Transitive Triggers: Why did that trigger me?

We are all familiar with the idea of triggers. Things, events, places that take us back to the site, sounds and feelings of the trauma we suffered. These triggers are usually something more or less directly related to the trauma its self. Something present at the time of the traumas such as a sound, smell or physical sensations. Sometimes a visual queue will act as a trigger but again these tend to be more or less directly related to the underlying trauma.

Because of this direct, and often visceral connection to the deep levels of our sub conscious we are often able to identify the trigger and its relationship to the trauma itself.

A good example being a smell that was present when we were abused triggering memories, and an emotional response, when we smell it in later life.

Sometimes however its difficult to see how a triggering event causes the response. Sometimes the triggering event doesn’t seem to have that direct connection to the underlying trauma. A smell again may provide a good example, Lavender for me invokes happy memories of my grandmother, however sometimes it causes a massive negative emotional reaction. It took me some time to identify what was going on here but the memories of my grandmother triggered subsequent memories of my mother. It was these memories, the ‘secondary’ memories that was causing the reaction.

I think of these sort of triggering events as ‘Transitive triggers’

Transitive Triggers

In thinking about how these triggers operate it is helpful to think of them as a connection between your current self and the internal child. The triggering event cause the memory, sometimes pleasant to be recalled by the adult but the triggering event is also passed through down to the inner child for who the event may trigger darker memories. In my case the adult remembering the positive time he spent with his grandmother

The resulting emotional reactions is passed back up the chain to the adult me who sees the pleasant memory inexplicable causing this torrent of negative emotions.

This masking of the trigger event causes problems in that it is now difficult for the adult to identify the both the trigger and underlying element of the trauma because it is hidden from view by the surface event and memory. All the adult feels is this upwelling of totally unexpected emotion seemingly with no cause. This makes it rather difficult to deal with. Usually we can use techniques like self-talk to help with dealing with these responses, realising the underlying cause we can take steps to pull ourselves back. However, when the underlying trauma is hidden from us our foundation to pull ourselves out is taken away.

The same problem impacts our ability to manage triggers, if the actual trigger is hidden or distorted by the ‘pass through’ nature of the transitive trigger then the steps we can take to avoid being triggered in future, or prepare for its happening, are much more limited in scope.

It can also add a level of confusion to the experience. You are left dealing with the flash back while all the time thinking ‘why am I reacting like this?’ leading to a feeling of both helplessness and powerlessness, in its self a big trigger for many of us!

Taking Back Control

Once we had identified that these transitive triggers may be hitting us however we can take steps to manage the impact.

Just as with ‘normal’ triggers you can ‘follow them back’ to the underlying cause, only this time you may need to think through a few more steps.

So instead of

 “I felt anxious because I saw somebody who was present when I was being abused”

it may become

 “I felt anxious because I saw somebody who treated me in a way that reminded me of somebody that was present when I was being abused”

This is important because there may be many ‘surface triggers’ many people who potentially treated you in a way that could remind you of the other person and thus cause the flashback. It is in recognising the deeper, underlying, trigger that the transitive trigger is invoking that we can begin to take back control.


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