Red Alert: Understanding and Working with the Triggered State
by David A. Yeats LCSW

We all understand the experience of getting our buttons pushed.  We suddenly find ourselves highly agitated and reactive, and it tends to happen in a flash.  We may immediately understand as well why we have reacted, or we may be totally unaware of the cause.  We can have our buttons pushed by friends, strangers, all varieties of circumstances and situations, and we can have them pushed by those we love the most.

When it happens, we are in what we can call a Triggered State. A Triggered State is not simply a change of mood or emotion: it is a very specific state, with specific attributes. And although it can occur with anyone and in any situation, it frequently occurs in one of the most damaging forms in the context of committed intimate relationships.

Committed intimate relationships are extremely fertile grounds
for any of us to become triggered.  Often a person may say that
they never see their partner react in so vitriolic a way or so
extremely with others—only with them.  There are at least three
reasons why this is so. 

First, our relationship with a partner binds us together to some
degree in a common fate. What my partner does, says, chooses
has a much greater impact on me than anyone else in my life,
because our life journey is intertwined. My partner and I are
traveling down the same road, and our choices often affect each
other, and they can impact our sense of freedom and control. 

Second, partners know each other well, and partners know each
others’ vulnerabilities and weaknesses. They are keenly aware
of the places where power struggles may exist between them. 
Sometimes partners may intentionally take advantage of a
vulnerability in the other, but often partners are unconscious they
have hit a tender spot.  In either case, we can feel abandoned
or betrayed by a partner’s insensitivity, and we tend to have a
high mutual expectation that our partner “has our back,” or at
least knows privileged information with an implicit understanding
they are not to use it in a cavalier way.

Third, partners have a long history with each other.  They know
each others’ backgrounds and families. Over time, a partner may
feel that they are being treated in the same (unpleasant, unhappy,
or disrespectful) way they may have experienced in the past. 
Now the partner’s behavior becomes a painful reminder of past
hurts and wounds we remember from our childhoods.  It is common
when this pattern seems to start to recur that we will feel attacked.

Because these features are unique to committed intimate relationships, Triggered States typically can
occur more frequently and more intensely with our partners than with others in our lives. And because
we are so committed and involved and vulnerable to each other, finding  a way to understand and
reduce or eliminate triggers becomes a central focus of growth with intimate couples.

What is the Triggered State?  The most underestimated feature of a Triggered State is that it is
truly an altered state.  It is a state as different from a normal state as is a state of hypnosis, a state of
inebriation, a state of anesthesia, or a dream state.  And it is as likely we can make aware, thoughtful,
considered choices in a Triggered State as we can in any other altered state—that is, not very!  Yet
when we find ourselves becoming triggered, we tend to engage more, rather than to back away.  And
it is this engaging more that escalates the Triggered State immediately and extremely.

Altered states require altered responses.  When we are in a Triggered State, our biochemistry and physiology change along with our emotions.  Adrenalin and other chemicals are immediately secreted into our body, as are hormones which alter our perceptions of safety, threat, and risk. Emotionally, we feel as if we are at great risk, under attack, and our only reaction should be one of protection—through fight, flight, or freeze responses. We feel absolutely justified in attacking to protect ourselves, and we can even feel righteous about it!  This fight response is a reptilian brain reaction, a primitive brain response that has been hard-wired into humanity to assure survival from external threats.  The emotional/chemical altered state is immediate, and does not factor in at all to what we may know rationally.  We are in a Red Alert State and that is all there is to it!

We feel attacked and at risk, and we move to protect ourselves, typically by fight, or aggressive action. Some folks prefer the flight response, that of silence or withdrawal. This can be a learned response to fearful childhood experiences. Or it may be common for couples early in relationship, as they are concerned with only noticing commonalities, but as time goes on, much like a smoldering volcano, unexpressed resentments can lead to an explosive reaction.  And the freeze response is most typical of those who have experienced some significant past trauma, and, much like a deer in the headlights, they are frozen in place and are unable to mobilize a response).  Regardless of our specific behavior response, we churn inside, disoriented and agitated.

Not only are we emotionally, chemically, and physiologically agitated, we feel a rupture of our connection with our partner.  An early researcher on trauma, Erik Lindemann, described trauma itself as “a rupture of attachment” to another.  So the feeling of disconnection with one we are entwined with in our life story actually creates a sense of trauma in the moment.

So, we are feeling (unjustly) attacked, agitated, justified in responding with aggression, traumatized, cut off from connection, and in an altered state, unable to access our rational brain or our adult wisdom, skills, and choices.  As if this weren’t enough, we are thrown back (generally not consciously but viscerally), to feelings we experienced as children—at a time when we were susceptible to other, far more powerful people and forces that controlled our lives.  We feel now as we did then.  And we tend to react now too as we did then—with childhood protections, rather than hard won adult skill. We may fight physically, throw things, call names, yell—all behaviors that guarantee an escalation!  

Because we can’t access “higher brain” functions of the neo-cortex, it is difficult in this and all altered states to access perspectives we are capable of in normative, stable, adult waking states. In such a rational state, I could use my intelligence and creativity, my wit.   I can use my thoughtfulness and my capacity for empathy.  I can discern what is really going on.  I can use my developmental experiences and successes, and I can use the adult coping and communicative skills I’ve learned over a lifetime.  I can be an adult.

But, in this altered state, it’s like trying to reason in an alcohol or drug stupor—unreliable at best, and virtually impossible.

And yet, we try.

But there is one final straw: a Triggered State is extremely contagious, and it is immediate.  In a relationship, if I am triggered, my partner will be soon as well. If my partner is triggered, I can expect to be triggered too.  A simple change in facial expression can do the trick.

Quickly, we have two scared little kids, feeling disconnected, attacked, fearful, betrayed, abandoned, misunderstood, needing to protect themselves with childish defenses, righteously and indignantly, while emotions and chemicals rage, with no access to rational, adult tools, and in a highly agitated altered state, and we are going to create a positive outcome!?

It can not be done.

So how can we deal with a Triggered State?

There is only one effective strategy at first, and it is obvious: we have to disengage.  A Time-Out is the only constructive response that is possible, and it is likely that even over time with two people working hard together, there will still be moments when only a Time-Out can be the answer.

Wise couples will develop and will use a Time-Out Plan. (See Time-Out/CPR elsewhere on this website).

The only viable response to a Triggered State and a Mutually Triggered State is a Time-Out.
The only viable response to a Triggered State and a Mutually Triggered State is a Time-Out.
The only viable response to a Triggered State and a Mutually Triggered State is a Time-Out.

OK then, how can we avoid aTriggered State?

Good!  This is the work of developing a stable, satisfying, safe, respectful, and rewarding intimate relationship! It is not the goal, perhaps, but it is the means.

We each need to take a look inward and recognize that, because we are humans who are and have been living in a less than perfect world, we have unresolved stuff, and that from time to time, if we are going to live at all deeply, the unresolved stuff will rear its head and demand its due attention.  Voila! We are triggered.  We can try to review the past to notice what has pushed our buttons—both in our childhood and our adult life to date, and also in my relationship with this person I am traveling with.  I should start to notice patterns.  Maybe things have not erupted in expressions of triggering between us as of yet, but there are times when I’ve bit my tongue, certainly.

Typically, there may be many incidents where I have felt angry, agitated, hurt, unseen, abandoned, unloved, neglected or betrayed.…et cetera, and they will all boil down to two or three core triggers that replay and replay in countless ways. 

I can ask my partner what she or he has seen that triggers me, too.  Carefully.  I can start to notice what I do that seems to trigger my partner to have what seems to me to be an awfully extreme reaction.

I can start to identify what my triggers are.  I can start to identify what my partner’s triggers are.  I can ask.  I can share. We can talk.  And we can come to an awareness together of the triggers, the hot buttons, and the land mines of our relationship.  We can become aware of the minefield and the mines, both ways.

Anytime I feel like my partner is overreacting, or any time my partner feels like I am overreacting, we have unearthed a trigger.  Overreactions in the realm of emotions mean that we are sensitive or vulnerable about something because we have been affected and hurt in the past, and my reaction, as extreme as it may appear to others, is for me an appropriate response to the drama or the trauma I have experienced about it….and my reaction is not extreme, given that experience.  So too for my partner, and for all of us.

Which leads to the next step: When we identify triggers, what do we do?  What we do occurs on four fronts: 
1) I identify and try to reduce my reactivity to my triggers,
2) I identify and try to reduce my reactivity to my partner’s triggers,
3) my partner identifies and tries to reduce her or his reactivity to her or his triggers, and
4) my partner identifies and tries to reduce her or his reactivity to my triggers.

My partner is responsible for addressing her or his triggers, and I am responsible for addressing my triggers.  And both of us can contribute to reducing the other’sBut neither of us is responsible for the other; we are responsible for ourselves.

What we give to each other is that: a gift.  But it is those free gifts we offer, along with taking responsibility to reduce our own reactivity that will, in time, create joy and connection.

We can reduce our reactivity to our triggers to a great degree by being more aware of them, and by recognizing as well the circumstances where they are likely to occur, and then developing a new strategy for those times.  Time-Outs are good.  Talking together is good.  Signaling our intention to work together and honor each other and doing so is fantastic!

But even if my partner won’t play, I can. I can be aware of my triggers and hers or his.  I can take Time-Outs unilaterally. I can use all my adult skills of communication, compassion, and collaboration, and I can set groundrules (and declare them), and I can establish for myself a clear plan of what I will do if my groundrules aren’t respected.

As I and we consciously reckon with and resolve our triggers with each other, we can heal the past, and empower ourselves and each other—and then we can look at what we want to co-create in our journey together...and we can “feel the love.”

Features of The Triggered State

-I have an immediate reaction.
-I feel wronged or attacked.
-I am highly agitated and reactive.
-I abruptly move into an altered state.
-My biochemistry and physiology change
     along with my emotions.
-I feel absolutely justified in an aggressive
     response to protect myself.
-I feel a rupture of our connection in
-I am  unable to access my rational brain or
      my adult wisdom, skills, and choices.
-I am  thrown back to feelings I experienced
      as a child.
-Quickly, when I move into a triggered state, my
       partner will become triggered as well. 
-Triggered states are extremely contagious and

-TO SUMMARIZE: I feel like a scared little kid
--attacked, wronged, disconnected, betrayed, abandoned, misunderstood, and needing to protect myself.  I respond with childish forms of protection, with childish defenses, righteously and indignantly, while emotions and chemicals rage, with no access to rational, adult tools. I am in a highly agitated altered state.  If I am triggered with my partner, we are BOTH triggered!!

The only viable response to a Triggered State or a Mutually Triggered State is a Time-Out.