When someone has trauma in their past, they are likely to have triggers. Triggers are things that transport you back your trauma, that bring up the emotions and the feelings you had at the time. When you’re triggered it doesn’t matter how badly your day was going, it’s suddenly crap. It doesn’t matter what interesting things you were working on or thinking about, they’re drowned out by the feeling of tension and dread that suddenly suffuses your body from head to toe. Your sense of feeling is heightened and it’s hard to function.

I have triggers. Where did they come from? Several places. First, from growing up in an authoritarian family. And second, from the absolute crap my parents put me through when I started thinking for myself when I was in college. It’s hard to really explain the pain that my parents caused me during those years, except that the last summer I spent at home, in between years of college, was so painful and emotionally traumatic that it permanently scarred me. Some of my triggers are related to things from when I was a child, but most come from that terrible, horrible, awful summer and from the years that followed as I tried to get my footing and find something to hold onto.

A couple of years ago a phone conversation with my mother suddenly veered into danger territory and then traipsed about through everything from my refusal to obey my father when I was in college to my refusal to apologize to him for not obeying him and from my prison-bound children (because I’m not hitting them a la the Pearls, of course) to my wayward feminism to my religious apostasy. I hadn’t been that triggered in years. I shut down. I stopped functioning. I was feeling everything I’d gone through my last, long terrible summer at home and feeling all of the pain and trauma of it all over again. It was hard to sleep. My mind kept racing and I couldn’t focus and my whole body felt weighted down. I was lucky it was the summer, because I was unable to do any work for a week and that would have been a problem if it had been during the school year, what with grad school and all. Ultimately, it was so bad that I put myself in therapy.

When I first blogged about socialization and homeschooling, the negative response was very triggering. It’s hard to explain, because you wouldn’t think it would be this topic necessarily that would do that, but it was. I was once again feeling all of the trauma I’d gone through in the past, all washing over me again. I almost stopped blogging because of it. I almost couldn’t handle it psychologically. It was almost a year before I even touched the subject again, and I’ve had to learn various coping mechanisms to deal with blogging on homeschool topics at all, because I there is always pushback and for some reason that pushback is usually triggering.

I am frequently triggered in small ways in my regular life as well. I was triggered recently when a relative responded to my sharing a personal financial situation by ranting about how I should be grateful that the free market gave me “choice.” Once again, this may seem an odd topic to be so triggering, but it’s all mixed in with how my parents treated me in the past. It’s part of why I can’t talk to my parents about politics even in the present—it would be too triggering. As it was, this rant meant that an entire evening was ruined and it took some phone time with a friend to get back to where I felt happy and stable again.

When I put up one of my vulnerable parenting posts this morning, I wasn’t expecting the comments I would get to be triggering, but they were. But I want to be clear about a couple of things. The fact that I was triggered by the discussion in the comments is not the fault of any of those who commented, and I don’t want anyone to let concern about triggering me get in the way of commenting. I learn from comments, and others do too. I am responsible for my actions even when I am triggered. I said a few things in the comments section that I shouldn’t have, and phrased things less tactically than I should have, and perhaps didn’t listen as well to what others were saying as I should have. I am in the wrong and fully responsible for those things. I’m going to use this experience to learn more about managing triggers and about what it is that sets them off. If I can’t blog about something or read comment sections on a topic without it setting me off, I shouldn’t do those things. I will be more careful about how I handle this in the future, and I don’t want anyone to feel like they shouldn’t comment. If you were a part of that whole thing and were wondering what was going on, now you know. Triggers are nasty little buggers.

What about the rest of you? Are there things that trigger you? How have you learned to cope with your triggers?

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • aletha

    Wow. Reading your post gave me chills. I’ve never really used the word “trigger” to describe my reactions, but it makes perfect sense.
    Some of my triggers are: any type of child abuse (movies, real life, plays, books), physical violence against women, and being ignored. I have panic attacks and break down until I’m crying in the fetal position. It’s terrifying and I feel like it’s out of my control. No matter how much I tell myself that it’s just a movie, it brings back memories of being 5 and trying to hide, or hearing my mum crying from the next room. I just can’t deal with feeling helpless, so I…well…don’t.

  • AnonaMiss

    My major trigger is people talking about how hard it is for (other people) to find work. It’s fine if it’s someone talking about their own experience, but talking about it as a trend or as a problem/issue threatens to pull me back into the hopelessness. Oddly, it’s worse when people talk about it as a serious problem – probably because when people ignorantly talk about how people should just get a job, or when THEY were a kid etc etc., they’re not confronting me with anything that actually reminds me of that time.

    How do I cope? An antidepressant. Depression is symptomatically similar to being your own personal trigger, so it makes sense that whatever brain-mechanism it uses to help me force my attention away from brooding on my own worthlessness also helps me force my attention away after I’ve been more specifically triggered.

    • Saraquill

      In regards to your first paragraph, it too sets me off. One person who repeatedly says this to me has said more than once that it’s supposed to make me feel better. It has the same effect on me that it does you.

      • AlisonCummins

        Nothing to do with triggers, but it’s true that different people need different things to feel better. I travelled with a friend who is afraid of flying, as many people are. In my family we deal with fears with black humour. She had to repeatedly glare at me and tell me I Wasn’t Helping before I figured out how to give her what she needed, which was reassurance and distraction.

        Of course, some things make hardly anyone feel better and sometimes you aren’t supposed to feel better because whatever-it-is is truly awful. But people typically want you to feel better so they do or say whatever unhelpful thing that comes to mind. It can a lot of practice (and sometimes training) not to.

    • oywiththepoodles

      I hadn’t thought of it as a trigger before today, but now it makes perfect sense. I’m triggered by any kind of financial struggle discussions. It stems from seeing my father lose multiple jobs, and my mother’s reactions when we were in those difficult financial situations. We always survived- we were never homeless or without food, so that is one way I deal with the triggering effect. I have to remind myself that the panic I feel, doesn’t guarantee that there will be a real-life negative outcome. It is just dread that comes over me and will stay with me for hours or days. I didn’t even identify the panic feeling as the thing causing marital disagreements until a few years ago, and explaining the realization to my husband has helped greatly. He now knows that saying things about work or finances in certain ways will “trigger” me, and he is a partner in helping me to avoid or deal with the panic feelings. I have to actively avoid certain types of news articles online (things about foreclosures and gloom-and-doom economy job reports really do me in) and keep myself assessing the reality of my family’s present situation.

      The other thing that triggers me is any time I suspect that someone is talking about me behind my back. That one stems from the bullying and clique-culture when I was younger. I end up avoiding some people to protect myself. If I know someone talks about other friends to me frequently, I usually don’t trust them and I end up slowly cutting ties with them to protect myself from becoming the topic of gossip and the pain that I feel when things come back around.

      • Mishellie

        I am absolutely the same way. After watching my parents struggle my whole life (lost a house and moved in with my grandma, went into credit card debt to build a necessary addition to her house, dads lost two jobs in 3 years and can’t find a new job etc…) any time a discussion about family finances is brought up I freeze and can’t really handle it. This makes it especially difficult for me to figure out how to handle my massive student loans, I often want to put them off because thinking about them at all sends me into panic mode. Even paying the cable bill or the rent or my credit card minimum triggers me. I never thought about it this way until right know, with your comment. I need to start reminding myself that my family is mostly healthy and happy, we love each other, and we may never be financially comfy, but we will have a house and food and necessary things.

    • Christine

      I have a similar problem. It’s difficult in Australia at present, as we are heading to a national election where the opposition is painting the government as totally inept and driving Australia to Hell in a handbasket… when it’s really not true. Trouble is, some people are lapping it up to explain why everything that’s wrong with their lives is the government’s fault, and it’s painful to watch the news at present.

      • Mogg

        Absolutely. But that has been a constant with the current batch of politicians. It’s become very nasty. I never watch TV anymore except as catch-up, so I avoid a lot of the ads and the worst of the negative commentary.

      • Katherine Hompes

        I’m also finding tv painful at present- which is why the only show I watch is Horrible Histories (on ABC3- it’s an awesome way to get kids interested in history), and True Blood- cos I’m addicted. Funnily enough, my brother says that news and current affairs shows are triggers for him. In regards to ACA, I totally agree with him!

    • Leigha7

      You just made me realize…I don’t know if I’d necessarily call it a trigger, but when people act like poverty is something people deserve and could easily get out of if they’d just try, and/or that poor people have no right to ever own nice things or do anything fun, I lose it. How much so varies. Sometimes I just get irritated and HAVE to respond and point out how wrong and ignorant they are, other times I get super pissed off and seethe for the rest of the day, thinking of example after example to prove them wrong. I react the same way (but typically more strongly) when people insist that EVERY woman can be a stay at home mom if they choose, even single mothers or women whose husbands make very little or can’t work, and that if you don’t stay home with your kids, you might as well not even have them.

      My family was never truly poor (we were at the upper edge of working class), but I grew up in a poor community and my boyfriend’s* family lives at about the poverty line, and hearing him talk about what they’ve gone through and realizing that those people mean him is both painful and infuriating. They’re good people–as are most of the poor people I know, of which there are quite a few–and they don’t deserve that. That’s part of my response to the stay-at-home mom thing, too. His parents split up when he was fairly young, and his mom raised four kids by herself. No way in HELL could she have stayed at home and put food on the table, considering she could barely do so while working full time, and anyway she’s one of the most invested parents I’ve seen. Oh, and as for the “you shouldn’t bother having kids if you can’t stay home/don’t have money” argument–they were already born by that point, but nobody ever thinks of that possibility.

      Sorry if I rambled a bit, but I started to get upset just thinking about it. It’s weird how something can affect me so much when it’s based on someone else’s life, but he is awfully important to me (plus I was always just above poverty myself, so it is partially personal).

      *I wish there was a word in English to better describe the stage where you’ve been together for years, live together, and are planning on getting married, but aren’t formally engaged. “Boyfriend” seems horribly inadequate, but it’s the best I’ve got.

  • Gillianren

    It sounds to me as though your prime trigger is loss of agency. You didn’t have a choice about homeschooling, and the people who were opposed to your discussion of homeschooling didn’t think your opinion about it mattered. Your parents think you should still be obeying them unquestioningly, and they think your children should be obeying you unquestioningly. Strangely, even that claim about “choice” is about loss of agency–it’s denying you your ability to complain by making it about what they think the issue should be. And they’re probably wrong about your having choice there anyway, because people who say that nonsense so frequently are, so they aren’t even seeing where the truth lies for you.

  • Saraquill

    I get yelled at for my default coping method. I get yelled at for a lot of things, so it’s much easier to turn inward rather than express my thoughts to those who won’t accept my words. (not mentioning my preferred method, as many take a dim view of it.)

    • Olive Markus

      Yes! Me, too.

      My default mode is to cry. Even if my body is surging with rage, I cry. Even if I’m not feeling extremely strong emotions, I will still cry. I’ve never been able to communicate my feelings, because I am overcome with tears and my brains scrambles. My mom overreacted to my crying while my dad shut me down over it. In all of my real-life interactions, I know that if I try to assert my own voice in a moment of conflict, I will cry, so I have to completely shut down and turn off.

      That is part of why I started responding on these blogs. It is the only means I’ve come up with so far that allows me to communicate what is going through my mind.

      • wombat

        I do the crying thing as well, and it’s so frustrating. It stops me communicating effectively, and people have no idea how to react to it. My stepmother would react to the tears with more abuse, and I would be screamed at to ‘toughen up’ while she hit me. All that makes it difficult to cope with strong emotions.

      • Olive Markus

        I’m so incredibly sorry :(. I know exactly how you feel. I didn’t experience abuse as a child, but I did as an adult. I’m so sad that you did.

        My takeaway was that my emotions/opinions/feelings/words were invalid because others reacted negatively. This had a devastating impact on my life and it took 32 years to realize it. I still haven’t been able to sort through it properly.

      • wombat

        I hope you find a way to sort through it that works for you. I’m still looking for one.

      • Mogg

        Yup. It’s a very frustrating default mode, because people immediately see you as over-reacting, irrational or immature. Anxiety to avoid being seen as those things leads to avoidance, which leads to more anxiety and so on in a vicious circle. It is far less frowned upon than some other methods like self harm, though, I have a friend whose default stress release is this, and it was a whole new world to me to get some insight into just how badly even mental health professionals can react and fail to see it for what it is *to the person*.

      • MrPopularSentiment

        I cry too whenever I try to talk about anything painful. I can still talk and communicate, but so many people try to shut the conversation down with well-meaning “are you okay?” or not-so-well-meaning “you’re obviously too emotional about this.”

        I’ve started using the line “I’m not crying, my eyes are leaking” and bulling through.

      • Alice

        I cry or nervous-laugh when I am angry. I hate it, but growing up, it was drilled in my head that anger is unacceptable. I also have a really hard time expressing my anger calmly instead of blowing up when I can no longer keep a lid on it.

      • Jenesis

        I think crying is my “default mode” too. Usually it’s triggered by sadness or anger, but sometimes I can start crying for no reason at all. It’s caused me no end of stress with my relationship with my mother, since her usual response is to say “Why are you crying?” (in a mocking tone) or just “Stop crying!” followed by an attempt to rationalize away whatever I was feeling sad about. Recently I’ve been learning that it’s okay to cry and not care what anyone thinks, but it’s still frustrating and scary not to be “in control” all the time.

        I’m also a generally quiet person and instinctively disengage whenever someone tries to communicate with me in a loud, angry tone. (Probably another thing I learned from my mother; she’d yell at me, and if I yelled back, she’d get even angrier at me for yelling.) I probably wouldn’t get along very well with people on this site who need to feel unrestrained in order to properly express themselves.

    • wmdkitty

      Whatever your preferred method, it can’t be nearly as bad as some of the things I’ve done.

      • Saraquill

        I’d like to ask, but I’m afraid we’ll get yelled at by squeamish commenters.

      • wmdkitty

        Let’s just say that there are some interesting scars on my left arm and leave it at that.

      • Hilary

        ((Hugs, if that is ok. Good vibes and well-wishes if that is preferable))

      • Saraquill

        Same here, though it’s largely faded.

    • Little_Magpie

      Not really a trigger for me, but your comment reminded me of something – one of my coping methods (I’m not talking about coping with trauma and triggers, but coping with just general shit-life-throws-at-you, emotional upsets, etc) is black, black humour. I once deployed this – in the midst of messy post romantic-breakup trying to figure out how to be friends with the recent ex emotional storm – and was banned from an event that I very much wanted to be involved with because the guy running it “didn’t like my attitude.”

  • Meyli

    (I’m sorry if this is out of place). Communicating online can be difficult. Trying to explain something or have a conversation is tricky when you can’t see the other person and talk , or at least I find it that way.
    What I’m trying to say is, don’t be too hard on yourself. Your blog should be made of posts that interest YOU, and maybe it would be more effective to not respond back-and-forth with comments, but in a different way?

    • Libby Anne

      I usually don’t do back-and-forth with the comments, and usually a couple triggering comments don’t bug me. It was just that this morning all the comments together made me break my rules. :P Maybe that’s what I should do differently next time—not break my rules.

      • Hilary

        FWIW, I like it when you talk back with us. I like you, I read your blog because you’re interesting, and I always enjoy any chance at a shared dialogue between you and everybody else here.

      • AlisonCummins

        You being triggered and showing it wasn’t a problem for me, though it was obviously a huge problem for you.

        It was educational for me (NOT that my education was worth the cost of your distress).

  • Truthspew

    In general willful ignorance is a big trigger to me. I call it academic laziness to be honest. I generally dislike Catholic priests – never molested but reading about what a lot of them did, while also realizing the faith I was taught was false – there’s a lot of resentment there.

    • mr_subjunctive

      Willful ignorance is something of a trigger for me too.

  • Olive Markus

    Yup! This is exactly what I’d written to you about.

    I’m massively triggered by the Pro-Life discussions and ownership/submission of women discussions. I’m often shaking and crying. My own abusive past plus life in the Catholic Church have been the roots. I don’t back down, because I have been bullied into silence and acquiescence my entire life and this is a tremendous exercise in asserting the value of my own voice, even through my anger, fear and doubt. That said, I need to learn to cope with it without anger and being triggered. That is the next step.

  • Rosa

    Libby, thank you for this – you worked through this really fast, and comparatively gracefully.

    It’s especially hard responding to someone who seems to be unusually reactive on a topic without condescending – we put such a priority on rational discourse, saying to someone “You’re really upset by this and I don’t think it’s about this current discussion” comes off as an attack even when it’s not meant to be.

    That said: my big trigger is being told I can’t act angry or be loud, or being treated like I’m wrong because I’m emotionally invested. Calm, quiet, (fake) rational disagreement is not the only nondamaging form of argument. I grew up in a household where only one person was allowed to be angry, and it took me years to get comfortable with conflict, and nothing makes me more angry than someone trying to quash my anger or act like they must be right just because they are calmer than me. I know a lot of people who practice nonviolent communication strategies, and while I admire the intent (and often the results) I find them really managing and stifling and push back against them really strongly. It’s been a real problem sometimes because I’ve lived with close friends who need a much calmer mode of communication than I’m comfortable with for THEM to feel safe, and negotiating those competing needs is really, really difficult.

    • Alexis

      THIS! So much this! I wish I could like this multiple times.

    • Katherine

      Oh my goodness yes this. I am constantly trying to find the balance between “don’t be your dad, don’t yell whenever something upsets you!” And “no really, you are allowed to be angry sometimes.”
      In my early twenties I had an emotionally abusive partner who figured out how afraid I was of my own anger, and used it against me constantly. So now when people assume that because I am emotionally invested in a debate that means my position is wrong, it is a really special kind of difficult for me.

      • Olive Markus


    • CarysBirch

      Yes, this Rosa! I really hate being told I’m not allowed to have emotions. OR worse yet, that being angry about legitimate wrongs means I’m not open-minded and mature. Condescension toward my legitimate anger from people who have no idea what I’m actually talking about makes me see red. (Counterproductive for them, really)

      • Feminerd

        Oh yes, so much this! I hate it when I get passionate about arguing something, and people dismiss it as irrational because I’m emotionally invested without even listening to what I’m saying. No, you idiots (general you there, if it wasn’t obvious), I’m emotionally invested because it matters.

      • wmdkitty

        Gah. My abuser would pull that kind of crap all the time. He’d start an argument, and then claim that he was right because he was calm and I was emotional and so obviously “unreasonable”. Hated it then, hate it now — I tend to be far more worried when people don’t display emotion.

    • Olive Markus

      Wow. You are so right on. I find that the religious men who enter these discussions instantly go into patronizing, condescending and controlling mode when it comes to my language or emotional investment. Talk about explosive reaction on my part. The idea that they instantly feel as though they can control my behavior and force me into pleasing, conceding roles fills me with rage.

      I, too, am terrified of conflict, which is why I’m trying not to back out of it while on these blogs. I need to start asserting myself somehow.

      I think this trigger conversation has been good. I realize I have a lot of triggers and they are shared by many. But this means I have a lot more work to do than I thought.

      Another life changing topic, to be honest.

      • Rosa

        I think it’s important to have mixed & women’s spaces where “getting emotional” isn’t an instant loss in the conversation. All these topics ARE emotional, because they’re real. And it’s not like “superior” and and “smug” aren’t emotions anyway.

        There is real gender- race- and class-based judgement on people for being loud or angry everywhere, not just online. Getting involved with someone who was super angry (not just at me, at the world in general), comfortable with shouting and drama, but NOT dangerous or violent was so amazingly good for me. It’s not a basis for a longterm partnership but it was like a few years of free primal scream therapy. I’m not giving up that right to fight and fight back.

      • CarysBirch

        My last serious relationship was with a yeller. Not, like you said, dangerous or violent. He was just a loud, volatile, emotional person. He had a loud, volatile, emotional family who were first generation immigrants from a culture where (to my understanding, they were the only family from that country I’ve ever known) that was just a normal, acceptable, average family dynamic. Coming from the type of Fundigelicalism I did, where I wasn’t allowed to be angry, it was really hard to adjust to. But he taught me how to express myself at high volume, and it is SUCH a release!

        We’re no longer together and my current partner is exceptionally laid back, and our dynamic is much less explosive. But Ex taught me a lot about how to be angry and express it and then make up afterward, how someone can be vocally angry with you and still love you. It was healthy and good for me.

        NB – I don’t come from a background of yelling-related abuse, if I did I doubt it would have been good for me at all. I come from a background where I was allowed to be happy, neutral (not really encouraged, but allowed), or mildly sad (when told it was appropriate) and any deviation from those emotions was highly frowned on, so the release from repression was totally new to me.

  • jemand2

    “mental landmines” I sometimes call them. Because I don’t know where all of them are, I don’t know what topics will set them off again, and I don’t know what kind of damage will ensue when it does.

    The last family visit, mixed in with a lot of positive interaction, was some psychological triggering *so* strong that it entirely overwhelmed the pain of a broken bone, to the point where I didn’t even seek treatment for it during the visit (several days). And yet, triggers are a hard thing to understand, for people who don’t have the trigger, especially if they have no triggers at all.

    Everybody can acknowledge that broken bones hurt… but triggers from words? well, that is harder to explain.

    • Gail

      “Mental landmines” is a fantastic description. At one point when I was very severely depressed, it seemed like everything was a trigger. I didn’t want to go places in case there was a trigger. I would only watch things I had seen before and read books I had read before because I was afraid new things might have unforeseen triggers. Very much like being afraid of encountering landmines.

      • Olive Markus

        I went through this, too! Only I never associated them with triggers, only panic attacks. I’m slowly realizing now that actual things/occurrences trigger them, but I had been so closed off from my own emotions and my own past experiences, that it took 7 years to even begin this realization. Nothing and no place was a safe place.

        My anxiety and depression was certainly worsened by physical illness and chronic severe insomnia, but that wasn’t the whole picture.

    • wmdkitty

      “Mental landmines” is the perfect description. I’ll be going along, all warm and content, and then WHAM!

      And most of the time it’s something small, like an unexpected touch.

      My reactions range from “complete shutdown” to “violent defense”, depending on the precise button pushed, my mental/emotional reserves at the moment, and my general mood. I’ve had to remind family members to not approach me from behind without clear verbal warning, and not to touch me without asking first. I’ve gone into fetal position after knocking things over, not because Dad would react violently (he wouldn’t, just yell a bit), but because I was so conditioned to expect violence that my automatic response to upset men is to protect my vitals and make myself smaller. I’m scared of my own father because of the things my abuser did, and I’m really not okay with that.

      I’m shaking as I type this, and I don’t even know what “got” me this time.

  • Kristen Rosser

    Being silenced is my worst trigger. Also any form of “you gotta jump on our bandwagon/join our group” pressure.

    • Olive Markus

      You know, you may have just exposed my TRUE trigger. I mentioned it was the Pro-Life discussions and submission talk, but it may be the implication that I need to just shut up and suffer, as that is my only role on this earth, that underlies all of these arguments. Something to think about. Thank you.

      ETA: My entire abusive past was about me shutting up and suffering. It was both unconscious conditioning from my entire upbringing as well as explicit directions from my abuser. A deadly combination.

  • Lana

    I almost shut down blogging, too, for similar reasons. (For what it’s worth. I read your original post on Sally and the couch. I totally agree that a consequence was not needed. But I have way more horror stories about what I did to kids because I knew no other way. But all that’s for another day.) One of my problems is that I have trouble relating to other commenters between my homeschool experiences and my international experiences and lack of every day American experiences. It’s easy to be triggered by something, and no one relate to those particular triggers. And on the same note, it’s easy for me not to relate to others and their battles. I’m not always kind. Arguing back and forth on the internet like I do can also be problematic because I find more written words do not actually try to clarify what I am trying to say. They actually muddy them.

    My parents trigger me, especially when they do not approve of my life, but I find when I think about it, the pain that I feel are similiar pains that I’ve felt since I was young. In a way, it’s trigger deeper pains, such as I am not good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, etc, etc.

  • Gail

    I get terrible triggers sometimes. I think the worst thing is that triggers often come out of left field so we can’t even brace ourselves for them. For me, I am usually stuck thinking about the trigger constantly for a few days, so the only way to really deal with it for me is to just tell myself it will be better in a few days. Back when I was seeing a therapist, I would sometimes talk about them but it didn’t always help.

    I understand about totally shutting down. Once when I had been at a new job for about a month, I was given an assignment that involved reading a journal that had very graphic descriptions of very disturbing things (this wouldn’t be pleasant for anyone, but this kind of thing has been a trigger for me since an incident when I was 11). Once I got to that part of the journal and read a bit, I just completely shut down. I knew that I would be suffering from the trigger for days, and I could not bring myself to read anymore of it. I remember crying in my cubicle, hoping that nobody walked by and saw. I sent an email to my sister because I just didn’t know what to do. She told me to ask my boss if I could get a new assignment. I was worried because it was a new job, but I did it, and my boss was totally supportive about it, even after I cried in her office for like half an hour. I was constantly worried about triggers at work for a long time. Eventually we had a system where we could exchange assignments and such among three of us, so I could always just ask one of my coworkers to trade with me. This system also allowed us to divide journals that everybody hated into thirds (like the New Criterion–basically all the articles seem like they might make some valid point about conservatism before devolving into “Obama is Hitler.” Nobody should be forced to read 100 pages of that, so we had to divide it).

    • Leigha7

      It was nice of your boss to be understanding about that. I’m glad you weren’t working for one of those “I don’t care, get it done” types.

  • MrPopularSentiment

    On the homeschooling/socialization stuff, I’m really sorry if I’ve ever said anything that was triggering for you. I think that, in a way, we had/have a situation of competing triggers.

    My school experiences was so bad, and I was so badly “socialized” by bullies and peers, that I feel very strongly about providing homeschooling as an option for my son (who, like me, is quite strongly introverted). Not that we necessarily will do it, but rather that I want it there as an option for him if he wants it. And the socialization issue, in particular, is my focus.

    And seeing, already at his age, such a difference in our social abilities and attitudes (whereas I had been in daycare full time for about two years by his age, he stays at home with me), I’ve tied the idea of homeschooling very tightly – and with strong emotion – to the idea of “saving” him from what I went through.

    So the socialization discussion in relation to homeschooling – while I can intellectually recognize that it’s something that needs to be discussed – hits me right in a tender nerve.

    As for the actual “triggering reaction,” I didn’t quite understand what that was until, a few years ago, someone posted a video where a bunch of kids on a schoolbus are bullying their driver. I saw that video and something just snapped inside of me. Just like you describe, I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t work, I just kept bouncing back and forth between feeling depressed/listless, panicky, and rage-y. I just couldn’t get my emotions under control at all. It was really bad for the whole day, then a bit less so the next, and then a bit less until I finally found that I was able to function again. But it impacted my work enough that my boss actually took me aside to ask me if everything was “okay at home.” Which just made me feel ashamed, because how is “I watched a YouTube video this morning” supposed to excuse not being able to do any of my work?

  • CarysBirch

    Weird things trigger too. You should see how I freeze up when someone opens a door for me. It’s such a visceral reminder of the enforced gender roles I lived under at my undergrad school that I just freeze up. I don’t know how to respond or react.

    The tiniest things.

    Libby Anne, I’m sorry you had such a triggering response because I know how awful they can be, but I’m glad you clarified your original post, I understand what you meant so much better after the second installment.

    • Kagi Soracia

      Ahhh the gender roles – I don’t freeze up, I get furiously, overreactingly angry until I’m shaking with it, but underneath I just feel sick. Definitely a trigger for me.

      • CarysBirch

        The door opening was a political statement at my undergrad school, which was run by a small denomination that was an offshoot of the Mennonites… so a generally moderate (by my standards) student body with a very conservative, authoritarian undercurrent. Somehow your stance on gender and submission was all played out in who opened what door for you, when you waited for someone else to do it for you, when you opened it yourself, when you entered before or behind someone else. As someone who was juuust inching toward feminism at the time, it was bewildering to me.

        Now if someone holds a door, I get this panicky feeling of indecision. Do I go in front? Behind? Is zie saying something about me? Is zie putting me in my place or just being courteous? Will I be presumptuous to walk through or rude to refuse? Heart pounding irrational terror. Yes. from a door. And then I spend hours rehashing whether I did it right or not.

        It’s embarrassing.

      • AlisonCummins

        Where I live the weather is such that there are almost always two doors. So if someone is being gallant I don’t worry about their intent, I just go through and hold the next door for them. That just happened to me this morning: male colleague waits outside so he can hold the door for me. I smile and nod, hold the inside door for him. We cross the lobby and he opens and holds the locked security door for me. I call the elevator, ask him what floor he’s on and press the button.

        I don’t have door-holding triggers obviously, but the double-door thing makes it easy to sidestep ordinary patronising gallantry if that’s all you’re dealing with.

  • Marian

    I want to say this, and I don’t know quite how to put it, so if it comes out wrong or badly please know that it’s not meant that way.

    I’m a frequent reader here, even if not a frequent commenter. You are my favorite blogger, and the first one I read every day. When I saw the first post this morning, and the way you started interacting more than usual in the comments, and then the second post and the comments there, I was surprised. You certainly seemed more reactionary than usual. But that’s okay. In fact, my only thought was, huh, she seems a bit more reactionary than usual. She must be having a bad day or there must be something about this topic in particular that is causing her trouble. I hope she’ll be okay. Then this evening I read this post about triggers and it all made sense. I’m sorry you got triggered today.

    So I just want you to know that your loyal readers “know” you well enough to know when you’re being a little out of character, and like you well enough to give you grace and space to deal with that. I don’t think any less of you for reacting to your triggers, and I’m impressed with the way you ultimately handled it.

  • MyOwnPerson

    Yep, I know exactly how you feel. Talking about homeschooling or my authoritarian upbringing are triggers for me. Remember that article Shane Vander Hart wrote in response to you a few months ago? When I commented on his post it sent my heart racing for over 24 hours. I woke up the morning after commenting and threw up, and I was shaking violently. Speaking up against some of the things I was taught to believe were gospel are triggers to me. I think you do well to even be able to blog on the topics that you do while maintaining your sanity. :)

  • Kagi Soracia

    *hugs for you* Sounds like a rough day all the way around. <3

  • Alix

    I’ve been mulling over this, and whether or not to share my triggers, because something that can sometimes be a trigger for me is being open/vulnerable. But what the hell, I’m in the brainspace right now where I can handle it, and I feel safe here.

    I cry when I’m furious, and only when I’m furious. People telling me to stop crying, not be angry, dismissing my emotions/reactions … that triggers me, often into lashing out. “Let’s discuss this rationally.” “Stop being so emotional.” “Calm down.” “Why are you crying?”

    “Watch your tone!” and other forms of the tone argument are triggers. Rage triggers, but still triggers.

    Passive-aggression. “I don’t know, you pick” while you (general “you”) know damn well what you want. “I’m not angry/hurt/whatever” and later getting angry that I took you at your word. Etc.

    Upsetting people, or doing something I think will upset them, gives me the shakes. Face to face, over the phone, online, doesn’t matter. It scares me to an unreasonable degree. I’m (slowly) getting over this by sheer bullheadedness, but it’s hard. This goes doubly when I feel like I’m calling out someone else’s bad behavior/stupidity – too often in my house, various workplaces, school, it was the one who called something out that got slammed for rocking the boat, while simple intellectual debate was okay. So I’m fine when it’s just a disagreement, but otherwise I’m not? If that makes a lick of sense.

    People being dehumanized is a major trigger. Calling trolls “it” or otherwise not human. (Never seen that happen here, for which I’m quite grateful.) Calling people animals, subhuman, monsters, demons, whatever. It triggers the shit out of me, and makes me turtle.

    Discussions of sexuality and gender can be triggering, depending on how invisible they make me feel. Sometimes, discussions of gender trigger a day of general anxiety, because I can’t pin mine down.

    “If you believe in equal rights for women, you’re a feminist.” And other such thoughtless slamming of those of us who’ve been hurt/marginalized by feminist groups/people we’ve encountered and thus choose not to identify that way. Sorry, no one gets to claim me for their group when major parts of their group keep pushing me out. This makes me both really ragey and crazy anxious, because a lot of people I respect (like a lot of folks here) ID as feminists and so it wraps back into the “upsetting people is a trigger” thing, as well as often touching off my gender anxiety.

    …Wow, that turned out longer than I meant it to. Sorry. :/

    • Alix

      (Replying to myself, what!)

      Generally, if the trigger is my action, or reading something, I try to force myself to do/read it, usually while talking to myself about it. If it’s something someone else is causing, I leave when I can (whatever form “leaving” takes), or I end up generally snapping and doing everything in my power to make them back off. If I can’t do that, I pretend they don’t exist.

      I’m sure there are much better ways to handle things, but, well. I don’t have a choice but to handle things on my own right now.

    • Alix

      (I need to stop replying to myself…)

      Looking over that list, I guess I really only have two underlying triggers that manifest in certain circumstances: being invisibled (told I’m not who I am, fearing I’m somehow a fraud/freak), and the fear that I’m “choosing wrong”*. That “hide an object in one hand and make someone choose the hand” game? That’s not a major trigger, but it causes me some anxiety. Which reminds me – picking out presents for people when they won’t give me a clear list of what they like completely ruins my day. I will spend all day – if not several – anxiously obsessing over it.

      There’s a reason I now refuse to buy presents for anyone. They get a dinner of their choice, home cooked by me, instead.

      *I’m never worried I’m “choosing wrong” for myself, though. I’m worried when it comes to choosing things for/about other people, and this is also at the root of my mild fear of telephones – the fear that I’ll misidentify the person on the other end when I should know better. People acting like I “should” know things without clear communication – that’s my trigger.

    • Olive Markus

      Thank you for opening up. I think you’ve helped a lot of people by doing so.

      • Alix

        I hope so. I know I never even had a concept of triggers (though I knew things set me off, so I had a proto-concept?) until other people started opening up about theirs.

    • Leigha7

      “‘If you believe in equal rights for women, you’re a feminist.’ And other such thoughtless slamming of those of us who’ve been hurt/marginalized by feminist groups/people we’ve encountered and thus choose not to identify that way.”

      That quote is something I’ve thought about a lot. I feel like the sentiment is true in a vague sense (insofar as you can label other people, the same way it’s more or less true to say that if you’re attracted to both men and women, you’re bi–it may not be how someone describes themselves, they may even strongly disagree with it, but it’s at least a starting place), but that 1. labeling other people is generally a bad idea, especially when they’re struggling with labels, and 2. there are so many issues with the label of feminism that I’m not entirely sure the sentiment is constructive.

      From my own perspective, the way I’ve thought about it is that, in my head, I identify as a feminist. I read several feminist blogs, though usually just on and off, and I agree with and care about a lot of what is discussed there. I mostly fit in with the prevailing view of the places I frequent, where gender, sexuality, and race issues are all important and all worthy of discussion, and that discrimination impacts both sides (eg sexism affects both women and men). But I have never identified as a feminist TO anyone else, because that label in our society is frequently seen in an extremely negative light, and while I’ve only occasionally seen things that match that view, I feel my purpose is more strongly served by simply saying what I believe and not bothering with the label. Otherwise, people might get too caught up in the image of man-hating feminazis to listen to the actual point.

      I also sometimes still struggle with deciding if things are valid complaints or not (because I’ll read something and be affected by it, then see a dozen comments about how it’s stupid to care about something so minor, and then question myself), so I’m not wholly comfortable with the label even apart from its image.

      • Alix

        For me, I identify as pro-equality, because it rather covers all the bases. I don’t care so much about the unpopularity of a label (and yeah, I realize that’s a huge privilege, that I don’t have to worry about the people around me taking my self-identifications poorly).

        It’s the forcing of the label on others that gets me, combined with the implicit assertion that feminism is perfect and no one’s been hurt by the movement. I think without that latter bit – if I hadn’t been seriously effed up by the feminist crowd I first ran in (and yes, I do realize they’re a minority, but they’re a pervasive one) – it wouldn’t bother me quite like it does, y’know? And it really, really doesn’t help that most of the time, when a feminist makes that broad – and shaming – statement, and I or someone else objects, we get slammed for it. “But you’re still a feminist!” “But that doesn’t matter!” “Every group has a few bad eggs.” And worse.

        But I generally think that when it comes to political, religious, or similar social labels, self-definition is best, even if it’s not entirely free of problems.

        Feminists, feminist theory, and feminist sites and spaces mean a lot to me. My first political awakening was brought about by the same feminists/feminist spaces that also royally screwed up my view of my own gender and sexuality, and on the balance I wouldn’t go back and erase that. Feminists are still, on the whole, also the people most likely to get it when I talk about my gender/asexuality. But calling myself a feminist? Frankly, I can’t bring myself to identify as the same thing as the people who screwed me up. The people who called me a monster and worse for being not cis.

        That’s the thing that feminists who pull the “if you support equal rights for women, you’re a feminist” (and others of other ideologies who make similar statements) don’t seem to realize: they’re trying to browbeat and shame people into agreeing with them. And they’re doing it with absolutely zero concern over why those people aren’t already using the label. That’s … kind of impressive privilege, there. How nice, feminists of a certain stripe, that you can pull that, that you can just diminish those “bad eggs” and “fringe” parts of your movement without acknowledging the real hurt they do to people. How nice. (And, frankly, this whole notion of just up and deciding that all people who agree with some position are members of your group … reminds me a bit of how a lot of authoritarians I know decide that if I am, say, white, I must agree with them on everything. Which is another reason the “you MUST be a feminist” thing gets to me.)

        … sorry, epic rant. >.<

        I also sometimes still struggle with deciding if things are valid complaints or not

        Oh, me too. >.> I sort of feel like if it bothers you (general pronoun), it’s a valid complaint in at least a personal sense, and if it bothers more than just you, it’s a problem in a social or (sub)cultural sense. It’s hard to hold to that when people are pressuring you to “get over it,” though.

        It’s like risk, in a way. What level of risk you tolerate varies wildly from person to person, and so one person can’t really just impose their own standards. There’s no universal standard of what’s risky and what’s not. Same with offense/complaints/whatever: there’s no bright universal line dividing “problem” from “not a problem.”

  • Tracey

    Libby Anne, thank you for blogging even though it can be difficult for you sometimes.
    I have never had any triggers for trauma. I did have an aversion to baby-related things for a while when I was trying (failing) to get pregnant before finally deciding on adoption. I know someone who has triggers from childhood and I’ve occasionally seen this person set off by them. I think with triggers it’s very much a balancing act. There are times it is best to avoid triggers because they are SO painful. Other times its better to face them and deal with it, because the world isn’t going to know about them and accommodate you. Good luck continuing to figure this stuff out.

  • wmdkitty

    My situation is compounded by my mental illnesses and my physical issues.

    My mobility is impaired. I have Cerebral Palsy, and use a wheelchair to get around. I know I need to spend more time out of the chair, but being separated from my mobility is horribly anxiety provoking, even when I’m in my own home, doors locked. At night, the manual chair is right next to my bed.

    I’ve had my lack of mobility used against me, in… numerous ways. This includes my lack of bodily strength, and my spastic legs (i.e. he’d treat me like I intentionally kicked him when it’s something I literally cannot control.) He’d criticize my posture, tell me not to “do that” with my left arm (when I’m tense, it curls up against my abdomen), and he would manhandle me, just pick me up and move me. As if I wasn’t already aware of my limitations…

    I’ve got a laundry list of psych diagnoses — Depression, ADD, some kind of anxiety disorder, OCD related to/fueled by the anxiety disorder, and a lovely case of PTSD to top off the shit sundae.

    He used those against me. He would deliberately downplay and dismiss them, like I could just “snap out of it”. Well, when you’re constantly trying to put on this “happy housewife” mask, and struggling with it… it turns the anxiety up to 11 and welds the knob in place. When I “bucked up” (read: “challenged” his “authority” or did anything that wasn’t “submit and obey”) he’d get angry. If I was five minutes late, he’d get angry. If I refused his request (especially intimate requests), he’d get angry, take what he wanted anyway, and then make like I was “overreacting” when I got upset over it.

    …yes. You read that last one right. Eventually I got to a point where it was easier to just roll over and submit to his “needs” while I dissociated and tried to pretend it was happening to someone not-me.

    I feel so. very. broken. sometimes.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I need a smoke.

    • Katty

      wmdkitty, I am so sorry for what happened to you and admire your courage in sharing (and thus confronting) such horrible experiences. I wish you strength in fighting your demons. May you some day regain your sense of security and self worth!

    • ako

      Being scared about separated from your chair makes perfect sense. I have crutches I use sometimes, and I know that being in a situation where I might not be able to use them is far more stressful than walking without them when I know I can get them if I need them. And that’s without the trauma you’ve been through. Not feeling safe would make the whole thing much more difficult.

    • Olive Markus

      I do not understand how you feel regarding your disability and being taken advantage over it. I’m so incredibly sorry and wish I had words.

      My abuser was similar to yours, though, and I’ve been trying to come to terms with the sexual abuse. I had forced myself to believe that it wasn’t what it really was, particularly because I had come to the same logical conclusion – it was easier to give in than fight more often than not. I wouldn’t allow myself to believe it was rape, as I hadn’t really fought every time, had I? And, of course, how dare I ever express negative emotion over it, as he was never in the wrong – I was. The HORRIBLE of it all. It is inexplicable, really.

      • AztecQueen2000

        I thought I was the only one. I’m so sorry. The last month I was with my husband was like that too.

      • Olive Markus


      • Feminerd

        How are you doing now, Aztec? You disappeared for awhile there.

      • AztecQueen2000

        I just could not bring myself to write about what happened, but it was all I could think about.

      • Olive Markus

        If Libby Anne wants to give you my email address, you’re free to write me anytime. Just to get things off your chest, or for any reason. Being able to do that helped me so much coming to terms with my situation.

      • Feminerd

        *Hugs* Good luck. I don’t really know what to say, but I’m glad you’re out, and good luck.

    • Saraquill

      *tea and sympathy* I’m glad to hear that he’s referred to in the past tense.

    • Rosa

      I am so angry at the he in that sentence. I hope your smoke made you feel better, and thank you for sharing all of that.

  • Whirlwitch

    I have an exaggerated startle reflex, a common symptom of PTSD. Sudden loud noises in particular cause me to jump and/or cry out. Often the cry is like a baby’s wail, which is really embarrassing. The most upsetting noises make my heart race for a while afterwards. Being raised in a violent, abusive household is probably where that comes from.

    Having my back touched by someone or something I can’t see triggers me badly. I panic and shake with fear, I can lash out violently, and I have also experienced age regression as a result. Suddenly being emotionally 8 years old, and a scared panicky 8 year old at that can put a real kink in trying to socialize as an adult in public. That trigger is a result of sexual abuse.

    I’m not sure I can even say how I cope other than that the concepts of “comfort”, “safe” and “quiet” are really important. I warn new friends not to touch my back unless I can see them. I have pets, pets are helpful. Stuffed toys are helpful too, especially when my pets don’t feel like being squeezed for long periods of time, which cats and ferrets rarely ever do.

    • Alix

      I have an exaggerated startle reflex, too. I mentioned it a few posts back in regards to tickling, but doors slamming unexpectedly, cellphones ringing, hell, even someone just standing behind me – I startle bad.

      …I’m starting to realize I’m more fucked up than I realized. When I wrote my epic ramble of doom upthread, I didn’t think I had that many triggers (I thought I had maybe two or three?) but the list just kept growing…

      The thing that’s bad is that nothing really “all that bad” ever happened to me. My father (the source of most of this) was/is an abusive asshole, but it rarely turned physical, and there’s still a part of me that thinks that verbal/emotional abuse doesn’t quite count. :/ “I’m fucked up because my daddy yelled* at me” – it just somehow never seems like enough, y’know?

      *It’s more complicated than that, in reality, but that’s what a one-word summary would be.

      • Olive Markus

        You and me both. This has been eye-opening.

  • MissMikey

    Libby Anne, you are one of my favorite bloggers and I have gained even more respect for you.

    That being said, my triggers are similar to what a lot of other people have said:

    Loud, unexpected noises behind me make jump a foot and my heart race. People following behind me for too long or too closely spark a flight or fight reaction. If I’m a particularly bad/vulnerable place emotionally, simply walking down the street can make me constantly look over my shoulder and cause a lot of anxiety. That’s because almost 20 years ago (hard to believe it’s been that long) I was shot by a random assailant who had followed me for a block or two.

    People trying to shut down my anger or diminish/dismiss my anger also triggers me. I end up feeling even more angry and like nobody is listening to what I’m trying to say. I was an emotional, reactive child raised by a woman who didn’t know to handle it. The message I took away from my childhood was that good girls don’t get angry, good girls don’t express anger, good girls don’t act on their emotions. Good girls are quiet and well-behaved and moms love good girls. As an adult I recognize that my mother’s reactions to me were really a reaction to her own childhood and she was just doing the best she could, but as a kid it was painful and confusing.

    Lastly, my weight can be a trigger. I was a very unhappy and lonely teenager and I gained a lot of weight. Part of it was just a natural response to puberty, but I also think I wasn’t ready for puberty and subconsciously gained weight to protect myself. But now, as an adult, the weight is inextricably linked to the unhappiness. Whenever I start gaining weight, I start panicking that I am going to become an unattractive unhappy lonely teenager again.

    Whew, I don’t think I’ve shared all of that with anyone who wasn’t a therapist. My boyfriend knows some of it, but not all and my mom feels guilty enough about my childhood that I’ve certainly never told her. One of the upsides to anonymous commenting on blogs!

    • MissMikey

      Whoops, I forgot to say how I deal with these triggers.

      After being shot, I was bound and determined not to be a victim, so I worked very hard on not letting fear take over my life. The panic responses I experience now are not debilitating, so I just accept them as a natural response to a traumatic experience. For me it gives them a lot less power than it would otherwise.

      For the other two, I just try to keep the intellectual part of my brain switched on, so I can talk myself through my response. It’s harder with the anger issue, since I’m obviously in the grip of strong emotion at that point. It does help me from lashing out and saying something I’ll regret later and makes it easier to apologize and talk through the issue with my loved ones afterwards.

      The weight thing generally sneaks up on me, but once I realize what’s going on, I’m usually able to sort through everything and remind myself of what I know intellectually.

      It took a lot of years, a lot of introspection, and a lot of different counselors to get to this point.

  • Katherine Hompes

    This is an awesome post! It’s not often that we get a chance to look inside and contemplate our triggers. I know that I have control issues stemming from anxiety- and as I’m losing mobility due to a degenerative spinal condition and most of my “controls” are physical (such as cleaning and organisation) I’m having a harder time than usual in dealing with any sort of stress- and my disability is certainly a stressor!

    Apart from that there are other things I can’t stand- I can’t ever sleep in the same bed as anyone else, and I can’t use public toilet blocks.

    I think it is important to think about triggers- not only our own, but also that everyone has them, and we can make allowances for that.

    • ako

      I wouldn’t say everyone has triggers. As I understand it, triggers are intense and specifically related to trauma, and I’ve heard from a lot of people with PTSD and similar disorders who object to the idea of equating all emotionally sensitive topics or hot buttons with triggers. (I’m not second-guessing anyone here – I am neither inside anyone else’s head nor their mental health care provider, so I’m in no position to judge if a reaction is really being triggered or not. I’m just disagreeing with the statement that everyone has them.)

      • wmdkitty

        This. There is a significant difference between your run-of-the-mill Berserk Button and a trigger.

      • Katherine Hompes

        I can understand that- and I’m certainly not using trigger as a clinical term I do think of triggers as anything that provokes a negative emotional response- both small and large. Do, a continuum of triggers- and I know that mine do span most of that continuum.

      • Leigha7

        Maybe not “everyone,” but certainly a very large percentage of people. I would imagine that a lot people who otherwise had no adverse reaction to traumatic events have one or two little things that trigger them, and the percentage of people who have experienced traumatic events is actually very high (I believe it’s around 60%). Only a handful actually develop PTSD, depression, anxiety, etc., but I would guess quite a few more have triggers.

  • Katherine

    Libby! Thank you for sharing this!

    I recently had a very triggering moment, the first in a really really long time, which resulted in a hellish night and then a lot of conversations between my partner and I about how to deal with triggers, anger, etc. I will definitely be sharing this post with her because it is such an excellent description of what being triggered feels like.

    For me, it’s things that take me back to my (mentally and emotionally) abusive relationship. The worst thing is gaslighting. I spent three years of my life being willfully controlled by someone who thought the best way to do so was to keep me as confused as possible and convince me I could not trust my own perceptions. So when I tell someone about an experience I had and they reply with “but that’s not what REALLY happened” my ears literally start ringing. I feel like I am in very real danger and my body goes into fight or flight mode. Not a fun time! Especially as, for most people, they aren’t ACTUALLY trying to delegitimize my experience or gaslight me, they are trying to comfort me by saying things like “I don’t think she was ignoring you at all!” And they don’t know about the trip wires in my brain.


    • Olive Markus

      I spent three years of my life being willfully controlled by someone who thought the best way to do so was to keep me as confused as possible and convince me I could not trust my own perceptions.


      He also loved to frighten me. He worked so hard to make sure I saw the world and everybody in it as scary and out to get me (he was paranoid himself). I was taught to not trust my own thoughts and feelings and to make sure I knew how incompetent I was to handle everything. He wanted to make me dependent on him, and he played into my pre-existing fears perfectly. He didn’t create my fears, he just turned my lifelong insecurities into full-blown phobias.

  • AlisonCummins

    When I’m confused I become frightened and angry. I don’t think this is a trigger thing, I think it’s personality, because my mother was the same way. I recognize the response and now I’m able to say things like “I’m sorry I snapped at you, but when you seemed to say one thing and do another I was confused and became frightened and angry.” This usually works for me: people are usually willing to walk through whatever it was with me until I calm down. For whatever reason when I get angry things tend not to escalate. Perhaps because I’m not normally angry so people’s reaction is surprise and concern, not more anger? Perhaps because I speak through clenched teeth and it’s clear I’m putting a lot of effort into restraining myself? Or maybe because when other people start to become angry I can switch my focus to them and actively de-escalate? Or maybe I just scare the $h!t out of them and they back off. Don’t know. Anyway, I end up calming down within a few minutes once I identify that the problem is just that I’m confused.

    If my beloved prevents me from conducting basic self-care — eating or dressing or other basic things like that — one of us needs to leave the house. Now.

    I also have a classic trigger. It’s my father. He has a controlling streak and all through my childhood and adolescence he tried to compel me to be the person he thought I should be or rewrite my experience into something pleasing to him. There was a major confrontation when I was 23 after which my mother took me for a walk and said she’d always admired my strength, standing up to him and defending myself against his (verbal) assaults all through my childhood. My first reaction was “Ok, good, it’s not me!” My second (not expressed) was “You stood back and watched while a grown man forced your child to defend herself over and over in her own home? What???”

    Once I left home I made it clear to him that contact with me was conditional on his respecting my autonomy. He was able to behave and things were fine between us for another thirty years, to the extent that I mostly forgot and even recapitulated his behaviour. Recently I visited him with his new wife who he treated just like he treated me when I lived with him. I screamed at him in public. When I got home I was shaking. It took me weeks to get over. I cried. I called my sisters. They understood: they’d been consciously aware of his controllingness all along and allied with one another against him. Until that incident I hadn’t understood why.

    Because I also have his controlling streak I trigger my sisters and our relationships have been difficult.

    My beloved is also controlling but rarely triggers me. I know how to stand my ground while preserving a relationship — I’ve had lots of practice — and I am fully aware that I can leave at any time. This was not true for me when I was living with my father and while it’s technically true for his new wife she is more dependent on my father than I am on my beloved.

    • Leigha7

      Your description of your parents reminds me a little of my home growing up. I was raised by my grandparents, and my grandpa had a horrible temper and would completely lose it over the tiniest things. Even just spilling some juice would result in my being yelled at (literal yelling, not “yelled at” as in just negative speech) and told I was an idiot and needed to learn to behave like a human being (that phrase…ugh). My grandma, if she was there, would frequently just leave the room, and console me later. She frequently expressed sympathy for me, but I was always a bit hurt and frustrated by the fact that she didn’t step in.

      That said, I understand why (sort of). For one, it wouldn’t have done any good. Any reaction she had (including leaving the room, but especially anything involving emotion) made it worse for me, because then he’d turn on me with, “See what you did? Now you’ve pissed her off.” So staying out of it was probably best in that sense. Second, she was abused as a child, so it’s extremely hard for her to be around that. Speaking of triggers, I know she has a lot (and I grew up knowing what many of them were–like being tickled–long before I had any idea about triggers or even abuse), and name-calling along the lines of being stupid or worthless is definitely one of them.

      As for me, making sense of that sort of thing is still difficult. Technically, it fits the description of emotional abuse, but I struggle with that. I love my grandfather, and he did good in a lot of ways. He’s taught me a lot, and I know he genuinely cares about me. Also, he’s changed–when I was in college, he learned to control his temper better (of course, part of it is just me not living there anymore, but he has changed a lot), and it almost seems impossible that he was really that bad. Most of the time, I feel like it doesn’t much matter, because no good can come of calling it that. Other times, I doubt myself and assume it must never have been as bad as I think it was. And still other times, I’m just mad that it happened, regardless of whether it counts as abuse or not. But calling it abuse makes me feel nauseous (because it sounds so serious) and mean (because how could I say that about my family?), and also scared for no apparent reason. So I don’t.

  • RowanVT

    Condescending doubt when I’ve relayed the story of when I was stalked when I was 17 will prompt mini panic attacks; rush of adrenaline, fear, increased heart rate. I think this is because of the attitude the cops took when I called them.

    The guy tried to break in one morning and I was so scared that I hid in a closet for 3 hours before calling. The officer that arrived told me that I waited too long, and how was he supposed to know if someone actually tried to break in or if I was just having an argument with my boyfriend.

  • Hilary

    I’m at a choir rehersal. Several Reform and Conservative temple choirs are getting together to perform 3 pieces of Jewish choral music as part of a larger concert, that will be conducted by a famous Jewish Cantor/conductor. One of the songs is Sim Shalom. I’ve known this song all my life, and I’m excited to learn it better, as part of a choir.

    But after each rehersal, I’m cranky, snipping at Penny. Then going home, giving someone a carpool ride, I can’t talk. My throat closes, I’m close to tears, it’s all I can do to drive safely. Later that night I feel lonely, like a deep upwelling of an ocean current of lonelyness. There is no specific memory, just a feeling of overwhelming lonelyness. Earlier at another rehearsal I had to leave and spend the entire time hiding in the temple’s kitchen and bathroom. Then I just thought it was because I was upset over something at work, but I finally figure it out: that song is triggering me.

    I used to sing to myself when I was lonely as a child. I was lonely a lot – I had good parents, but the world isn’t well set up for a girl who scores ~100% INTJ on the Myers-Briggs, and is not kind to an eccentric introvert. I was badly bullied in grade school and one of my coping mechanisms was to sing to myself in Hebrew. There weren’t any other Jewish kids in my grade that I knew, so Hebrew music something special, something only I had, something the kids who hurt me and the teachers who ignored it didn’t have. (Note: I wasn’t bullied for being Jewish, but for being eccentric, and because someone had to be at the bottom of the social order. An introvert with poor social skills and fasion sense was a perfict match for the job).

    That worked, except when I was at Sunday school, or Hebrew lessons, or at Jewish day camp, or Confirmation Class. I didn’t have any friends there either, and being Jewish wasn’t something uniqually special. But the music, prayers, and holidays were still special to me, and I still sang Sim Shalom for comfort when I was lonely. For all the years I spent in Jewish education, classes, and day camp, my wife is literally my first Jewish BFF. My wife the pastor’s daughter who I met at a Catholic college. Irony, exibit A.

    I kept trying to push through it. Then at the first concert, I’m on stage singing and my throat closes up. It’s all I can do to lipsynch, keep breathing, not burst out sobbing, and trying to wipe away tears as naturally and casually as possible since I’m in the front row, singing live and it’s being recorded. Thank God I refuse to wear makeup for anything other then a job interview. I was good for another round of tears in the hallway afterwards.

    Since I had one more concert to sing at, I had to figure out a way to desensitize myself to that song. I *like* that song, and I wanted to be able to sing it and enjoy it. So what I did was play Sim Shalom on repeat in my car for the next several days. Anytime I was driving, I played that song and nothing else. After a day I could listen to it and have my mind wander off without a problem. After three days of this, I was really bored listening to it, and I managed to get through the 2nd concert without a problem.

    It wasn’t until I spent all day today thinking about this story and wondering if it was worth sharing here, since it seems like very small potatoes compared to what other people were bringing up, that I realized something: exactly what I was doing desensitizing myself *in my car*. I was in my car, a place where I feel safe, competant and in control. And driving across town on freeways through rush hour takes a lot of concentration, and kinetic memory and connection. I’ve studied EMDR a little as a treatment for PTSD, not because I have it but to help some of my friends who do, because I might someday adopt a kid from foster care who does have PTSD, and because brain neuroscience is interesting.

    IIRC, some of the brain science behind PTSD and triggers is that when something happens during high trauma or danger, the amount of cortisol being released in your body for fight, flight, or freeze survival instincts interferes with the neurological interactions that store the memory. Unlike non-traumatic memories, trauma memories aren’t well integrated into the overall neural network. So when they get accessed, it’s not ‘I remember this’ but ‘Oh shit I’m back there again! Fuck I’ve got to survive!’ complete with another adrenalin response. IE, flashbacks, among other things. EMDR is a therapy where people re-visit the memory of the trauma where they are safe and in control, with one side of their brain, then the other getting stimulated rhythmically. Somehow the stimulation crossing that neural bridge between the brain hemispheres helps re-wire the traumatic memory so that it can be accessed as a memory, not an immediate ‘I’m back there again’ response.

    So I was exposing myself over and over again to a trigger in a very safe place, while engaged in intense visual and kinetic concentration to navigate through traffic. I think I was doing a little DIY EMDR to take out a trigger that had been bothering me for 2 months in about 3 days. Granted this wasn’t the world’s biggest trigger, not even my biggest trigger, but it still had been really bothering me. And now, I can enjoy a beautiful piece of choral music without loosing it.

    • Olive Markus

      That’s very interesting! Right before I’d moved, I’d finally found a therapist that made me feel comfortable and that I felt was on the same page as I was regarding how to approach my issues. This is one of the therapies she’d suggested for me. This was before I’d come to terms with a lot of the things I’d gone through, but I feel that she was more in tune than I was with the fact that I had past traumas to deal with and was, in fact, dealing with PTSD. I was pretty clueless, to be honest.

      Thank you for sharing your story :D. I apologize, but the thing that stood out to me most is that I’m TERRIFIED of driving. I’m almost as scared being a passenger. My inability to drive has kept me from doing so many things I want to do, and I have to psych myself up all day just to go grocery shopping (which I do in the evening, well after rush hour “traffic.”) Going out of town on my own is simply out of the question, and the one time I felt brave enough to try, my mom literally wouldn’t let me and instantly (and without my OK) made my dad fly out and drive me (no joke). I was 30. The idea that this exact situation is your safe spot is so foreign to me! I’m impressed :).

      • Hilary

        I’m glad you liked it. After I hit post I was thinking, wow Hilary, like anybody is going to be interested in you getting over a song. But I’m glad I wrote it.
        Penny can drive, but some how I ended up the default driver in our marriage. I got my license at 16, and by 17 I was on the freeway to get to work after school. My car is one of my safe spots – I can control noise, the environment, it moves as I make it move, the freedom to go where I need to, get what I need, and I can help out my friends schlepping stuff or picking them up.

  • Susie M

    Tell me I was a rebellious teenager and the floodgates open.
    I’m so lucky, though. My living parent figured out that people like the Pearls, etc are NOT people to follow (thank you brave pastor who declared that from the pulpit). She’s apologized. I’ve forgiven. We’re friends. But my mother in law won’t let up. (Cause I married her son, so I deserve to be hated. Obviously.) She likes to tell me I was a bad, rebellious, angry teenager.
    All that ever does is remind me of the inadvertent abuse, emotional scarring of losing a parent, and my surviving parent’s and my journey to discovering that you can’t physically punish your seventeen year old.
    So yeah, triggers.

  • KevinKat

    I don’t know what triggers me, but every now and then at work I’ll just go into ballistic anxiety panic attack mode. I’m trying to figure out my trigger.

    My girlfriend triggers at the noise of sirens, she had a near-death car accident. I recognize this and when I start hearing sirens (I can pick them out a little earlier than her) I make sure I am holding onto her hand.

  • Nate Frein

    Sudden lights on my left side while driving — I was blindsided while delivering pizzas in Japan (thank dog for seat belts)

    I have trouble with scenes dealing with suicide via pills or suffocation, or scenes of suffocation in general, because those were methods I tried.

    I sometimes have trouble with intimacy where my partner comes from behind. While I have been able to be receptive in that position, the moment my partner pushes down on my back or similar, I flash back to being held down and raped. I like to be spooned, but if my wife starts spooning me while I’m half asleep I startle violently.

    I’m still figuring out how to deal with all this. Often, something leaves me troubled and it just manifests as vague, angry snappishness and when I realise what’s going on I can’t even remember what started it.

    • Hilary

      I wish you all the luck, love, and support in the world dealing with this. Do check out EMDR as a possible therapy, I’ve seen it recommended for both combat veterans and survivors of sexual trauma.

  • Monika Jankun-Kelly

    Thank you for explaining this, Libby. May it help your readers, including me, be more understanding in the future. I say I try to be sympathetic, but it’s hard for me to really understand what it’s like for someone with triggers, and not react with just “she’s overreacting to reasonable discussion”. This post has really helped me see things from your vantage a bit better. Thanks for the apology, and let me offer one in return. I apologize for expecting, on some level, that a person with your life experience would react the same way as someone who hadn’t gone through those horrors. That’s an unfair expectation, and I’ll try to be more aware of it popping up.

  • Marcie Ramirez

    I am triggered when people tell me to trust in God or anything along those lines.

  • Silver

    I have been reading these now as I was on vacation. I want to let you know that I really appreciate you sharing your “vulnerable parent” moments as much as you are able to do so. I feel like I can take these lessons about things you wish you had done better and use them myself to be a positive parent to my daughter (8 months old). That being said, you should do whatever you need to in order to stay mentally healthy.

  • Snipe

    I’ve been wanting to respond to this topic since it was published, but words have failed me every time. Hopefully I’ll be able to respond this time.

    The concept of triggers is a new one to me, and I’m still learning to identify and cope with them. However, simply knowing about triggers and their effects has been an extremely helpful experience. I used to believe that there was something wrong with me, but in retrospect I can recognize my reactions to certain things are simply triggers.

    I’ve noticed that being patronized, being wrong, and a feeling of being in trouble are huge triggers for me. Many interactions with my parents are triggering. I was mocked for expressing my opinions and emotions during my life with them, and I was spanked as a child up until age 12. I can’t remember the infractions, but I vividly remember the feeling of utter terror, hopelessness, and dread. As an adult, I never know when a casual conversation with them will turn into a lecture, an inappropriately personal question, or unsolicited advice. Those things trigger the dread, the flight or fight response, and often, acid reflux and depression. That reaction carries into other parts of my life, including work. It’s no way to live.

    Thus, here I am at age 32, working to undo the damage done in the past. Thank you, Libby Anne, for putting a name to that reaction called “triggering”. It has given me the ability to recognize what is happening to me when I suddenly feel sad or depressed due to certain occurrences. It’s reassuring that I’m not the only one, that this wasn’t my fault, and that, by recognizing that I have been triggered, I can lessen the impacts. Again, thank you.

  • Feminerd

    I’m so sorry that these things have happened to you all!

    Am I the only person here with a fairly healthy upbringing and relationship history? Is abuse really this common? My parents were actually very good parents; a bit overprotective, but not smothering or anything. Definitely no abuse of any kind. I’ve dated a few jerks, but never been in an abusive relationship or sexually assaulted. I have hot-button issues, but that’s a world away from triggers which I don’t have. Have I just been incredibly, insanely lucky?

    • Alix

      I suspect there’s something of a selection bias with this blog. A lot of people interested in the kind of abusive subculture stuff Libby Anne talks about probably come from similar subcultures or relationships themselves. Also, it’s not like every regular commenter posted here. :)

      I’m glad you have had a healthy relationship history with your family and partners. I know for my part my abuse – being almost entirely emotional/psychological – was often minimized or normalized, so sometimes it’s hard for me to remember/believe it’s possible for people to not have fucked-up families/relationships. It’s nice to be reminded it’s possible.

      …but I also suspect abuse happens a lot more than people recognize. It took me years to recognize the way my father treated us as abusive – it took longer to actually act on that recognition. He just “had a temper.” We must’ve somehow set him off. It was fine to relentlessly berate me for being fat, not dating, whatever – if I wanted it to stop I could’ve changed, yeah? He wasn’t cruel to others, so we must be exaggerating. I was “just being a teenager.”

      And fwiw, I’m not sure I’d characterize my whole life as abusive. My father was/is an abusive asshole. My brother often exhibits a lot of the same behavior, though I cut him a bit more slack because he got the brunt of my father’s shittiness. My mom has always been bad at handling her emotions, but she’s been a good mother, and we’ve now progressed to a solid relationship based on open communication. My sister’s like this tiny package of sheer awesome. Most of the non-family members have been great – surprisingly, even the Baptist church that became our family church, which is like no other church I’ve ever been in and full of truly warm, welcoming people who still genuinely consider me a part of their community despite knowing full well I’m a committed pagan. They’ve never given me shit about any of that.

      But abusive behaviors are common. People are taught to tolerate explosive tempers. Stalking is considered behavior fit for romantic comedies. Women are socialized, still, to self-sacrifice to the point of self-denial, to accept whatever men dish out. Men are still socialized to not recognize or handle their own emotions well, with anger being seen as their most legitimate release. Folks still commonly act like women somehow owe men sex, should beg them for personhood. And gender roles and gender identity are still strictly enforced and policed, even in communities that ought to know better. Given all that, how can abusive relationships be uncommon?

      …I’m sorry for the ramble here. In all honesty, I’m struggling with my reaction, here: on the one hand, like I said, it’s genuinely good to be reminded that not all families have to be broken like mine was, that not all men have to be assholes like my father.

      On the other hand, though, I can’t help but hear all the people who don’t think my abuse was “bad enough.” Who don’t think abuse happens enough to really take seriously. Who reached for any and every excuse to minimize, dismiss, or explain away everything my dad ever did. I know that’s not what you’re saying, but it’s what I hear in the back of my head.

      And it’s awful, because my initial reaction is outrage at the idea that my experience might not be common – but at the same time I really hope you’re right and we’re all anomalies. I really hope people don’t experience the shit I got put through or the multitude of worse things – but at the same time I don’t want to be alien here. :/ Complicated emotions, I haz them.

      …And I need to shut up and go to bed. XD Sorry again for the epic ramble of doom, and five days late at that.

      • Feminerd

        Epic ramble is fine :)

        I think the healthy relationship with parents honestly helped set me up later for healthier relationships with boyfriends, because I had healthy models to build off of and pretty healthy self-esteem. Abusers don’t usually look for women who are self-confident (and poor, since I was in college at the time), though it definitely can and does happen.

        And just to super squash that voice in the back of your head, I believe you about your abuse. I’m sorry that happened, and I offer gentle Internet hugs to you in hopes to make you feel better.

      • Alix

        Thanks. :)

        I sometimes really wish we taught actual classes, like mandatory things in school and not random lessons squeezed into health classes if you’re lucky, about how to deal with other people and emotional intelligence and stuff like that. What healthy relationships look like. What behaviors are warning flags. When not to take advice from Hollywood romances. How to healthily handle anger – and what to do when confronted with someone who doesn’t. How to recognize and talk about emotions – in yourself and others. How to deal with people with entirely different personality types. What authoritarianism is and why it’s a problem – and the warning signs. (That book by Altemeyer should be required reading before one graduates high school, dammit.)

        People don’t always get these lessons at home, and this stuff isn’t always intuitive, y’know? I am not joking when I say the best lessons I got on how to understand and handle people came not from my parents, not from ~intuition~, not from osmosis, but from an etiquette book my grandmother gave me.

        The cynical side of me notes that even basic sex ed is hard to get in schools, because it flies right in the face of authoritarians. (Obviously, lol.) But hey, a ~weird can dream.

      • Feminerd

        Indeed. I think that would be awesome.

        I may have avoided the really bad situations, but I also graduated high school completely unable to read people. I’ve gotten better over time, but that’s because my boyfriend-now-husband was appalled at it and offered to help me get better. We’d talk to someone or be in some social situation, and he’d ask me what I thought of it afterwards. Then he’d tell me what he got out of it and what things (facial expressions, wording, body language, etc) he’d used to figure this out. I wasn’t usually wrong, but I was missing a lot of social cues and subtle things. A course about people, anger, relationship red flags, authoritarianism, etc would have been really helpful.

      • wmdkitty

        I would SO sign up for that class!

      • Alix

        Me too.

      • Alix

        I had to learn how to read people – I got a book on body language out from the library out of sheer curiosity, and it was like, holy crap, I had no idea there was so much meaning conveyed nonverbally. I had to learn how to express myself nonverbally – both Mom and I default to neutral expressions and blank faces; my nickname was not Great Stone Face for nothing.

        I also had to teach myself how to handle talking on the phone, or dealing with any service person. I still have to walk through mental scripts so I know what’s likely to be expected of me – this stuff is not intuitive for me. I still can’t handle random strangers popping by my house unexpectedly – I flail around for what to say to them, or even how to identify if they’re people I want to talk to (talking here mostly about my chronic inability to identify petition-pushers…).

        And if nothing else, being taught that this stuff needs to be taught would make me feel less alone. Less like a freak, for not just “getting” it, like this is all some secret knowledge that I should’ve been born with. And it would let us all know we’re all on the same page, working through emotions and social cues, and that it’s okay to talk about all this.

      • Feminerd

        Oh yes, everything you’ve said.

        And then maybe we can put to rest the damned myth that all women (or female-bodied people) are automatically magically good at this people and emotion stuff! It fucks up so many relationships when the woman is supposed to be a mind-reader, super attuned to the man’s moods and wants, while the man must be told each and every time what the woman wants because he clearly isn’t capable of basic social interaction. I hate that social myth with a burning passion and want to kill it with fire.

        Also, I apparently get a bit violent-minded when tired. My inner pyromaniac also comes out to play.

      • Alix

        My inner pyro is always hovering just below the surface, ready for a good time. XD

        …I hate all gender-binary shit with that same burning passion. KILL ALL THE BULLSHIT WITH EPIC FIRE!! It can be like a reenactment of Medea’s revenge, but with less burning princesses and more crispy patriarchy.

        …I may be just a little punchy right now. Sorry.

        But seriously, men can be good at this emotion thing too. Hell, men SHOULD be good at it, in the basic competency sense, just as women and queer folk should be. It’s like, that sort of thing should be taught to all humans as part of being human, not just shoved off onto one gender while the other withers.

  • AztecQueen2000

    For me, the greatest trigger is anything related to rape culture. I can’t get into my reasons yet (may at some future date on my blog), but anytime I hear some misogynist statement tying rape to what a woman was wearing, I can’t even think straight. All I want to do is curl up and scream and cry.