“Trigger,” as in psychology or psychotherapy world, refers to words, places, people or people’s certain characteristics, sounds, smells, or practically anything that brings back alive the unresolved old memories or our old reactions to them. You hear a car backfire, and your body and mind immediately get filled with fears and you duck down as if you were in a war zone. You run into someone whose voice tone reminds you of your late abusive mother – often, you do not even realize this part – then you feel as if you did something wrong and should defend yourself, just as you used to do when you were 9 years old.
It takes some detective work to understand what you are experiencing and to set yourself free from those triggers. However, one inquiry I have found very useful for myself and my clients is “how is this different from what happened back then?” For example, "how is this woman different from my late abusive mother?" – "She has never yelled at me; she is a friend, not my parent; she smiles more than my mother did; and I am a 45-year-old grown-up woman, not a 9-year-old girl who is fearful."
It is important for you to gauge your level of comfort being in a triggering situation or with triggering people. If some grounding exercises (deep breathing, rubbing your hands, stomping your feet, etc.) are called for, then use them first. When we are triggered, it means that our brain mixes up what happened in the past and what is happening in the present. The question “how is what’s happening now different from what happened then?” can help you manage the triggering situations and not be controlled by your old wounds, by helping you differentiate the present from the past.