Triggers and Cues

Like any oppressed group, the survivor movement is developing its own language, complete with in-group jokes, slang, and coined words. Usually we know what we mean, but sometimes we confuse people who are new to their memories. Sometimes we confuse ourselves, as well!

Take the word “trigger” as an example. We all use it; we all assume it has the same meaning to everybody. I don’t think it does.

(I hate the word “trigger.” It’s so darn violent. It also — shall I say it? — triggers me, since guns were used a lot in my abuse. It would be great to find an alternative word, like “catalyst” or “reminder,” to express what I mean.)

“Triggered” can mean anything from being mildly upset to the activation of a serious cult program. Let’s look at a few examples.

My computer crashes. I am not triggered; I am upset. They didn’t have computers when I was being abused.

I step in cat barf in the middle of the night. I am not triggered; I am startled and disgusted. If this midnight gross-out stirs up a memory of my abuse, I am triggered. The present-day cat’s indigestion has catalyzed a memory or caused a flashback to a time long ago.

I disappoint somebody important to me and immediately feel suicidal. This minor failure has triggered old feelings from my childhood, when disappointing a powerful adult had grave consequences.

Somebody approaches me and says a phrase three times in a sing-songy voice. I feel light-headed, ‘trancey’, and have a strong urge to withdraw all the money from my bank account and go to East Podunk without telling anybody. I have been triggered — or more precisely, a cult program has been triggered within my system. Some people call the phrase a “cue” and say that a program has been cued or activated.

Being triggered, in itself, is neither good not bad, neither helpful nor harmful. It all depends on the circumstances. If you are flooded with memories, one more can be total overload, but if you are in a calm period, you can learn a great deal from being triggered.

Understanding the past is a wonderful way to free yourself from its hold, and in this case, the trigger is truly a gift. Of course, it doesn’t always feel that way at the time.

Being triggered doesn’t always feel unpleasant, either. The tranced-out state may feel euphoric. Giving in to a program may bring a sense of relief and calm, despite the danger.

This one word, “trigger,” covers a wide range of internal states, feelings, and external actions. When somebody says they are triggered, I always try to find out what exactly they mean by the term. If it’s not crystal clear from the context, I ask, and ask again, until I understand. Only then can I give an appropriate response.


from Survivorship Monthly Notes, Vol. 1, No. 12, November 1999

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9 thoughts on “Triggers and Cues

  1. Great post 🙂 I try to change the word trigger to the word ‘opportunity’ because it means i get change to work through something and come through the other side. It doesn’t always work but i feel more positive by changing the words in that way.

    1. I too, have found “opportunities” in the things that would bring up memories and flashbacks. They gave me the opportunity to grow and put the past in its proper place…in the past. The present became easier to navigate each time I had an “opportunity” and was WILLING to go through the process of understanding.

  2. Of course! And thank you — I’m honored you find it worthwhile.

    As far as I am concerned, anybody can forward anything I write to anybody, without even asking me. I don’t care about copyrights, just about getting information out there.

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