What felt like a really interesting new discovery during our “Understandting Trauma for Safer Spaces” training, was the distinction between being triggered and being activated. It struck me that we often use the term “triggered” when “activated” might be more appropriate in many situations. I did some online research on this, but it appears to be a relatively novel concept with limited available information. Nevertheless, it feels crucial to me.
The Trigger vs. Activation:
When we use the term “triggered,” it typically signifies a state where our emotional responses have been hijacked, and our ability to rationalize the experience is temporarily impaired. Trauma survivors grappling with triggers may find themselves lost in a whirlwind of flashbacks, racing hearts, and overwhelming emotions. In this state, it is hard for them to make sense of what is happening to them. The trigger has effectively transported their nervous system back to the original trauma.
On the other hand, being “activated” denotes a state where we retain some capacity to engage in an internal cause-and-effect dialogue about our emotional state. It allows us to recognize that our physical responses, such as a racing heart or sweaty palms, are reactions to a specific stimulus that has activated our sympathetic nervous system. This awareness enables us to establish a connection between the triggering subject and the physical sensations we’re experiencing, or even simply acknowledge that we’re feeling “off” because of a certain stimulus.
Why the Distinction Matters:
Understanding this distinction is important because it acknowledges that these experiences are not one and the same. Using “triggered” and “activated” interchangeably can inadvertently minimize the unique challenges each state presents.
How to Approach Each State:
In Dealing with Activation
When someone is activated, remember there is some level of cognitive awareness. Practices like focused deep breathing, grounding exercises, physical activities, RAIN meditation or talking to a trusted friend can be effective strategies. These actions help make sense of what is happening and helps the person regain control over their emotional state.
In Dealing with Triggers
If you’re assisting someone who is experiencing what we differentiate as a trigger, it’s essential to recognize that the “logical” part of the brain, which seeks connections between events, may not be available to them at that moment. Therefore, it is more helpful to focus on bringing the person back to the present. Techniques such as sharing your name and the date, asking for their name, or identifying the place you are in are more effective. You can help the person engage in activities like naming 10 red objects in the room (make sure to do this out loud rather than just pointing to objects). This method safely activates the part of the brain responsible for language and orients the individual back into the current space, helping them move away from the flashback.
Understanding the distinction between being triggered and activated can enhance our ability to support individuals as they navigate the emotional waves of their experiences. It is important to recognize that employing techniques like RAIN meditation may be very helpful when someone is activated but not necessarily helpful when someone is caught in a flashback; in fact, it could potentially re-traumatize them. While the term “trigger” has gained considerable usage in recent decades, shedding much needed light on the importance of a trauma-sensitive approach, it is possible that we have been using it somewhat loosely to describe two distinct states that necessitate distinct responses in order to accompany individuals safely through their emotional journey.
About the Author
Pinelopi embarked on her yoga journey in 1999, completing a 600-hour Hatha Yoga Teacher and Vedantic Philosophy Training course in Valencia, Spain. She founded English Yoga Berlin in 2010, and now has over 15 years of experience as a full-time yoga teacher.
She deepened her knowledge by studying Yoga Anatomy with Leslie Kaminoff. Additionally, she trained with David Moore and attended his “Injury-free yoga” workshops, integrating the Alexander Technique into yoga poses. This comprehensive training enriched her expertise in both fields.
In January of 2023, Pinelopi achieved a significant milestone by becoming a certified Alexander Technique teacher. This was an intensive training for 3.3 years, totaling 1600 hours of dedicated study with Jorg Aßhoff.
Pinelopi’s ergonomic consultations integrate anatomy, Alexander Technique, and yoga’s mind-body understanding. Her holistic approach optimizes well-being in the workplace through comprehensive guidance.
She has completed a 3 day training on “Understanding Trauma for Safer Spaces” with Legacy Motion, and is now studying “Somatic Embodiment and Regulation Strategies” with Linda Thai. Her meditation philosophy is deeply inspired by Tara Brach, especially the RAIN meditation.