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Triggers Great and Small

Updated: Apr 11

Three Ring Circus, part of the Natural Selection Installation, by Carrera

On display at Northwest Marine Art Works, Portland, OR

Since August, I’ve been working with a dear friend on creating a Personal Development curriculum for 12th graders. She teaches at a high school for recent immigrants, and her students are all learning English while navigating their new lives as young adults in the U.S. 


It has been a humbling experience for us, as we try to devise weekly lessons that meet the students where they are, given their economic struggles, their cultural backgrounds, and the racism they experience on a regular basis. One recent lesson that sparked the students’ attention more than most was about emotional triggers.


The word trigger is used casually these days, to describe anything that is even mildly annoying. But triggers can run deeper than that. Emotional triggers are people, words, opinions, or situations that provoke an especially intense reaction within us. Being triggered is like having an alarm go off in your body. 


Triggers can provide useful information about who we are and what matters to us. And sometimes they signal the need to heal an old wound, with the help of therapy of some kind.

The Things I Left Behind by Pamela Chipman.

On display at Northwest Marine Art Works, Portland, OR

What causes emotional triggers?


Triggers are tricky business, and psychologists approach them through different lenses. Triggers vary in intensity and type with each individual, but most fall into one of three categories:


1. Triggers that we experience as disrespect. The inner voices says something like “Something that I value is being disregarded.”



  • the rude or inconsiderate behavior of a stranger

  • political battles or decisions that are upsetting


2. Triggers that create feelings of shame and inadequacy. The inner voice says: “This is evidence that I’m not good enough.”



  • someone else getting more validation or attention

  • getting rejected or ghosted

  • being ignored and interrupted


3. Triggers that bring back a traumatic experience from the past, when we were mistreated or abused, or when we felt unsafe or threatened. The inner voice says: “I’m really shaken up deep down, and I need help to understand this and cope with it.”



  • loud voices or yelling; arguments

  • being ridiculed, judged or dismissed

  • inappropriate behavior - harassment or unwanted touching

  • certain sounds, sights, smells, or tastes


Some of these examples could fall under more than one category, depending on the context. But the point is, triggers are to be taken seriously, especially if they bring about emotions, thoughts and behaviors that feel unmanageable or undesirable. 

Autoportrait by Drew Laughery

On display at Northwest Marine Art Works, Portland, OR 

It can be difficult to look closely at our triggers and their underlying causes. It's complex and sensitive terrain, no doubt.


Remarkably, the 12th graders in my friend's class were open to reflecting on their triggers and sharing them with their classmates. A few examples of theirs:

  • "when people are hypocrites."

  • "when someone critiques everything."

  • "when my coworker doesn't do anything and just uses her phone."

  • "when someone raises their voice at me when we are arguing."

  • "when someone treats you different because of your race, religion, or the way you look."


With several of my coaching clients who feel comfortable exploring their triggers in our sessions, I have found that the conversation helps them get crystal clear on what they value, what they stand for, and how they can set healthy boundaries as they create more purpose-driven lives. It's easier to answer the question “What really sets you off?” than “What are your deepest values?” It gets right to the heart of what matters. Triggers often indicate when our deepest values are getting minimized or violated.


Try to remember the last time you had an intense negative emotional response, out of the blue. This could be anger, loneliness, fear, sadness, shame, or emptiness. What was the trigger, and what does it tell you about yourself? The answer may lead to finding help for healing. It could also lead to self-understanding that can help you change course and move forward in a new way. 




Responding when Emotionally Activated, especially for educators, Bright Morning Consulting

Understanding Mental Illness Triggers, National Alliance on Mental Illness


A Note about the Art


The artists featured in this newsletter are members of the Northwest Marine Art Works, an artist studio collective based in the Slabtown neighborhood of Portland. It's a vibrant community of over 80 artists, makers and creative businesses that share space and resources.


Their biannual open studio event is the weekend of June 1st + 2nd,

10 am - 4 pm. More information is here! Hope to see you there!

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