I’ve begun to understand better how often I am “triggered” by a variety of things and how that relates back to traumas I’ve undergone in my life, especially living with Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC) since my de novo diagnosis in 2017. Identifying and defining a trigger is often helpful for me to understand why I have an extreme or long lasting response to something that doesn’t appear to affect me directly in any discernible way. These moments of “freaking out” or feeling out of control are often scary for me inside even as I’m attempting to calm myself or compartmentalize since my normal coping mechanisms are not successful.

But first, as I often do, let’s look at a generally accepted definition of the concept of a trigger:

something that causes someone to feel upset and frightened because they are made to remember something bad that has happened in the past: A trigger is something that sets off a flashbacktransporting the person back to the traumatic event.

I’ve written about Betrayal Trauma previously and I think that concept could also be viewed through the lens of triggers in that when one has been traumatized by a betrayal, one is then on guard and affected differently by ongoing or further betrayals.

Regardless of the label, it all starts with trauma.

I think it is good to remember when thinking about triggers or when someone is triggered, that underneath whatever is happening is trauma, sometimes the worst trauma that a person has ever experienced. Similar to the concept of how a person who needs the most love and care often asks for it in the most unlovable ways, a person who is triggered from a trauma often behaves badly in trying to protect themselves from a future trauma in an unlovable way. Further, the reaction is typically directed towards people who had nothing to do with original trauma, which often ensures a re-traumatization since the people receiving the reaction have no idea what occurred and cannot address the underlying issue and are left with a bad impression of the person freaking out.

Some examples of triggers for me having to do with MBC:

  • Someone with a new similar diagnosis;
  • Someone with a similar diagnosis doing well;
  • Someone with a similar diagnosis doing badly;
  • A widow/widower finding love again after their loved one has died from a similar diagnosis at any time after the loved one’s demise;
  • Doctors or medical professionals discounting symptoms or concerns;
  • Doctors or medical professionals so rushed during appointments that there is no time to raise concerns;
  • Insurance companies;
  • Scheduling people who make appointments without talking to you or other ways our autonomy is infringed upon by the medical system;
  • Doctors or medical professionals attempting to impose their perspective rather than listening;
  • Scheduling a Scan;
  • Going to get a Scan;
  • Waiting for the results of a Scan;
  • A phone call from a doctor’s office or medical group — just the call showing up on the screen of one’s phone;
  • Paperwork at a new doctor’s office;
  • Correspondence from doctor or medical system;
  • Insurance companies — anything that an insurance company does or doesn’t do;
  • Etc.

This isn’t an exhaustive list and I’m sure there are many other triggers that I’ve missed, but I think you get the gist. Once a trauma has occurred or is ongoing, the reminder of that trauma or the ongoing parts of that trauma pull the person who has experienced that trauma right back into the feelings or reactions of the original trauma. The trigger or trauma is then compounded when something like when the results of scans are always bad and there is literally nothing positive to hold onto. One friend described it this way — a trigger is not always “just” about re-living a trauma, but also losing the expectation of good news. How does one live when there is no expectation that anything good will occur ever again? I don’t have a good answer for my friend or anyone else.

So what to do about triggers?

One option is to avoid triggers, like how smokers avoid the places or people or experiences that would cause them to want to smoke. I think about stories of how those in AA or NA (Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous) are encouraged to avoid the triggers that would cause them to drink or to call their sponsor when encountering said triggers. Perhaps if we learn from the 12 steppers in this, we could learn to avoid or handle the triggers with the help of a sponsor or mentor.

I find that processing the emotions behind the trauma, the triggers, the responses, the aftermath, etc., with people who get it, like those of us with MBC has been a helpful antidote. We talk a lot in our support groups about how when an emotion matches the experience, that equals emotional health. Thus, when we are responding to a trigger by feeling the emotion it causes and not stuffing or avoiding that emotion, it is a product of emotional health. To be emotionally healthy means to be living in reality and being truly alive.

Emotionally healthy or not, dealing with triggers is not easy. It drains me of energy and taxes my coping mechanisms, both medical and otherwise such that I spend every spoon available and have nothing left. I try to explain to my team how this happens, how the way they do business is a trigger in and of itself. I try to provide other ideas and feedback and suggestions, but sometimes that’s too much of a trigger in and of itself.

And that’s the struggle. To solve a trigger is often to enter into the mechanics of the trigger itself, to look at each part, to name and identify the parts, and work towards solutions. At least on the intellectual/cognitive side. It’s much easier to live there, to keep the discussion as intellectual as possible, to try to keep one’s emotions under control or at least locked down in the process.

And yet, as I’ve been musing over, is the cost worth it?

What do you think?

17 thoughts on “Triggers

  1. Triggers are there almost daily if I let them. Office visits, scans, and learning of someone’s death are probably my top 3. The degree to which I’m triggered seems dependent on how I’m doing/feeling at that moment.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Abigail, these triggers – some embarrass me for even thinking about – are true I think for so many of us. Thank you for articulating what I also feel. The list is a very good representation of how come I become down. If i added one it would be when my husband or anyone else thinks they’re more ill than I am and I know they have a cold or something and just don’t get it. That sends me into a bit of a tizzy, along with normies giving me ridiculous advice. The trigger list along with our pots already simmering can send me over into a boiling point. As always you have a keen senses of what so many of us go through on a regular basis, and 🙏🏻❤️much love my friend.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi Abigail,

    Oh yes, triggers are everywhere. My cancer trigger dates alone are numerous and when I add in my mother’s dates, well, that’s a lot of trigger dates on the calendar.

    So, what to do with them? I remember mine quietly these days, for the most part anyway. Maybe that’s one reason I keep blogging. It’s a safe place to remember.

    Dealing with MBC means you have even more triggers. I still think it’s best to acknowledge them. Stuffing them down is probably not healthy. But constantly remembering/thinking about them isn’t either. As with most things, it’s about balance, I suppose.

    Just remembered, I wrote something about this topic – the trigger dates, that is. Hope you don’t mind if I share the link.

    Thank you for another thought-provoking post. Keep writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing your post about the similar concept and yes, dates and anniversaries are a huge trigger too. I’ve been so wrapped up in trying to effect changes at my cancer center and have realized how much that takes my energy away from where it needs to be. Thankful for people like you who get this complicated thing of living with MBC.


  4. Abigail, I can’t even imagine dealing with all those triggers. I think I’d be a basket case 100% of the time. You are an amazing human. I loved Ilene’s answer, too.

    My trigger is every time I get a new ache, pain, or some kind of a digestive reaction to something. It seems like I have something going wrong in different parts of my body every few days and that makes me paranoid. Who does this crazy body belong to, anyway. It’s not me, that’s for sure!

    My friend in CA was talking to me on the phone while I was walking up a hill. She listened to my huffing and said, “You need to go to a doctor.” (She never goes to a doctor and hates the idea.)

    Last month my oncologist said my bloodwork looks good, so I’m assuming that I don’t have lung cancer. I made an appointment and saw an allergist on Monday. It turns out that I have rhinitis, mild asthma, a deviated septum with a hole in it, and allergies to most grasses. With medication hopefully I will be able to breathe again – especially after I visit the ENT specialist in August. The doctor asked me if I wanted to take pills or use an inhaler. More pills? I don’t think so. Everything causes reactions.

    None of this does anything for my sore knee, the arthritis in my right thumb, or my nutty digestive tract. And none of any of what I’m dealing with compares to the discomfort you have endured. It’s like complaining of a scratch from falling down. But it’s all my trigger points.

    I think my, always-well-75-year-old husband gets disgusted with my aches and pains, but he also gets annoyed with the symptoms that keep popping up. I get annoyed that he gets annoyed! I’m already annoyed enough. LOL. That’s a trigger. And with that, I hope that you have a great week, Abigail.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Kind of TMI, but I think I’m in that kind of mood. Thanks for visiting my blog, Abigail. I’ve been struggling to visit everyone. I love reading your thought-provoking posts.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes! We have so many of these in common, along with several others you know I deal with. My daughter commented just last week that “everything is triggering to me now.” I suspect this just means I’ve started to recognize them and have a label for them. The triggers themselves didn’t change. Understanding what they are helps. As always, thank you for putting into such eloquent words something so many of us feel. ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

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