‘Triggered’ is a word we hear a lot these days, especially when someone becomes upset, or even sometimes when someone is purposefully wanting someone to feel upset. ‘What she said really triggered me and made me angry’, or ‘I was mean on purpose just to trigger them, serves them right for being oversensitive’.
In the context of Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (REBT, the type of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy we practice), clients often refer to ‘being triggered’ or their ‘trigger situation’, whether that be experiencing uncertainty, having to make a presentation, or arguing with a family member. As a therapist, we know what they mean, but we also understand that accurate language is important on the therapeutic journey, so we will often discuss this to help them better understand what is happening.
For REBT practitioners, what many call the trigger, we call the critical Activating Event i.e., what someone is most upset about. For example, if someone’s ‘Activating Event’ is flying, the critical A may actually be the feeling of loss of control, rather than the whole flying experience.
It is this critical A that provokes our irrational, unhelpful beliefs, which in turn provoke the unhealthy feelings, thoughts and behaviours that lead people to seek therapeutic help.
From this, we encourage clients to start thinking and saying ‘my unhealthy beliefs or mindset were provoked in situation X’, rather than ‘I was triggered by X’. Pedantic? We don’t think so, and for some very good reasons:
REBT teaches the philosophy of emotional responsibility. This means, we are largely responsible for how we feel, and if we are stuck in an unhealthy emotional state, chances are we are maintaining that state with our irrational beliefs. Saying we are ‘triggered’ by something puts the onus and responsibility back on the person, event or situation we don’t like. It is their fault, not ours. If we say a situation provokes our unhealthy beliefs instead, we can begin to identify and challenge those unhealthy beliefs and replace them with rational, healthy ones.
REBT encourages us to un-disturb ourselves and take back control. To transform our emotions, it helps to understand what is provoking them. And to understand something, it helps to be able to think and talk about it clearly, logically and rationally.
REBT helps us take the ‘horror’ out of bad events. If a certain situation really was triggering, why isn’t everyone triggered by it? By understanding it is our beliefs about a thing, and not the thing itself, that lead to disturbance, we can begin to face the situations we used to avoid or dread with fortitude and determination (if not actual pleasure). And that in turn helps us live a more fulfilled life.
So, the next time you are about to blame someone or something for ‘triggering’ you again, why not try to take a moment and ask yourself what unhealthy beliefs of yours might be getting provoked instead. You may find the situation starts firing blanks quite quickly.