Everyone experiences some kind of fear, pain, or adversity as a child. Hell, just being birthed is pretty traumatic shit. And because our first order of business on earth is to determine just how safe it is around here, babies pay close attention and take note of suspicious activity.
The hippocampus, which records explicit memories in our brain, is not fully developed for about two and half years. This is why we don’t have many vivid images or declarative recollections from infancy. However, the amygdala is plug-and-play at birth. This part of our brain stores emotional memories, i.e., records of feelings that do not necessarily have a context we can drudge up.
The amygdala is responsible for processing threatening stimuli and activating survival responses. It’s basically an undercover whistle-blower with a photographic memory of all the shady shit that’s ever happened to you since you were zero. Oh yeah, and it has no capacity for awareness of the passage of time. If putting your hand on a hot stove sucked when you were eight, it’ll probably suck just as bad when you’re eighty. So the amygdala has no use for time whatsoever.
Furthermore, as all our sensory input travels sequentially through our nervous system, it passes through our amygdala before reaching our neocortex — the place where conscious thought occurs. The result is that everything we perceive must first maneuver through a minefield of triggers before our survival brain is willing to hand it off to rational thought.
Does this feel like being left to cry in my crib for six hours?
Is this dog similar to the dog that bit me?
Does that guy smell like my drunk uncle?
Remember what happened last time you heard sirens?
Everyone’s got a catalog to flip through.
What Happens to Us When We’re Triggered
When Captain Amygdala pinches a sketchy input, it notifies Brainzilla immediately. Our lizard brain handles our survival responses of fight, flight, freeze, or fawn and employs them with the utmost fidelity.
If warranted, we mobilize for action, and physiological changes in our brain, muscles, circulatory, and endocrine systems register in milliseconds. Or, perhaps we go the way of immobilization and dissociate from our sensory inputs altogether.
In either case, our logical, thinking brain is generally not driving the bus anymore, and shit gets weird.
What Happens to Others When We’re Triggered
If you walk through a busy mall and all of a sudden start screaming and running in a panicked frenzy, the people around you will definitely react. Some will jump out of the way. Others will run with you. Some will start screaming as well. Many will scan the environment for threats.
In other words, a triggered nervous system triggers other nervous systems.
If you start acting like you’ve perceived a threat, it’s evolutionarily advantageous for me to assume that there is, in fact, a threat. So I’m gonna let my lizard out the bag, too. Fuck it.
Universal Human Triggers
Being type 1 diabetic, when my blood sugar is low, my whole nervous system starts screaming, “Holy shit, we’re dying! Stop everything you’re doing and go eat something now!” It feels like a panic attack every time. Very triggering.
Now, to generalize, my body is responding to an unmet need. When I satisfy that need, it takes a chill pill.
A similar thing happens when you don’t feel safe, seen, soothed, or secure. Your body recognizes an unmet need and gets a little panicky. Maybe it cranks up the cortisol, turns on the hypervigilance, and starts flipping through Rolodex for a good trauma response to dial up.
Whatever the case, humans tend to get a little edgy and standoffish when their needs are threatened or neglected.
It doesn’t help that the vast majority of people don’t know their fundamental human needs from a jar of mayonnaise. So we find large swaths of the population walking around with chronically unmet needs, threatened on both sides by their inability to communicate their needs and the subsequent unlikelihood that anyone else is gonna fix it for them. And they become a threat to others, triggering a chain reaction.
Trigger Loops in Relationships
A classic negative feedback loop happens frequently within anxious-avoidant partnerships. This couple is comprised of one person who strongly desires connection and validation, while the other has a deep need for protection and autonomy. Either one can initiate the loop, but it often looks something like the following.
The anxious partner is triggered by feeling unseen, unloved, and disconnected from the other and begins with protest behavior or some kind of bid for connection. “Why do you have to work so much?” or, “We never go out anymore.” And because neither of these is a direct expression of how I feel or what I need (using I-statements), they come off as manipulative, critical, and accusatory.
You-statements are usually presumptuous boundary violations. We-statements are just boundary violations hiding behind a “me too” consolation prize. And using the words always or never typically indicates a trauma response of some sort — patently false, hyperbolic, emotional rhetoric at best. Furthermore, the first attempt is based on the assumption that “You have to work so much,” and the second is firmly rooted in “We never go out” — both exactly what the speaker doesn’t want to be true!
Thus, the partner who deeply craves connection has just shot themselves in the foot and rolled a live hand-grenade into the middle of the relationship. And because avoidants usually grow up in toxic emotional environments full of enmeshment, gaslighting, and codependency, their bullshit-meters are highly advanced and very finely tuned. They already know this impending argument is a flaming bag of poo their partner expects them to jump on in order to prove their love.
Frankly, it’s insulting to expect they’re gonna fall for the oldest trick in the book. Unboundaried, wounded-child-like communication is literally what made them avoidant in the first place. This reenactment of their childhood trauma is triggering as hell. Understandably so. But when the avoidant withdraws in an act of self-preservation, the anxious partner experiences abandonment — the exact opposite of what they desperately crave, and ironically enough, a replica of theirchildhood trauma.
That could not have turned out any worse.
Anatomy of a Trigger Loop
The most fascinating feature of the anxious-avoidant pair is that the awful, overwhelming, abandonment feeling the anxious partner gets when the avoidant withdraws is equally as terrifying as the smothered, violated feeling the avoidant gets when the anxious one demands engagement. This is why conflict can be such a shit spiral within these relationships.
Anxiously attached folks are triggered by distance and react by connecting, and avoidantly attached people are triggered in connection and react by distancing. One person’s trauma response is the other one’s trigger!
Again, the avoidant partner could have started this ball rolling by feeling overwhelmed and needing to take some space, which lights the anxious fuse. “Where are you going? Is something wrong? What did I do? When will I hear from you? Who will you be with?” Then the avoidant wants nothing but to join the witness protection program, and the anxious one wants to place twenty-six consecutive, unanswered phone calls to their partner.
In either case, the moment one is triggered, the other is sure to follow. Like clockwork. And you don’t have to be in an anxious-avoidant partnership to have a similar dynamic. This stuff happens all the time. You can clearly identify it when a couple has the same ass argument a thousand times and nothing changes.
Breaking the Cycle
As a reminder, triggers and trauma responses are not voluntary. They are compulsive. Therefore, my first suggestion is to gain a deep understanding of you and your partner’s triggers so you can avoid them whenever possible. Ultimately, however, this is not the final solution.
Deciding not to waltz through a minefield anymore is just the beginning you need to build safety and trust, which are indispensable to the healing process. But resolving your trauma once and for good won’t be the result of self-knowledge and trigger-avoidance. You’ll know deep healing has occurred when you can experience a trigger and respond to it from a place of choice and empowerment rather than reacting involuntarily.
The good news is that your triggers point directly at your childhood wounds like flashing, neon pink signs. You can follow those things right back to the crime scene in a jiffy. The bad news is that you can’t heal relational trauma by yourself. I sincerely recommend finding a competent, trauma-informed therapist or relationship coach to help walk you through that process.
And if you can’t afford therapy at the moment, lucky for you, there are billions of emotionally wounded people who can’t afford therapy either. Find out what these people are doing to heal. Check out some twelve-step recovery groups. Visit some churches. Read books. Scour the internet for free resources, webinars, videos, and podcasts. There is so much support available to you.
And for the love of God, find out what your feelings are telling you about your unmet needs, so you can set some boundaries, level up your self-care game, and have healthy, productive conflict in your relationships.