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Recognizing and Responding to Psychological Triggers in a Toxic Family

What are psychological triggers?

Psychological triggers are any stimuli that prompt a person to recall or react to a memory or past traumatic event. These triggers could be a wide range of things such as certain smells, sounds, sights, specific environments, or even certain behaviors or phrases from others.

For instance, someone who grew up in a household with a lot of shouting may find loud voices or yelling to be a psychological trigger, causing them to feel intense fear or anxiety even when the shouting isn't directed at them or isn't meant to be threatening. This happens because the brain has associated that particular stimulus (loud voices or yelling) with a distressing or traumatic event, and so it responds as if that event is happening again.

Recognition and management of these triggers can be an important aspect of dealing with past trauma and improving mental and emotional wellbeing.

Common types of psycological triggers within toxic family settings

In a toxic family setting, a variety of psychological triggers can occur. Here are some common examples:

  1. Verbal Abuse: Harsh words, yelling, or derogatory language can trigger intense emotional reactions.
  2. Physical Gestures: Aggressive postures or actions that were associated with past abuse can act as triggers.
  3. Neglect: Ignoring or not acknowledging a person's needs, feelings, or accomplishments can remind them of past neglect.
  4. Manipulation: Tactics such as gaslighting or guilt-tripping can trigger feelings of confusion, self-doubt, and anxiety.
  5. Control: Overbearing control or coercion can serve as a trigger, reminding one of their powerlessness in the past.
  6. Abandonment: Situations that evoke feelings of being left alone or unsupported can trigger memories of abandonment.
  7. Criticism: Excessive, unfair, or unconstructive criticism can act as a trigger, causing feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness.
  8. Chaos: Erratic behavior, unpredictability, or instability within the family can be triggering, causing anxiety and stress.
  9. Unrealistic Expectations: Being held to impossible standards or constant pressure to perform can trigger feelings of failure and inadequacy.
  10. Denial or Dismissal of Feelings: Having one's feelings invalidated or dismissed can act as a trigger, leading to feelings of invisibility or insignificance.

3 common traps to watch out for when learning to survive psychological triggers

  1. Avoidance is Always the Answer: The most common trap is the belief that the best way to deal with triggers is to always avoid them. While this may be helpful in some instances, avoidance can sometimes reinforce the power of the trigger, keeping the person in a state of fear or anxiety. Instead, some people may benefit from controlled exposure to their triggers, to gradually desensitize themselves and reduce the intensity of their reactions over time. This approach should be approached carefully, as it's not suitable for everyone and could potentially lead to retraumatization.
  2. Always Seek Immediate Emotional Comfort: Another common trap is the idea that one should always seek immediate comfort when faced with a trigger. This often leads to quick-fix coping mechanisms, like substance abuse or overeating, that offer temporary relief but don't address the root cause of the problem. Contrarily, enduring the discomfort and working through the emotions associated with the trigger could potentially lead to long-term healing. This is, of course, easier said than done and depends on a person's resilience and coping abilities.
  3. Believing That Triggers Are Unchangeable: Many people fall into the trap of believing that triggers are a fixed part of their lives that they have to endure. While triggers may not disappear entirely, their impact can be significantly reduced. Techniques such as cognitive reframing can help individuals alter their emotional response to triggers, by changing their perception of the triggering event. However, this technique requires significant mental work and may not be suitable for everyone.

6 little-known techniques to cope better with psychological triggers in a toxic family setting

While conventional wisdom often focuses on distancing oneself from triggering situations or people, there are some little-known approaches that can be taken to cope with psychological triggers in a toxic family setting:

  1. Embracing Triggers: Instead of avoiding triggers, some choose to face them head-on. This approach can help one understand and dissect the trigger, eventually lessening its impact. This is not recommended in all cases, especially when it might lead to retraumatization.
  2. Cognitive Reframing: Rather than focusing on the negative emotions a trigger induces, cognitive reframing allows one to reinterpret the situation and see it from a new perspective. This doesn't minimize the trauma but helps in finding a new, more empowering narrative.
  3. Exposure Therapy: This approach involves controlled and gradual exposure to triggers, allowing the person to become desensitized over time. It's important to note that this should be done under professional guidance and is not suitable for all situations.
  4. Thought Stopping Techniques: This involves consciously stopping the negative thought spiral once a trigger is recognized. It might not work for everyone, but some find it beneficial in managing their responses to triggers.
  5. Using Humor: Using humor to diffuse the power of a trigger can be helpful for some people. By finding something absurd or comical in the trigger, it may lose some of its negative emotional impact.
  6. Rechanneling Energy: Instead of being consumed by the emotional energy a trigger releases, one can attempt to rechannel it towards something positive or productive, such as a hobby or physical activity.

Don't let the triggers define you

Recognizing and responding to psychological triggers in a toxic family setting is essential for improving mental and emotional wellbeing. This article has explored the nature of triggers and their common types within such dynamics. It has also highlighted traps to avoid and introduced lesser-known techniques for coping.

While avoidance may seem like a solution, it can reinforce fear and anxiety. Controlled exposure, seeking long-term healing instead of immediate comfort, and reframing perspectives offer alternative approaches. It is crucial to challenge the belief that triggers are unchangeable and explore techniques that provide insight and redirect energy positively.

Recognizing and responding to psychological triggers in a toxic family setting is an empowering journey. It requires self-compassion, patience, and a willingness to experiment. By taking proactive steps, individuals can reclaim their lives, break free from past traumas, and foster resilience, self-discovery, and personal growth.

Articles in this series

- How to stop a manipulative family member from draining you emotionally

- When family members fail to understand your mental struggles and emotional pain

- Is family trying to tear you down? Here's how to protect yourself

- Dealing with family members that are toxic

- 30 Shocking Ways Your Family May Be Manipulating You: And what to do about them.

- How to Set Boundaries with a Manipulative Family Member

- Dealing with Difficult Family Situations? Don't Bother - Embrace the Chaos!

- The Dark Side of Improving Family Relationships: The Secrets They Don't Tell You

- The Truth About Resolving Family Tension: It's Not Just About Maintaining Peace and Harmony

- Decoding Emotional Games: Life Lessons from Manipulative Family Dynamics

- Recognizing and Responding to Psychological Triggers in a Toxic Family (This article)

- Why Frequent Reality Checks Are Vital in a Toxic Family

- Harnessing Personal Values For Navigating Manipulative Family Dynamics

Written by Adewale Ademuyiwa


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