the widely accepted Judeo-Christian values of our society is knowing the difference between what is right and what is wrong. To choose between right and wrong, we use “free will.” Free will means we make decisions without necessity or fate, based solely on our own discretion. We choose between many different alternatives on a daily basis. We can choose different flavors of ice cream. We can choose whether to obey the speed limit. We also choose which emotional response we have to all of the variables we face on a daily basis.

Jesus’ teaches that, “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45). Similarly, Jesus taught that it was out of the person’s own heart that “evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, [and] slander” arise (Mt 15:19). These are not things that God in any context desires, wants, or decides for us. They originate in a person’s own heart.

Poor choices originate in each of us, not in the actions of others and they especially are not pre-decided by God. In fact, God gives us free will choice so that we may freely choose to love him and freely choose to love others.  Followers of Christ grow the Fruit of the Spirit in their life as they yield to the Holy Spirit’s direction and guidance. We have a freewill choice to accept or reject the Holy Spirit’s council. Therefore, we make choices that will either grow our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control or stifle it. People, situations, and circumstances cannot steal away our values. We choose our values and our emotions.

It took me awhile to come to the realization that every person doesn’t have the same emotional response to the same situation. One person may be disappointed whereas another person may be relieved. One person may be overwhelmed whereas another person may be exhilarated.  One person may be angry whereas another person may feel weary. One person may be depressed whereas another person may be content.

Instead of blaming an emotional trigger, we should admit that there are emotions, situations, and conversations to which we have a difficult time controlling our emotional responses. We must take responsibility for the way we manage our emotions, as opposed to letting our emotions control us. There are going to be some situations, conversations, and people that we must consciously limit our exposure to.

Trauma may bring about images that elicit an emotional response but we can choose which emotion we have.   We are not robots nor are we animals purely running on instinct. I heard a sermon years ago that was entitled “Who Is Driving Your Emotional Bus?” The pastor answered her own question with, “You are or you should be.”  My prayer for each of us is that we put ourselves in the driver’s seat.

2 Replies to “Releasing Our Triggers”

  1. Anonymous

    It’s a nice thought that we can all presumably choose our emotional reactions to events and surrounding, but you are right when you say people have different responses to same things. Here’s the thing though, if it was that easy we would all regulate our emotions and pick and choose which ones we have to different triggered situations. Yes we have free will but the past could depend on how that person’s ability to process emotions is reactionary and not voluntary. If you don’t know how it feels, speaking on sexual trauma triggers and PTSD, I ask that you acknowledge when someone says that they have been triggered, you allow them to simply be and process. Someone else’s emotions are theirs to deal with and process. If a person gets help on how to cope differently, they have a better chance of regulating emotions. If that person does not, can we not judge them and simply offer to be there to help them cope through the moment. Life is too precious to condemn those who don’t have it together yet.

    • Anon

      Anonymous, I think at the beginning he is validating those experiences but more so speaking to the emotions that aren’t stemmed from extremely traumatic experiences. A lot of things can come from the same kind of hurt, conflict or selfishness or idolatry for example, but we are called to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

      I feel like in general faith is really hard to speak to mental health issues because of how personal and how severe things can be. It is impossible for me personally to imagine the man who is hallucinating seeing a “real” tornado outside or seeing “men with guns” believe he is safe, believe that God is protecting him. I try to encourage him with his faith- I feel ultimately relieved when his episodes are done, as I’ll see him reading the Bible in the sun and you would not believe it is the same person. But he doesn’t let his episodes affect how he celebrates and believes in the not so hard times.

      I’ve struggled my whole adult life w/mental health but was actually recently diagnosed with PTSD and am really struggling to connect the dots. But I am grateful that like emotions, faith isn’t cookie-cutter either- each person’s journey with God is their own, & there is grace for and comfort for those who come to Him.

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