When we came back from our first annual holiday to our kitchen being overturned to create a laundry room and our bathroom being remodelled, you’d think life would be good. But for our dog Bailey it was a nightmare. She barks if anyone walks past our property. She barks louder when anyone comes onto our property. The fact that she then tries to make friends with whoever is at the door ruins the ‘guard dog’ theory. So two weeks at the dog sitters and back home to builders walking in and out the house meant she was losing the plot. Her behaviour got so bad (she was ripping wallpaper off the walls) we called our dog trainer in and we began learning about trigger stacking.
Quite simply trigger stacking is a tower of stress or things that heighten our emotional state. We all have things in our lives that stress us out or change our emotional state. Some of these triggers are small, and some are big, but they all pile up and eventually our stack goes beyond our coping limit. So for me some of my smaller triggers are my kids giving me attitude. A bigger trigger is the mess in the house, but for my daughter it could easily be excitement about an upcoming event. My nuclear triggers are unfairness and injustice. That stuff makes my blood boil. Gigantic trigger. Then eventually our stack blows.
Our reactions to being triggered
Often times, we don’t notice that things are building up, because our trigger stack is under our coping limit. Pressure at work may be getting to you, but you can manage the stress level. Argument with the kids, rolling with the punches. But something, seemingly small, something that you would normally shrug off will cause you to react in a way that results in people giving you ‘that look’ – you know the one – the whoa take a chill pill look. You know your reaction to ‘that thing’ is too much, but that’s not what you are really reacting to. What you are reacting to are the layers of triggers all stacked on top of each other, all piling up to put you over the edge. The other thing you will notice is that the anxiety response will properly be over fairly quickly if it was a small thing that sent you over the edge. However, if the trigger was a bigger trigger, you’re ability to regulate your reaction, to bring yourself back to normal equilibrium will be more difficult, and take longer.
Noticing when your trigger stack is getting too high
We all have different coping limits and over time our limits may increase as we learn to manage stress in our lives, but it is also important that we are aware of what our triggers are and our reactions to triggers so we can proactively manageour trigger stack. Metaphorically you need to learn what you triggers you have and when to “step away” from your trigger.
A few years ago I suffered my first ever panic attack. It happened and night and I genuinely thought I was having a heart attack. I was rushed to A&E. Many tests later, I was asked whether I was suffering from stress. I’ve been through stress. I wasn’t feeling stressed. I mean there was plenty going on; a big holiday (travel is a massive trigger) to disney world (event planning – trigger); a huge work project with tight deadlines (trigger) and then my son going away on a scout trip (I’m a mum, worrying about my kids – trigger). It wasn’t that I was ‘stressed’ it was that I had layers and layers of triggers, and the panic attack was my trigger stack exceeding my coping limit. Since then I have paid close attention to my body giving me telltale signs that my trigger stack is getting too high. Tiredness, difficulty staying focused, craving sweet foods and a sure sign that I am getting close to my limit, a feeling of tightness in my chest, it’s almost imperceptible – but I’ve learnt to know when it’s lurking.
Everyone will be different, but developing a self-awareness of your triggers and signs that your trigger stack is approaching your coping limit will help you proactively manage your mental wellbeing.
Combating your trigger layers
Firstly, you can’t simply think positive thoughts to combat your triggers. Any one telling you to just stop getting stressed about whatever trigger it is, is talking nonsense. I can reduce the size of my reaction to a trigger but it will remain a trigger. I can no more stop my dog reacting to people on our property than I can stop getting triggered by mess in the house, it just takes more layers before I blow my stack. By all means spend some time thinking through your identified triggers, and working on reducing their impact on you – ideally by removing them from your life, but realise at best you can reduce your reaction to a trigger.
Secondly, you have to think about doing things that increase your coping limit. For me a good soak in the tub with a book helps. Since that’s not always practical or possible a ten minute walk around the block is a good substitute. Self care is really important and mustn’t be dismissed. Sleep, exercise, fresh air, eating well all contribute to increasing your coping limit. Knowing what makes you feel good and prioritising time for those things is essential.
Finally, as much as possible, walk away from your triggers. This is harder to do, but when you become aware of what your triggers are, you will be much more able to avoid them if you trigger stack is high. I am an avid follower of politics but the recent death of RBG and the ‘unfairness’ of the GOP in pushing forward with a replacement so close to the election, meant that I have had to take a hiatus from all news reporting.
It is worth noting that everyone will be managing higher than normal trigger stacks rights now. The pandemic and the fall out from it means that pretty much everyone will have layers of their trigger stack baked in. Whether it is lockdown restrictions, missing family, too much family, worries about work, financial concerns… the list is endless. Basically the world is one big pile of triggers!
So be kind – now you are working on your own triggers, be mindful that others are dealing with their own!