Triggers can be subtle and sneaky, or deafeningly loud, and they always have an impact on how you feel. They also can drive your behavior and this can be detrimental to your wellbeing. To be able to recognize and understand them when they occur and deal with them effectively can make a big difference in your life.

What Triggers Are

In the early 1900s, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov trained dogs to salivate and respond to various sounds or electrical shocks by following the initial stimulus with food. The original stimuli had no natural relation to the resulting effects, and the dogs had to be trained to respond over time. This was ground-breaking, and it had many implications for psychology.

Triggers are any stimulus in our environment that can produce involuntary and voluntary responses, feelings, and memories. For example, if you have always found doughnuts to be a comfort food, you might crave one in times of stress. However, if you ever got sick after eating a doughnut, seeing, tasting, or smelling them might make you feel nauseated.

Psychologists have found that the stronger the stimulus, the greater the impact on the subject. Sometimes when living through a traumatic event, anything that you were sensing or perceiving at the time could become paired with the trauma, until you desensitize yourself to it.

How Your Original Environment can create Triggers

If you were raised in a dysfunctional family, you may have developed many triggers over the years that can affect your mental/emotional state. Being raised by parents who are consistently inconsistent can cause you to grow up confused and frustrated a great deal of the time. This inconsistency can be caused by addiction, alcoholism, or mood disorders.

For example, when you were small and your parent was intoxicated, manic, or high, you may have did something that makes them roar with laughter. However, when the parent was hungover or feeling low, that same behavior could result in verbal or physical abuse.

You could grow up never really knowing how to act and begin to feel somewhat hopeless, or conversely, you could feel angry and be distrustful of authority figures.  You may become sensitive to certain cues and learn to cope with them the best you can with what you know. It also must be said that judgmental family member who has shifting expectations, or keeps 'raising the bar,' can also cause you to act out.

A recent episode of the show Better Call Saul included a heartbreaking scene between the characters Jimmy McGill and his older brother Chuck, and it demonstrated how triggers from family members can affect people profoundly.

After Chuck bailed Jimmy out of some serious trouble in one of beginning episodes, Jimmy has worked hard to get his life together, even though he has had an occasional lapse in good judgment. Chuck is a father figure to Jimmy and is someone he greatly respects, so in episode 9 of the first season, when Jimmy discovers that Chuck has betrayed him—and can't get past his original assessment of Jimmy as a irresponsible ne'er-do-well -- it is devastating.

The show is a prequel to Breaking Bad, and an audience familiar with that show knows that Jimmy will end up being an hardened, unethical lawyer that engages in all sorts of criminal behavior. This particular scene is a pivotal moment for Jimmy, and it would resonate with a lot of people because of family experiences they have had. In Jimmy's case, this event evidently triggers in him hopelessness, and an angry response to prove all his naysayers right in a big way.

 How to Successfully Cope With Triggers

Unlike a fictional character in a popular TV show, you don't have to follow a script. You don't have to let the triggers keep you down, nor do you have to stay in a role that has been defined for you by someone else. To cope effectively, identifying them is the first step. The second step is to challenge your learned responses and the third is to develop better ones. The fourth step is to practice these new responses until they become second nature.

It can helpful to carry a small journal or notebook to help you jot things down and remember them.

You may need seek professional counseling for a time, especially if your responses involve addictions or other self-harming behaviors. The old adage "Two heads are better than one" applies here.

It may be necessary to avoid people and situations that trigger self-defeating responses for a time,  so that you can grow stronger and become more resilient. Also, to become a confident, healthy person, you will need to learn to do things to foster your own self respect and not be dependant on the regard of other people, to build a better life for yourself. For more information, contact Comprehensive Behavioral Health Associates Inc.