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Getting Triggered: Sally Bubbers


Welcome to the Loved Called Gifted Podcast.  This is your place to come for musings about spirituality, identity, and purpose.

I’m your host, Catherine Cowell.



I'm really delighted to be with Sally Bubbers again for this episode.


So do you want to just introduce yourself Sally and then I'll talk about what we're going to talk about.


S: Yes, so I'm a counsellor.


I've got two core trainings, one in sensory motor psychotherapy, which acknowledges that the body has its own memory of trauma without words, and also internal family systems.


And I'm married, I've got four children and living in Shropshire.


C: Yes, and it's very nice in Shropshire.


So we're at your house today, which is really rather lovely.


And if people are interested in internal family systems, which is sort of a way of understanding what's going on inside of us, we had a conversation about that some while ago.


So you can go back and have a listen to that if you're interested.


S: We did.


C: So today we're going to talk a bit about the triggering system, which you've kindly offered to talk to us about.


I thought this would be a really good thing to chat about because triggering or being triggered is a bit in vogue, isn't it?


People talk about it quite a lot.


S: Yeah.


C: And people talk about putting trigger warnings on things.


S: Yes.


C: But I'm not sure that we all necessarily understand either what being triggered is or how it happens and what's going on with us when it does or what we might do about it.


So do you want to tell us a bit about what we mean when we say that somebody's been triggered?


S: I think what people generally mean is that they suddenly react to something and it happens very fast, like in milliseconds.


They can either change their mood, they can suddenly become very flat or very angry, or they can have an impulse to run out of somewhere.


So I think people tend to use it in those sort of terms.


And often we can get confused when somebody else is triggered because we don't understand what's happened, because they're suddenly behaving a way that we don't understand.


Or we can be ashamed of the way that we might have got triggered and reacted to something.


C: Because it's quite often that something's happened and then we've had an emotional reaction that we weren't expecting.


And then when you look at it logically, you think, well, I don't know why I was triggered by that.


S: Yes.


C: So your logical brain says, no, everything was fine, but something deep inside has said, no, it's not.


S: That's right.




C: Massive alarm bell goes off inside, but it happens so fast.


You don't always hear the alarm bell.


C: And you definitely haven't got time to kind of stop it going off.


S: I think often if you are seriously being triggered, no, but we can start to anticipate situations and we can get curious about what's triggering us.


And then we can actually start rerouting things in the brain because the brain is neuroplastic.


And what that means is we can rewire it, which is magic really.


It's amazing.


C: And presumably one of the things that we learned to do in our lives anyway, is that quite often you're aware of the emotion being triggered, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you are not in control of your response to it.


S: You're not always in control of your response to something because things can get stored in our body and in our brain and we can react to something and we're not always in control.


We did another chat about the window of tolerance.


And when you go out of your window of tolerance, effectively you don't have your full thinking brain online.


So what that means is you haven't got sort of executive control of what you're doing.


Did I understand your question correctly that you're asking?


C: Yeah, I think I was asking if there were times when your emotions might be triggered, but as an adult you've learned ways of kind of limiting your outward response to it.


S: Yeah.


And that's because you've been able to notice what's happening.


So there's two different routes in the brain that triggers can go.


And one of them we kind of lose all control and the other one we do have an understanding of what's happening and we can override it or redirect it.


Does that make sense?


C: Yes.


S: So a sort of stimulus, whatever it is, even like a bang can make us jump out of our skin sometimes or a scary face can make us scared or somebody responding to us, any sort of stimulus really can happen.


Smells actually can be very, very stimulating.


So what happens is whatever the stimulus is, this is really basic neuroscience.


It comes in through the thalamus and it heads towards the amygdala and the amygdala are sort of two almond shaped things just inside our ears, sort of just in the brain.


And they're like smoke detectors, which are scanning the whole time for problems in our environment that might upset us.


Now from there, there are two different routes it can go.


One is they can check out with the thinking brain and go, "Hmm, do we have any information about this?"


And the thinking brain might go, "Yes, well, we've got something stored on this.


So that loud bang is okay and it's safe.


It's all right.


It's not going to kill you.


It's quite safe."


And so then the information comes back round and we go, "Oh, that was just a loud bang and it's okay."


But if it goes to the thinking brain and it doesn't have any information on it or the thing is deemed to be dangerous, then two areas of our brain get turned off called Broca's and Wernick's, which allow us to understand speech and generate speech.


And we shoot through the hypothalamus.


And on a previous podcast we talked about the seven F's.


So we go basically into fight and flight, which a lot of people understand about fight and flight and freeze and out of our window of tolerance.


Now that different route, if we keep getting scared by things, then basically the amygdala doesn't even check in its sequence of checking with the thinking brain.


It just goes straight to react.


C: When I was learning about attachment disorder, in order to support my adopted brain, my adopted sons, we learned about the idea of your red brain and your blue brain.


Less technical word, the blue brain being that kind of that logical route and your red brain being the kind of ‘there's danger you need to do something now.’


S: Absolutely.


Which makes a lot of sense because when you were describing where you can check with your brain, you can say, "Well, have we got any information on this?"


C: Well, that's fine if you've got time, but that primitive brain, which says “there's a bear coming out of the forest, run now”, which is sort of your red brain, you don't want to be checking the files to see if you know anything about bears.


S: You don't.


C: You want to be going for it.


S: Yeah.


And so if you heard a twig crack, that could be a lion coming at you, couldn't it?


But all of this checking we're talking about literally happens in milliseconds.


I mean, it is so fast with this information firing around the brain.


But if we're able to start noticing, then on the way into the thinking brain, basically we can go through somewhere called the hippocampus and the hippocampus can make stories.


So after something's happened, we can also make a story.


So like with a child, if they've been really frightened by something, like a firework going bang and they were scared, we can go, "Oh, it was just a firework.


So it was okay.


We're all right.


We're safe.


We've survived."


And so you can help them to make a story that fireworks are safe and they're okay and they're not a life-threatening thing to you.


C: When my youngest son was very small, he found lots of noises really scary.


So one of the things that we did a lot when he was very little was that he would hear something and be really startled and afraid by it.


And then I would pick him up and we would go together and investigate.


So it might have been a lawnmower or somebody sweeping the road in a big noisy truck.


So we go and see and find out what it was.


S: Yeah, that's beautiful.


And that's brilliant.


And we can also do that with ourselves as adults if we're getting triggered by things.


To check it out consciously, decode what's going on.


Sort of like if we're driving a car, for example, the amygdala runs our life.


So we could drive from A to B thinking about what we're cooking for dinner, talking to somebody in the car, listening to the radio.


But somehow our brain just carries on driving and is aware of everything around us.


But if we notice somebody on the curb, then the amygdala flags up to us, alert, and our attention is drawn to it immediately, isn't it?


We slow down, we notice what's going on.


And so that's one route where we've gone through the hippocampus and there's information.


Then the other route would be, say somebody jumped into the middle of the road in front of us.


Immediately you've slammed the brakes on before you've even thought about why you've done that.


And that is the survival route.


C: It's a very well told story, isn't it?


Of people coming back from war and dropping to the ground when they hear a big noise.


S: Absolutely.


Yes, it is very much.


And I think what people don't think about is the attachment side of things.


So if a child has tried to approach a caregiver and they've been scary or unpredictable, then a certain look on a face could trigger somebody.


So there's relational triggers as well as noise or smell and yes, emotional things going on inside us that we can just be scared about.


C: And that's where it's worth kind of understanding this a bit, isn't it?


Because something like, well, there was a noise that sounded like a gunshot and this person who was out fighting in Afghanistan has dropped to the floor in order to get away from it.


That's really obvious to trace that through.


But the newsagent looks at him funny and that sent him a bit nuts.


It's very much more difficult to kind of unpick that, isn't it?


S: It is.


But I think the thing is just to accept that he was triggered by a look and it could have been just the man's face or it could have been a look.


And I think what we learn from Stephen Porges's polyvagal theory is how sort of subconsciously we are constantly scanning for tiny changes in people's faces.


So a small frown or a flick of the eye or a movement in the mouth, which we might not actually be consciously aware of, but there's something that has reminded us of somebody else that wasn't safe and we can get triggered by it.


A tone and pitch of voice as well.


We can get triggered by body structure.


You can find someone threatening just by their way of being.


It's really quite fascinating because these are things that have been ingrained from very, very young and children and young people have to get on with their caregivers because otherwise you'd have no roof over your head and no food.


And we're also relational beings.


We're designed to connect.


So if there are relational breaches, we basically have to try to work out how to still connect to that person.


So a child will monitor an adult in the minutest detail to work out if it's safe to approach or not, what mood they're in, all sorts of things.


And all those can be triggering.


C: And they've needed to learn those things for survival very early on.


S: Yeah.


C: Before they actually had words to put around them.


So your thing about you can put a story around it.


Well, a lot of these things will have happened before you've kind of got the ability to do the making a story.


S: That's very true.


But what I do find with people is that if they understand what's going on, they can start to try to decode things retrospectively and go, "I found that man scary."


And they can notice what's coming up in them that's scary.


I mean, it could be a woman as well.


I'm just saying man, could be anybody.


And then be curious about that.


And maybe notice what comes up in their body as a precursor to them getting really scared and triggered.


And noticing what happens just before is a really good clue to starting to unpack stuff.


And it might be like in the news agent, you're saying it could be a combination of things because it might be that it's not easy to escape because it's a busy, full shop.


There's stuff stacked everywhere.


And so there might be compounding things connected to it as well.


So just reflecting on that can be helpful.


There's some really interesting work that Frank Corrigan, who's up in Scotland, he's been really interested in why when you teach somebody the model of the window of tolerance and they start learning to notice things and to widen their window of tolerance through mindfulness and being reflective about things and just noticing what's going on, sometimes it just still doesn't settle things.


And he's a real boffin.


He is amazing.


And he's hit on an area in the brain, in the top of the midbrain where there can be a deeper storage of pre-conscious defence system.


And he's developed a way of working with that, which you would need to do with a therapist, but it's called deep brain reorienting.


And for things which are really triggering that you can't seem to find an answer for, it's really, really good because it goes into the stored shock, which comes up before we even react.


And that can be processed non-verbally, just letting the body discharge the shock.


So that's really interesting if people are stuck, but quite often just noticing can be really helpful.


C: Noticing what's triggered you.


S: That's right.


C: Yes.


If you're in the crowded shop and working out which bit of that was the thing that was triggering.


S: So say for example, you were outside a coffee shop and you got mugged, your brain, your amygdala might start scanning for the colour of the grey paving stone.


There might've been somebody in a dayglo jacket.


There might've been the smell of coffee and it might've been a sunny day.


So then your amygdala might be scanning for all those things to try to stop that bad thing happening again.


So then possibly a couple of years later, you might trip up on that grey paving stone and break your leg and maybe there's the smell of coffee.


So then your amygdala is going, "Hmm, these two things seem to be really dangerous."


So whenever you come across them, your activation levels will go up in your body and you're subconsciously more alert.


So that grey paving stone and the smell of coffee.


So then maybe a little while later you have an argument with somebody that you're fond of, that you love and there's the smell of coffee.


Then coffee becomes the most dangerous thing.


So then the smell of coffee can trigger you into a state of agitation and high alert 


C: and you're definitely not going to a pavement cafe.


S: No, you're not.


So it's really fascinating.


And then it's a question of just going, "Okay, so what is it about a pavement cafe or the smell of coffee which revs up my body?"


And just noticing it and going, "Actually in the present moment right now, is this going to kill me?"


C: So could you then consciously sort of rewire some of that if you sit in the coffee shop and you're deliberately mindful and you have a nice conversation with somebody and you eat your favourite cake?


S: Yeah, yes.


So you can make a story for yourself about it.


I think often it's good to bring up the fear in the body and then bring up the new experience and through that the memory and reconciliation can take place.


When you bring up a memory and you change it, it gets restored in a different way.


So you just have to hang about with the new.


If you can hang around for sort of three or four minutes with it, that would be really good.


People do say if you can keep revisiting it and keep reminding yourself that it's okay.


But actually the memory and reconsolidation happens quite quickly and the new networks can be formed.


So it's just really quite, I mean, there's so much they don't know, but there are things that do seem to be working and happening and people feel a shift in their lives.


C: I was just thinking back to an experience that I had in Africa.


This was quite a number of years ago now and we went on a sort of trip of a lifetime, go and see the gorillas in the rainforest thing, which was amazing, except that one of the gorillas kind of ran down the hill and knocked me over.


S: Oh no!


C: And we'd been told that should a gorilla run at you, that you shouldn't move out of the way because we shouldn't run away from it.


I think sidestepping was all right, but you shouldn't run away from it because it might then chase you and that would not be good.


So I got knocked over by this gorilla.


What was really interesting is that in the rest of that holiday, like where we saw signs for baboons or if there were large dogs or anything mammalian and large, I was not very happy with, but that didn't last too long.


So things do sort of fade.


It would be really interesting.


I don't have the money or the intention of doing it, but interesting to see how easy it would be to go back on a gorilla experience, possibly not very.


But there was an acuteness of that that kind of faded.


But then I'm thinking of a situation maybe where somebody sort of chronically ill and in and out of hospital, for example, lots of not so good experiences.


And you can see how there is a compounding that potentially happens.


S: Yes.


Really what it boils down to is what is completely overwhelming for your system.


So it's really hard to say what is going to cause a long-term trauma or a traumatic response to something because it depends on the individual person and the circumstances and whether there were people there at the time who were able to care for you and look after you and reassure you that it was going to be okay, or this was for a reason, like if you're in hospital and that makes a big difference.


C: So the story that you're hearing, the story that you're telling yourself, so if you're in hospital because these kind, compassionate people are going to help you and make life better, or at least life would be worse without them, then that begins to build a story which is positive.


S: Yes.


So yes, it does sort of, but if you are in hospital scared to death and not really understanding what's happening and people are just coming at you with masks and gowns on and sticking needles in you, and then you wake up and you don't really know what's happened, that would cause trauma.


C: I'm just thinking this might not be a terribly helpful example because I know somebody who regularly listens to our podcast who has had exactly that experience of being in a hospital.


So I'm just thinking.


S: Yes.




Well, all you can say is that everybody's individual experience is always different.


And what we do know is that the amygdala comes online four weeks before we're born.


We can have very, very early experiences that can store scary things in us and smell is a very early thing as well.


So if somebody is scared of the smell of a hospital that could even have been from when they were very little.


The pre-conscious defence system is wired to rapidly detect environmental or looming threat.


And it can just remain hyper alert to things which have got stored really early in our lives.


You just never know when it's got stored.


I was at a conference one time listening to somebody talk and they were talking about a child who actually had, I think she was being fostered with a view to adoption and she was having extreme reactions to loud noises and particularly like drums, if someone was playing drums and they found out that when she was, her mum was pregnant, she was living in a house with a drummer.


And so how far does it go back?


C: You can kind of see in that situation that if the mum was quite stressed and quite anxious and quite wound up, and then there's the sound of the drumming, then being in that fearful environment and the drums kind of goes together.


S: Yeah.


It's just amazing, isn't it?


But once they discovered that they were able to start working with it.


I think the most important thing is to have compassion for ourselves and others.


Nine times out of 10, there is a behavioural survival reason for the way we react to things.


C: So if we're noticing it and we're being kind to ourselves while we're noticing it, the opposite of which is, "Don't be so silly.


You know, you kind of say that to yourself, don't be so silly.


It's only a coffee shop."


S: Yes.


C: Yes.


So if we can not do that, but we can say, "Oh, I wonder why.


I noticed that I'm feeling like this.


And I wonder what that might be about.


And I can also notice that I'm feeling like this, but actually this place where I am is actually quite nice and quite safe and quite friendly."


S: Yeah.


But the magic is that you can actually do like training runs in your brain.


C: Ah.


S: Because we have these things called mirror neurons in our head.


So if we think about something, it can come up as if literally in our mind and body.


So if you're having a real trouble with something, you can actually think about going to that place and notice what comes up in your body and learn to settle yourself with that to start with.


And often a sort of long slow out breath can really help bring the parasympathetic online in our bodies.


And just noticing what's coming up in us, the thoughts and the body sensations and the feelings, and then be with that before you actually put yourself in the coffee shop or commit to it.


And maybe even just walk past one, maybe think about sitting down.


So I think we can build things up incrementally as well.


C: Which is also being kind to ourselves, isn't it?


S: Absolutely.




So noticing is key.


Being kind to ourselves is so important, you know, because we can be so critical of ourselves.


And normally there's a little exiled part that's scared about something.


C: And that was in the conversation about internal family systems.


S: That's right.




C: Of the things that you talked about, the thing which has kind of most resonated with me is that we can have relational triggers.


S: Yeah.


C: Because I noticed that quite a bit that, you know, you have a conversation with somebody and it just feels somewhere inside unsafe and uncomfortable.


And there's nothing on the outside of that that makes sense to me.


S: No.


I can spend a lot of time saying to myself, “no, Janet is lovely.


She's just delightful.


She's a very gentle person.”


Whereas inside there's kind of a whole pile of alarms going off.


S: Yeah.


And it's really interesting because I do think sometimes we have to trust our guts about things, you know?


So don't override it and think you're just being silly because she's a nice person.


Because maybe there is a side to her which is reminding you of something in somebody that didn't go well in the past.


So it's really sensible to think about it and be alert to things.


And that's about looking after ourselves as well.


So I don't think you always want to just think you're being silly.


C: No, I don't think it's ever helpful.


It doesn't shift it anyway.


However much you tell yourself not to think something, it doesn't move it.


You just end up kind of with this ball of stuff that you can't shift.


And now you feel bad about the fact that you can't shift it and you're feeling it.


But that point that you're making about the fact that there may be something in the person that you're talking to, which your alert system has sensibly made you sensitive to.


S: Absolutely.


C: I think speaks again into the fact that we have these systems for a reason.


It's about keeping us safe.




So there's no harm in noticing the risk.


It's just about noticing, is this still reasonable or not?


S: Yes.


C: Yes.


S: And if you don't feel safe around somebody, just don't put yourself in a position where you're alone with them in any way.


Just make sure that you've got someone else around or you feel safe.


That's very important.


It's really interesting.


But sometimes if we think about internal family systems, we could have young parts triggered by somebody that reminds us of our head teacher when we were vulnerable as a child.


And so there's work we can do to let that young part of us know that now our adult can deal with that person.


It's all multi-layered.


There's never one simple solution or reason for things.


But I guess what I just want people to understand is that there is hope and there are possibilities of rewiring our brain and finding ways of finding things to make them easier.


C: Yeah.


And some of that rewiring we've spoken about in terms of just noticing compassionately, being mindful and potentially putting yourself mentally or actually sort of in a situation where you can build up a positive memory and a new story around something.


S: Yes, absolutely.


And experience it from your adult.


C: Yeah.


S: Yeah.


C: Because even those things which we've experienced when we were too small to make a story, as you say, we don't have to stop making stories.


We can continue to make stories.


S: Absolutely.


And in fact, amazingly, there are very few areas of the brain that grow and the hippocampus can actually grow.


It can get withered if it's not used much for making good stories and it can grow and get sort of bigger and stronger.


So we can support ourselves through that, through the new biology as well.


C: And then if there are things which will really need some support for us to do some of that rewiring and shifting, then there are therapies and things you talked about.


Was it deep brain reorienting?


S: Yes.


Deep brain reorienting, DBR.


That's new therapy and you won't get that on the NHS, but that's coming in, but you don't need many sessions of it to clear things.


And I think the key thing to remember is that CBT, which is a common therapy within the NHS, because you're working cognitively, you're working from the thinking brain down to the lower parts of the brain, the older parts of the brain, the midbrain and the brainstem.


If you remember what I said at the beginning is that when you get triggered, the thinking brain goes offline.


In fact, if it's pure CBT, then it's not going to help you really because you can't think your way out of it.


You've got to be able to notice what's going on in the body.


So there are some versions of it that include mindfulness and being present with yourself.


Otherwise you need to find something which is trauma informed and body based as a therapy.


So the sensory motor psychotherapy, somatic experiencing, even working with a cranial sacral therapist can be helpful.


And there are some books, there's books around that you can read.


C: Yeah.


S: Things like EMDR.


Well I think you want to have somebody that's trauma informed for EMDR really.


So it can be really helpful, but with the EMDR you tend to go for the traumatic incident and sometimes that can be too overwhelming.




And so sometimes it doesn't go well.


So some people EMDR works amazingly, but if it doesn't work for you, it is not you.


It's the therapy.


And I guess that's the key thing to say that there are other therapies out there with all of these therapies and also the relationship with the therapist, because you need to be able to feel safe and trust the therapist in relationship to heal wounds that happened in relationship.


If you're not feeling safe, you're not going to rewire anything as being safe.


C: No.


S: Does that make sense?


C: Oh, it completely makes sense.


So there are therapies out there, but ideally you want somebody who's trauma informed and you want something which is going to go a little bit deeper than just the thinking.


S: Yes.


C: Quite often I think people can get a bit stuck, can't they?


So if you're doing therapy, that is all about, as you say, it's all about thinking.


You can come away from a therapy session with some great plans about how you're going to do things differently and then you get triggered and you're right back to the beginning.


S: Yeah.


And it's not your fault.


It's because stuff is, we talk about it hijacking your system and it just does that.


But even just if you've listened to this and you've understood that there might be something being triggered in your body, you can start getting curious about noticing if your heart rate goes up, if your breathing goes up or you shut down a bit or you find that you've gone really still.


You know, these are all little signs to watch out for.


C: So in the conversation that we had about windows of tolerance, you actually went through all of the different things that happen to us when we do get triggered.


So that gives you some clues.


So that's worth a listen.


S: Definitely worth a listen.


Maybe we can have some links in the show notes to some different kinds of therapy that might be helpful to people.


C: Yes, we can do that.


S: There's main websites for a lot of these trainings and there's more and more people are creating their own little small therapies all over the place at the moment.


But I think that's the most important thing to understand that it's not all about cognitive strategies.


But once you have managed to stabilise yourself to be a bit calmer about things, then cognitive strategies can be really helpful because you can tell your story to yourself about, is this dangerous now in this moment?


So you can do that, but if it's not working for you, then that's no good.


Really try something else.


It's not you.


And you're not mad.


It's just the way you've learned to survive.


And that's really, really important.


C: Yeah.


S: Yeah.


C: So that's the triggering system.


S: Yes.


C: Thank you very much, Sally.


That's been really, really informative.


S: You're really welcome.



Hope you enjoyed this episode of the Loved Called Gifted podcast. If you’d like to get in touch, you can email You can find a transcript of this podcast at and that’s also the place to go if you’re interested in the Loved Called Gifted course or if you’d like to find out about spiritual direction or coaching.

Thank you for listening.


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