The truth about triggers: What the church needs to know about trauma

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The truth about triggers: What the church needs to know about trauma

September 5, 2023 -

A vice is tightened around a white egg with a small crack running along its center. By killykoon/

A vice is tightened around a white egg with a small crack running along its center. By killykoon/

A vice is tightened around a white egg with a small crack running along its center. By killykoon/


That word is arguably one of the most overused words in the English language right now. Everyone appears to be triggered by something. And every person’s trigger is different.

If you look at social media and cultural conditioning, it appears that we have two extremes: tiptoeing around triggers so we don’t offend anyone, or living filter-free and saying whatever we want, whenever we want.

The problem is, triggers are real.

Trauma is real.

In “Why the church doesn’t want to talk about trauma,” I shared what trauma is and why I believe the church doesn’t want to talk about it.

But we live in a world of triggers, and many individuals have suffered trauma. How are we to handle this as a church? How should Christians handle people’s triggers?

More importantly, how can we move people toward healthy emotional regulation?

How do we handle the effects of trauma in others?

First, it’s important to recognize that trauma triggers are the imprint left from an event.

The trauma itself, the event that occurred, may not be as impactful as the way that it leaves a mark. Trauma leaves permanent scars that are not visible, so often they can’t be identified. Trauma’s imprint is housed in the nervous system.

According to Dr. Stephen Porges, founder of Polyvagal Theory, every person has a state where they feel calm, secure, and grounded. His theory is based on his experiments with the vagus nerve, and this calming state is known as the ventral vagal state.

When someone is triggered by a memory, or something stressful happens, they can then enter a sympathetic state, also known as “fight, flight, or fawn,” or a dorsal state, also known as “freeze.” Having periods where one experiences an adrenaline surge in response to stress is a normal human response our Creator designed for us so we could withstand extreme situations.

But when the period lasts longer than is tolerable, it can impact the nervous system in a negative way. It can lead to symptoms of PTSD or CPTSD, as described in my article.

This response system is extremely individual.

  • One person’s “trigger” may feel like a punch to the gut.
  • Another person may feel intense overwhelm or stress.
  • Another person may react in aggression or a need to defend and fight back.
  • Many people feel it in their physical bodies, like an inability to catch their breath, or dizziness or extreme fatigue.

When someone is under stress for a long enough period of time, the reactionary part of the brain doesn’t make clear connections to the frontal lobe, where thoughtful decisions are made. This can impact relationships in a harmful way.

So if someone in your circle appears to be easily triggered, it is a reflection of their tolerance for stress. For them, a triggering event likely activated an imprint left over from old wounds. Understanding this can help us move forward with difficult people in considerate ways to provide them with the support and resources they need.

The importance of safety

Furthermore, a person needs to be able to experience safety. In order for the body and brain to be connected and regulated once more, safety must be established.

Creating a place for vulnerability and authenticity drives down shame, which is often a remnant of trauma. Letting people freely express a wide range of human emotions in a secure environment is beneficial for healing. Helping people understand that they don’t need to wear a mask of perfection, that they can let their guard down, grows more authentic engagement.

But most importantly, just the presence of another human who is willing to listen to a struggle can make the biggest impact.

When someone is struggling with trauma, they often feel alone, like nobody understands them. Having someone there to listen, not to offer solutions, can be a way to create safety and spur someone toward hope.

This is the concept of co-regulation, the idea that our nervous system state is greatly impacted by the nervous system states of those around us. It falls in line with God’s call for us to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). When we are physically present with someone who is not feeling safe, our calm nervous system can impact their dysregulated state. It’s a powerful thing and a beautiful reminder that God created us for community.

The opposite of triggers

Lately, I have been encouraged by the emerging concept of glimmers.

Glimmers are the opposite of triggers.

Glimmers bring us positive emotions and connotations.

Glimmers can cause someone to feel relaxed and at ease.

Glimmers can look like sharing a special moment with someone you care about, being present and grateful in the current moment, meeting someone new with whom you connect, experiencing awe, or any positive experience.

While triggers are dysregulating, glimmers are regulating. Glimmers bring hope. They inspire joy, safety, and confidence. When triggers cause disengagement, glimmers bring us to full engagement.

In John 10:10, Jesus says, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

As believers, we get the opportunity to inspire glimmers for those around us. We can help others experience abundant life by offering glimmers.

The way we interact with people, how we speak in truth and grace, and our ability to support through active listening can be glimmers for someone who deeply needs it.

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