Many of my clients express frustration when they experience episodes of feeling triggered. They feel like their bodies have failed them and wonder why they “can’t get their act together.”
But experiencing triggers is a natural and unavoidable reality of living in the world. We cannot purge our environment of all of the cues (sensory, contextual, seasonal, relational, systemic, ecological) that might set off a survival response deep inside our bodies. And so learning to recognize and manage our responses to triggering events is an important aspect of healing at the level of the nervous system.
This process of learning is an ongoing, life-long journey, one that I am still deeply engaged in myself.
Just the other day, I experienced a trigger in the most unlikely of circumstances…
I was walking my dogs (a 10-year-old beauty and a feisty, adorable 7-month-old puppy) on the beach as I do every morning. Celebrating the freedom of letting them run and play without having to be overly vigilant. It is one of the gifts of living at the coast: the proximity to the beach, the joy of unburdening myself to the vast power of the ocean each day and resting in the simplicity of just being. You could say that the beach is my happy place!
Quite suddenly, a coyote emerged from the dunes just 20 feet from us. Any other place and I would not have startled to see a coyote. I might have even caught my breath at the sight of its unexpected beauty. But coyotes don’t hang out on the beach, and it was clear that this coyote was hungry, unintimidated and very interested in the puppy.
I quickly gathered the dogs and leashed the puppy. We made our way back home under the steady gaze of the coyote who continued to follow us while lurking at the edges of the dunes. It was a stressful mile-plus walk.
By the time I arrived home, I was totally activated. The surprise of encountering the coyote in an unexpected place, a place that had previously felt like my safety zone, coupled with the feeling of being followed and watched from the sidelines in a menacing way, reactivated a seemingly unrelated memory for me. A recent and painful time in my life when I was blindsided and maligned by a community that I had been entirely devoted to. That earlier experience was devastating and impacted my life on many levels for a long time afterward.
And here I was in the present moment, swallowed up by the shadow of a magnificent coyote, experiencing the same historic feeling of having my sense of ease and joy cut off and threatened suddenly and out of the blue.
The coyote was such a random trigger. So seemingly unrelated. I didn’t want to be feeling this way. And yet there it was, as plain as daylight. The memories and insecurities of that earlier painful time in my life were alive and very much in my face, asking for yet another round of healing and self-compassionate awareness.
This is how it goes…we are feeling good one minute and the next, something random sets us off.
So how do we live life managing the unexpected? For me the answer is both simple and not simple. Simple in the approach, not so simple in that we must practice with this up and down dance over and over again throughout life.
Here is the formula that I use for myself and that I teach to others in the Nervous System RESET model: Learn how to recognize the autonomic responses that are alive inside our bodies. Make space to honor those responses when they show up. Cultivate practices and resources that support us moving through the uncomfortable feelings, building trust that we will come out again on the other side anchoring back to a felt experience of present-tense safety.
For me the other day, this is how that process looked: I immediately knew that I was activated because of my body response and was able to identify how vulnerable I felt. I recognized that in my vulnerable state, my capacity to handle life challenges that day had shifted. I felt less able to accomplish the number of tasks I had set out for myself that morning. And so, I reassessed my load and made some adjustments so that I was working within a more accurate window of tolerance for myself. I made space to be gentle with myself and patient with the process of my nervous system slowly finding its way back to recovery. Along the way, I supported myself with a handful of regulating practices (the very same RESET practices that I teach my clients) which allowed my system to slowly settle and reorient to the safety of my present moment.
It took a few hours to come back to a more centered place. It took a number of days to recover from the vulnerability and insecurity that had been triggered. And still today, I continue to work with the traces of that earlier experience which re-emerged in the coyote’s shadow, understanding that this is how healing works.
We revisit earlier wounds only to find along the way that we are indeed building greater resilience in the face of the original wounding. This is true even when we are triggered and even if the memory and imprint of the original event still lingers in our body responses to those triggers. We can be whole and still healing, even when we appear to falter in the face of triggers. We do this dance in increments, one step at a time. Baby steps and patience go a long way in healing!
So, the next time you feel activated by something in your life, perhaps there is an invitation here to consider framing what you are experiencing not as “failure” or “weakness,” not as “moving backwards,” but rather as an inherent component of life. Because at some level, we are all learning how to work in kindness and compassion with ourselves during the ragged, tender moments when life catches us off guard and brings us to our knees.