Trigger Toolkit: 9 Approaches to the Pain Beneath Triggers

Everyone, inevitably, has painful life experiences. When pain does not pass through a person unresisted, most or all of it may be stored below the surface (in the body). With traumatic experiences like betrayal, such pain can be deeply entrenched.

This stored pain (also known as stored energy, blockages, stuck events, mental scars, or samskaras) may lie dormant sometimes, but an event that relates to the original trauma can activate or "trigger" it. A triggering event could be a sight, sound or sensation from the outside world, but it could also be an internal thought or feeling (self-generated). The greater the stored pain beneath the surface, the easier it will become activated.

While the word "trigger" often refers to the painful experience as a whole, the triggering event itself is not the real problem. Though one may try to avoid any and all triggering events, ultimately the stored pain beneath must be the focus of healing. 

Example of a Triggering Experience

When activated, stored pain causes emotional upset, difficult/intrusive thoughts, and uncomfortable or painful body sensations. Thoughts can lead to feelings, and vice versa, causing a chain reaction, extended experience of being triggered, or even being overwhelmed. Pema Chodron wrote “The most difficult times for many of us are the ones we give ourselves.” The example below illustrates this process. 

Sometimes repeated activations of triggers (especially mental ones or a frequently-experienced trigger like living with the partner who betrayed you), can groove a well-travelled neural pathway that becomes deeply ingrained. The trigger pattern is now an “intrusive thought” or “thought loop” that keeps coming back again and again

The good news is that there are many strategies to help be with and release the stored pain that triggers activate (e.g., thought loops can be reprogrammed through mindfulness and rewiring practices). These strategies are described below, and you will use your own inner sage to guide you to the ones that serve your highest need at this stage.

Summary So Far

Using Life to Heal Yourself from T.R.I.G.G.E.R.S.

I used to get support group members to vote for meeting topics, and I stopped asking because the same topic came up month after month: dealing with triggers! While triggering experiences can be painful and overwhelming (see iceberg above), there is an opportunity to use every trigger experience to heal ourselves. Michael Singer writes extensively about this theme in his book The Untethered Soul ...

“Use life to free yourself.” - Michael Singer 

So while the triggering event itself may get our immediate focus (e.g., the person who cut you off, or the song that reminds you of the affair), it is the stored pain underneath, calling to be surfaced and released, that deserves our love and attention, in order to free ourselves from feeling it. Triggers can therefore be seen as a priceless pointer indicating the direction we need to go for healing (often downward through the layers, and inward), along with a precious opportunity to relax and release the underlying pain. 

Much more on these strategies is shown below, but this idea of reframing of triggers as your friend, not your enemy, is a key turning point in recovery. Triggers are not something you want to “get rid of”, or worse, indulge in ...

So seeing triggers as also something beneficial provides the possibility for making the entire experience healing, rather than debilitating. Triggers that come up through daily living can be seen as an aid to healing, pointing the way to release.

Each of the nine strategies below relates to this idea of triggers as stepping stones to healing. Ultimately, as our stored pain is released, there will be nothing left for any trigger to activate and you will become a truly liberated being.

1. Self-Care (or Lack Thereof) Softens (or Amplifies) Trigger Distress

Beyond any strategy, basic self-love/self-care will have a significant impact (either positive or negative) on the perceived severity of triggers, and is therefore always an important factor to consider.

2. Avoiding

I used to avoid driving past the neighborhood where my wife’s affair partner lived, because the feeling was so awful. Later, circumventing the area felt worse than driving right by, like he still had some kind of impact on my life. I ultimately started driving right through, which felt like taking my life back. However, the initial phase of avoidance helped me through a time of high pain along with a low capacity to be with that pain. So avoidance can be a temporary measure to avoid being overly destabilized or overwhelmed by triggers. Avoidance may give us some periods of peace or stability to aid in recovery. However, avoidance is generally not a long-term strategy as the trigger itself may be avoided, but the underlying pain is still there, and will resurface in other ways. 

Examples of avoiding might include:

In a Nutshell

3. Redirecting

Mindfulness practices may allow a person to redirect intrusive thoughts (triggers) to a more positive aspect e.g., “although that song reminds me of affairs, I am grateful I can listen to music on the way to work”.

Another aspect of redirecting is "just saying no" to the thoughts. We do have a personal will and exerting it over and over develops it.  To a greater or lesser degree, we can exert some influence and choice over what we think about. 

It may help to label an intrusive thought as either “helpful” or “unhelpful” to create some distance from it. This gives the mind a better chance of focussing on something else (redirecting) that is more positive, helpful, healthy, etc. 

4. Expressing

A deeper healing strategy lies in the expression of the trigger experience, either as it happens, or afterward, to allow the pain to flow and be released in some way. Note that expressing alone may not feel effective for some people, and indeed might feel like rehashing the pain. For others, expressing feels incredibly freeing and healing, especially if some gratitude appends each expression. Decide for yourself what works for you. Some examples of expressing include:

5. Rewiring

Reprogramming, or “rewiring”, triggers may combine aspects of the two strategies above (expressing and experiencing) with statements or thoughts that generate a healing energy. For example:

When a life experience activates stored pain inside us, we can feel “triggered”. If traumatic memories get strongly bonded with stored pain, the resulting pattern repeat throughout life, grooving our psyche. These patterns are uncomfortable, painful, or even overwhelming, and we may try to distract, escape, numb or avoid the triggers in the first place. 

However, the problem is not the triggers, but the unreleased stored pain. True freedom isn’t avoiding difficulty (as Singer says “there will always be something”), but instead learning to stay with difficulty. This means “coming alongside ourselves” when triggered--with kindness, presence and compassion--releasing the stored pain, and gaining freedom for our soul. T.R.I.G.G.E.R.S. become timely, rewarding, invaluable, gifts, granting endless release & salvation. Some of these other acronyms may help you with this powerful practice.

Eventually, the practice of being with triggers is dropped, and we become more or less permanently open. Fullness of life is having all of its experiences (good, bad, happy, sad) without pushing or pulling on any of it. In this way, you use life to free yourself.

6. Transformation

If you have been practicing any of the above strategies, then you will have gained at least some capacity with a precious aspect of healing: noticing when you are triggered, while you are triggered. Once you have this skill, you can then decide, when you are having an intrusive thought, to transform the state of overwhelm you may be feeling to one of peace through any of the following transformative practices and strategies, some of which you will do in combination (e.g., move to another room, lie on the floor, breathe and call a friend). You will have to explore and play with these to find out which work best for you. When you have transformed the trigger into a more peaceful state, you can deal with life in a responsive, wise, healthy, skillful, loving way rather than a reactive, triggered way, leading to better outcomes, leading to less triggers … and so on.

7. Feeling Fully (Kind/Aware Experiencing)

If you have ever had a lucid dream, you know it can be a rare and precious experience to actually be aware that you are dreaming. Even more precious is the moment when you first become aware as you are triggered. This “lucid trigger” experience not only takes much of the distress out of the trigger, because of the presence that accompanies the experience, it also allows you to employ the strategies that might otherwise be completely forgotten during a period of overwhelm. You can tell your progress with this according to the following guide:

0) No awareness of being triggered, ever, no understanding or vocabulary for triggers.

1) Awareness of being triggered happens after the entire chain has completed, 

A major aspect of healing that many people struggle with, or do not recognize as helpful, is to actually feel the painful experience as it arises with as much sensory clarity, kindness and equanimity as possible. This practice of cultivating equanimity is all about gradually lessening the need to “push” or “pull” on any experience. Less pulling means less grasping, diving into, or getting lost in a trigger. Less pushing means less delaying, distracting, or escaping of triggers. Instead of obsessing (pull) or repressing (push), we simply have the experience fully without judging ourselves or what’s arising. We learn the practice of acceptance.

“I used to have a sign pinned up on my wall that read: Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us...It was all about letting go of everything.” ~ Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

Practicing a kind and aware experiencing of triggers transforms the pain into presence, into more awareness that you can use to experience and release future triggers, etc. Slowly, and then more powerfully, you will release a great deal of stored pain ... the more you do it, the more you will feel at peace inside

8. Deep Diving

The triggering event and initial reaction is only the surface, there are many layers underneath a trigger that can go back to childhood experiences or even intergenerational pain that has been passed down to you in various ways. Fill in the right column in the following table with your own trigger deep dive. What happens to your mind, body and heart.

At the bottom, you may come upon a core wound, and/or perhaps an event that relates to this core wound. By reflecting on your life experiences, memories and relationships you may be able to find the root of this pattern in your life.

9. Healing

Ultimately, healing is the best trigger strategy as it results in integrating, releasing or otherwise making peace with the stored pain inside us that is the actual source of the triggered pain. When the stored pain is gone, the triggers no longer have anything to set off. For some people, forgiveness might be defined as releasing the memories of pain such that we can freely experience each present moment without the past intruding. A few examples are below but note this strategy is vast and can be complex, see other resources for more ideas.

(For even more approaches to dealing with triggers see the "Managing Your Triggers Toolkit").

The Healing Journey: Stages, Relapses, Plateaus, and Progress

Every healing journey is different, with many stages and inevitably ups and downs. One of the best things about being in a support group is seeing others in these various stages, just like you. Those later in their healing may exude happiness, trust, and peace, giving others hope and elevation. Those in the middle of their healing may show self-love, courage, and determination, giving others inspiration. Those early in their healing may feel pain, heartbreak, and devastation, give others empathy, a feeling of not being alone, and potential gratitude for having moved on from that same painful place.

Sometimes in healing we may seem to be back in the same place we were in a month or year ago (relapse). At other times it may feel like nothing is changing (plateau). Even in these times, healing is still happening, with micro changes (we cannot detect) and macro changes (below the surface) that are taking us to new healing spaces and places. As a wheel moves forward, the point of contact is stuck to the road, the top is flying, and the middle is somewhere in between, but it is always making progress. Even “bad” situations might end up being the best possible thing later. Many affair recovery graduates report feeling grateful for the whole experience in the end!

One pearl to find in this is that no matter where one is in a healing journey, there is always a step forward. In the early phases, this could look like falling asleep to have a subconscious break from it all. In the middle stages, a step forward could be letting something go (an expectation, a loss, or even a relationship). Much farther along, a step forward could be tasting flourishing beyond reason. 

Assessing Progress: Healing on a 100 Point Scale

With most journeys having seasons or years of ups and downs, discerning progress can be difficult. Fortunately, the trigger experiences themselves are a great way to gauge progress. Early in the journey, triggers are overwhelming. As stored pain is released, trigger frequency, intensity, and duration (among other things) change significantly. The chart below helps you assess where you are in the healing journey from 0-100 (higher is better).

If you are at least a few months out from discovery day, assess how you are today, and then repeat the process thinking of the person you were in the immediate aftermath of discovery. People are often surprised to discover how much progress they have made. This chart can also be used to gauge how various healing strategies are helping (or not). 

Instructions: considering the last two weeks, circle the cell in each column that best describes your experience. It's okay to be in different rows in different columns. Add up up the score in the left column for each circle to get a total score out of 100. It's typical people who have recently discovered their partner's affair to score zero or close to zero, so don't feel bad! Repeate the assessment whenever you wish, though changes may only be noticeable over months or a season.