A trigger is an event, sound, sight, smell, or touch, that elicits an emotional response or prompts the memory of a trauma or unpleasant event.
A red flag is a warning sign of danger ahead.
A friend of mine, Alissa says that whenever she burns something on the stove it reminds her of a time when her mother cooked crack cocaine on the stove, a period in her life when she and her sisters went hungry, felt unloved, and neglected. While it has taken years, she has learned to appreciate that she endured this journey, is no longer in this situation, and has a lot to be grateful for. She has tamed the trigger to be a nick instead of an explosion.
I have triggers as it relates to my grief and my son who died by suicide. When I see someone with the same soft brown curls, it triggers an ache that I’ve learned to turn into a moment of reflection and a tie to the one I loved and lost.
Where the red flag and the trigger are similar is the “jolt” that both deliver. Either one can deliver a shock or a jump and make you feel like you stepped on a land mine. Both of them can send you into a fight-or-flight response.
But sometimes those red flags and triggers are not so easily distinguishable
It can be hard to tell if that feeling in your gut is a red flag or a trigger. Those are the ones I’m focusing on in this article. One of them, the trigger, can be dismissed or even savored in some circumstances. The other, a red flag, might warrant further investigation or be a warning you need to heed.
So how do you trust your instincts if you don’t know which of these emotional responses is happening?
Here’s where it gets murky:
Example: Let’s say your loved one has struggled with addiction in the past. He says something he used to say back when he was using, and all of a sudden your brain is on alert and this feeling of dread seizes your muscles. You want to think everything is fine but this one is nagging you. Red flag or a trigger?
Example: You have a daughter who used to struggle with an eating disorder and she pushes the food around her plate one night. That was the first sign you noticed back in the day when things were bad before her recovery and that act alone hijacks your brain that a relapse has occurred. Red flag or a trigger?
Example: You were abused as a teenager and your boss touches your shoulder from behind which makes your heart jump and makes your face hot enough to cook an egg. How else would someone get your attention since you have earbuds in? But maybe it’s something you need to pay attention to. The act alone takes you back to that ugly place when someone took advantage of you when you were blissfully naive. Now you are hyper-aware. Red flag or a trigger?
Before you do or say anything, wait for your emotions to settle
If you launch into an accusation or spiral into anger, you are going to say or do something you will regret. So barring a serious situation where you are at risk of assault or other danger, take the time to take a deep breath and gather your thoughts. Usually, it doesn’t have to be addressed immediately although sometimes it does. But giving yourself a few breaths of air first is valuable for good decision-making.
Ask yourself some questions.
- Are there other signs you might have ignored or pushed under the rug that might indicate a behavior is suspect? Write the incident down and then write any other clues you may have noticed. Keep it to yourself for now until you can determine whether it’s warranted and how to take a thoughtful approach if it is.
- As you are writing down changes and signs, list only the facts, not what you perceive is behind the facts. As the guy on Dragnet said, “Just the facts, ma’am.” (Example. Opinion –> He was out probably buying beer, versus fact–> He was out from 6 pm until 9 pm on a weeknight three nights in a row.)
- Is this something you need to address and if so, can you do it in a loving and/or thoughtful way depending on whether it’s a work situation or a home situation? So if you are dating someone and the relationship is new, you can simply back out of it if things don’t feel right. If your spouse has relapsed, pulling up stakes is not the first response.
- Is this feeling a product of your being hyper-aware and hyper-sensitive? Or is it definitely your instincts telling you something is up and not to ignore it?
That last one is the big question, right?
You are likely not going to have the answer immediately but you’ve left your mind a message and let it build a case for one or the other. Many times a good night’s sleep allows all your senses to weigh in. If it’s an issue, anguish can follow. I often call it the, “I don’t want to do this again” feeling. Once you feel you have an answer, that’s when you shore up any inner strength you have and devise a strategy.
If evidence is building that the behavior that jolted you is a red flag
You might need to revisit some of your coping strategies and your support system to reinforce your approach so that it’s well thought out and not accusatory. Then plan a thoughtful conversation when your emotions aren’t boiling over.
I remember my friend Ellen told me her daughter was doing really well but her son had relapsed. She had seen the red flags. Ellen has put in years of work at support groups and educational seminars and learned to accept that relapse is part of the journey with addiction. She told her son she loved him, admired his tenacity, knew he’d work through it and she was there to support his efforts.
Here’s what’s new–she didn’t default to aligning her own happiness with the child who was doing the least well like she had once had. Since her daughter is doing really well, she wanted to continue to savor and be grateful for that while appreciating that her son was making an effort to find his way back. You can’t yell someone out of addiction relapse. But you can definitely drive them toward it with that behavior. After all, she is and has done the best she can do. All along she has stayed in contact with her support system through her advocacy efforts in the addiction and recovery space. That helped her reframe the situation and find peace.
If your triggers are disrupting your life and your sleep to the point you can’t function, it’s time to get support for yourself. Or maybe the triggers are disturbing but a conversation with others who’ve been through this will suffice.
So yeah, both mean you should do something for yourself. And once you define which one it is, find a path on which to move forward recognizing that you have limitations but the one thing you can control is how you react to an event.