If we were totally sane, we would respond to the present only on its own terms; we would worry or be angered or give way to anxiety only as much as the circumstances before us actually dictated.
What causes us difficulty is that we are wired to feel and respond according to precedent rather than on the basis of a dispassionate evaluation of the present, and in particular we follow emotional tracks laid down in the distant past – when many of us were victims of deeply unrepresentative and unusually painful experiences, from which we continue to make panicky, gloomy and unhelpful extrapolations. In other words, we are, to use the inelegant but useful contemporary term, easily (far too easily) ‘triggered’. That is, situations in the present elicit from us with undue haste responses formed by, and frankly better suited to, a past whose details we have forgotten and whose distinctiveness we cannot now perceive.
A tricky but not objectively existentially troubling email will hence convince us at once that this is The End. An item in the news will plunge us immediately into devastating guilt or boundless fury. The prospect of a party we have to go to or a speech we need to give brings on unbudgeable, monumental terror.
The triggering happens so fast, there is no chance to observe the process and see the way in which we cede our powers of evaluation from present to past. Our minds are simply flooded with panic, we lose our bearings, the rational faculties shut down and we are lost, perhaps for days, in the caverns of the mind.
We get triggered because we don’t have a direct link with objective reality: each of us approaches the outer world through the prism of an inner world with a more or less tenuous connection to it. In this inner world of ours lies a repository of expectations formed through our unique histories; our internal working models, or our best guesses, of what the outer world will be like; how others will respond to us, what they will say if we complain, how things will turn out when there is a challenge.
Crucially, and this is what we of course miss when we have been triggered, the inner world isn’t the outer world. It contains generalisations and extrapolations from a past that may be far harder, stranger and more dangerous than the present. Psychologists have a handy rule of thumb to alert us to the disproportionate side of our responses: if we experience anxiety or anger above a five out of ten, they tell us, our response is likely to be fuelled not by the issue before us, but by a past we’re overlooking. In other words, we have to believe (contrary to our feelings) that the issue won’t be what it seems to be about.
The best way to free ourselves from being so eagerly triggered is to refuse to believe in most of what overwhelmingly and rapidly frightens or angers us. We must learn to adopt a robust suspicion of our first impulses. It isn’t that there is nothing scary or worrying in the outer world whatsoever, simply that our initial responses are liable to be without proportion or without calculation of adult strength, resilience, resourcefulness or options.
Another way to approach our panic and anxiety is to remember that, despite appearances, we are not a single person or unified ‘I’. We are made up of an assemblage or a blend of parts dating right back to our earliest days. In a way we can’t easily track, different events will engage with different parts of us. Some of our most troubled moments are when a difficulty in the present isn’t handled by an adult part, but by a part formed when we were six months or three years old. We end up so scared because the challenge of public speaking or of a seduction or a worry at work has, unbeknownst to the adult part of us, been left in the hands a very scared toddler.
In the circumstances, it can help to ask ourselves at points not what ‘we’ are afraid of but what a ‘part’ of us is worried about – and to learn more carefully to differentiate the parts in question. What might we tell a part of us in order for it not to be so scared?
It is a milestone of maturity when we start to understand what triggers us and why – and to take steps to mitigate the most self-harming of our responses. Whatever our past seems to tell us, perhaps there won’t be a catastrophe, perhaps we’re not about to be killed or humiliated unbearably. Perhaps we have adult capacities for survival. Too much of our past is inside us in a way we don’t recognise or learn to make allowances for. We should dare to approach many of our triggers like a starting pistol or a fire alarm that we will from now on, for well-grounded reasons, refuse to listen to.