When I got into my dream school, I was over the moon. It was the perfect campus, the perfect community, even the perfect distance away from home. But my dad had one concern: the drive.

The bulk of it was spent on a highway infamous for tractor trailer congestion, which is grounds to make anybody nervous.

Especially a dad about his 18-year-old daughter. But I assured him it would be fine—I’d be extra careful. And I was. But as all of my fellow drivers know, you can’t always account for another driver’s craziness.

Flash forward a few years to my junior year in college. I’d successfully driven on the tractor trailer-stricken highway more times than I could count, either to get home or back to my school. It was Christmas break again and I was cruising down the road, keeping my healthy distance from the jumbo cars as I always do… when the one directly to my right aggressively begins to merge into my lane. And I use the word ‘merge’ very lightly because it was more of him scooting into the left lane with no regard for the driver (me) already occupying the space. Needless to say, I had to slam on my breaks—mind you, I’m going 75 MPH—and managed to very narrowly escape death’s grip.

My run-in with that tractor trailer may not have ended in an actual accident or injury, but it was a traumatic event nonetheless—and with trauma comes triggers. Ever since, the mere sight of a tractor trailer makes my palms sweaty and my heart race; it transports me back so effortlessly to the scary incident that left me fearful, angry, and relieved all at the same time.

What Exactly Is a Trigger?

In the above scenario, a trigger is something that activates a memory, a flashback, or feelings related to a traumatic event. It is very personal to the affected individual and can be something seen, heard, touched, smelled, or even tasted. In my case, it’s the sight and the sound of a massive tractor trailer flying down the road.

The term, however, is also used to describe stimuli that bring about upsetting feelings or problematic behaviors. Think: what really gets under your skin and initiates an outburst of anger? This could be something as simple as dirty dishes piled high in the sink or sitting in gridlock traffic. Or, it could more concerning events or behavior related to a psychiatric condition. For example, a person recovering from alcoholism is driven to drink after stepping foot in a bar or being offered a glass of whiskey.

The Roles of Habit Formation and Sensory Memory

While the brain functioning behind triggers is not completely clear, habit formation and sensory memory surely play important parts. As humans, we tend to do the same things in the same way. I, for example, always go to work, exercise, and eat at the same times every day. Now say that I have a glass of wine with dinner each night—simply eating dinner could begin to trigger drinking, which may pose a problem should I ever need or want to stop drinking. Sensory memory also plays a big role: someone may associate a smell or a sound, for example, to something horrible that happened to them. Say they survived a house fire—a crackling campfire or the brightness of its flames may cause this traumatic memory to come flooding back.

The Battle

We all have a trigger or two. For me, it’s those pesky tractor trailers—which as much as I joke about, truly terrify me—a dirty bathroom, and losing control. These all provoke scary anxiety, anger, and other unwanted negative feelings: feelings that I would like to conquer. Which brings us to the question: how can one defeat their personal triggers? Follow these easy tips right along with me to better handle triggers and the negativity they bring about:

  • First, identify where your anxiety, stress, or otherwise negative feelings are coming from. Before you can do anything else, you have to understand what your triggers are. At first analysis, it may appear to be a messy kitchen—however, the root of the problem might really be inconsiderate roommates.
  • Consider and understand how you react to these triggers. Look your negative emotions in the eyes. Are they warranted? Can you act in a more productive manner? For example, when I feel like I’ve lost control over say a relationship or a big project, I breakdown. I shrink into myself and let the negativity take over—but, I don’t have to.
  • Come up with a new way of handling them. Instead of getting down on myself about losing control, I should accept it as a part of life. It’s just not realistic to control everything at my fingertips. The key is to channel positivity instead of negativity in situations such as these.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Didn’t anyone ever tell you that practice makes perfect? Now that you’ve identified your triggers, considered how you react to them, and come up with a new game plan, you get to put your efforts to the test. The next time one of your triggers set you off, practice a more positive reaction. And after a few go’s at doing so, you’ll start to see a change in your reactions to those triggers with less and less direct effort.