Spiders And Snakes And Triggers, Oh My

When someone sees a spider or snake, or perhaps a hornet or a centipede, they may instantly react with obvious fear or panic. It shows, you can see it happen, and they often don't try to hide their reaction. It happens so quickly that they may not be able to hide their reaction, even if they tried. They'll let out at least a muffled squeal or scream, or jump back, or run away. The spider or snake is associated as a trigger for fear in the person's brain, the region called the amygdala. It's one of the brain's ways of keeping us safe from harm, a kind of automatic function.

All of us humans have triggers that are very subtle, that we ourselves are unaware of. Some of those triggers cause feelings of anxiety, excitement, anger, comfort, joy, resentment, envy, jealousy, trust, or distrust. Things we see and hear, things we smell, things we touch can be triggers. Like the feeling of comfort when we step into a warm and bright kitchen, or smell baked bread. Our mind instantly feels comfort and warmth just from the smell of baked bread, or coffee, or maybe stew, or pie. Many of us feel warmer or even safer when we see a hearth fire or a woodstove, even if there is very little heat.

Most of us have triggers that cause more intense emotions such as panic, like when we see a snake or a spider, or some other possible threat. And some of us have triggers that cause us to feel rage or defensiveness, even hatred.

Triggers are not the same as straightforward emotional reactions to things. They are faster, instant, "knee-jerk". It can be the look in a person's eyes, or the shape of their eyes, that can be someone's trigger for trust, OR for distrust. The sound of someone's voice, their dialect or accent, their intonations, all can be triggers for us to trust them or to distrust them. Even someone's broad smile that is beautiful and sincere can be a trigger for some people to feel a great degree of trust and even caring, but it can also be a trigger for some to feel an extreme reaction of distrust, even anger. Both reactions have no thought process behind them, there is no actual assessment if the person smiling is actually trustworthy or not. Triggers are not about thought process, they are reactions.

When we have triggers we are not aware of, we may project the feelings the trigger produces onto the object, animal, or person. "Snakes are scary" "Spiders are dangerous" are really expressions of our feelings about them, not facts about them. Snakes are only scary to individuals who are afraid of them, and only about 11% of snake species are venomous. Spiders are only dangerous if the spider is venomous to humans, we are within biting range, and they choose to bite us. The vast majority of spiders are non-lethal to humans, and most are much more concerned about hiding and getting killed than almost any human. The survival chance of a venomous spider in the US is approximately 99%. The most recent stats of deaths by spider in the US is 5.
It would be accurate to say "I am afraid of snakes", or "I am afraid of spiders", rather than "snakes and spiders are dangerous". Statistically, humans cause about 3000 times more fatalities (homicides) than both snakes and spiders annually. Dogs cause about 10 times more than both snakes and spiders.

A lot of people share common triggers, sometimes, often, developed in childhood. Most people will admit to the baking bread aroma that makes us feel warm and happy inside. But there are all kinds of subtle things that our brain associates with a memory of a feeling, and so when we see, hear, smell, or feel something, we feel that again.

For me, Sunday mornings in the Spring, when the sun is out but it's not very warm or bright, make me feel bleak, even depressed if I don't recognize the trigger. When I was 8 years old, we woke up on Father's Day to find my Daddy passed away, he had had a heart attack during the night. So even decades later, on Sunday mornings when the sunlight and the air match that morning, I feel unnerved, sad, out of sorts, even dark. If I catch what's going on, I can actively do something to change my mood.

I know a young girl who is afraid of dogs, but terrified of German Shepherds, or dogs that look like German Shepherds. She is not silly or wimpy. She had an encounter with someone's pet German Shepherd that was terrifying for her, and it left the imprint in her subconscious. Now, when her eye sees a "German Shepherd", her brain signals "Danger!" Just like anyone who's afraid of bees and hornets and spiders.

There is a man I know, an lifelong fisherman, who is very much afraid of rapids when he is in a boat. Any rapids, any boat. Even water that resembles rapids because it is flowing over rocks in a shallow area of a lake. In his youth when he was fishing with a friend, they became caught in a dangerous part of a river, they were very much afraid for their lives. Ever since, he instantly becomes anxious when there is any resemblance to "white water".

Two people I have spoken to personally, a man and a woman, are triggered by blond haired, blue or green-eyed women. They both are well-spoken, functioning adults. Both become anxious or defensive, even angry, when they are in the presence of a woman who fits this description, especially if she smiles broadly or laughs out loud. The woman also becomes anxious around brunette women of a certain body type, and seems to see them as hostile or having an agenda, even if she has just met her. The man has a list of blond actors and musicians he "can't stand", none of whom he has ever met. Both of them have reported actually being abusive to others who match the description, the man even to the point of physical attack "because of the look on her face".
Common factors include: Both of these people have older female relatives who match these physical traits and have "happy normal family lives".
Also, both of these people have divorced parents, but more importantly both of them reported feeling neglected or abandoned by one or both parents. One of them also had a stepparent who fit the physical description, who was reportedly cold and cruel to them. Their common trigger is based solely on physical appearance and facial expressions, NOT on the behavior, speech, or personality of a person. Their trigger apparently tells them "This person is uncaring" or perhaps "This person is mean" or "This person will hurt you", regardless of the person's actual intentions, history, or character. Whatever the specific message is, the feelings invoked by their common trigger seem to be a combination of resentment, anger, fear, jealousy, and possibly envy. (Obviously they are both aware of their common triggers and are working to defuse them, since they cause them each problems in their personal and professional lives. One of them has a blond daughter to boot. Also I am blond, so without their self-awareness they probably would not have shared their experiences with me.)

I worked with a client once who was triggered terribly by anyone on the street who looked directly at him, or if two people had their heads together talking. In school, he was bullied terribly by the other classmates on a regular basis, for years, and he developed an imprint of the memories that is so strong it is nearly impossible to talk him down from an anxiety attack, or anger. Like people who believe that every spider is venomous absolutely, he believes every close conversation nearby is about him. He believes his feelings are caused by reality, not by a trigger implanted in his past.

I enjoy my "positive" triggers. The feeling of joy when I hear or see a child, of happiness when I see or touch an animal, of serenity when I am next to, on, or in water. I see my child-hands when I smell or touch clean dirt, and I hear my father's voice when I see, read, or watch anything by Tolkien. The feeling of elation when I see my son or hear his voice, of warmth when I hear my mother's. These are good, as far as I can tell. As long as I don't believe all children are the same, or all animals are human-friendly, or all water is pure or safe. As long as I know the feelings are my own, and do not think they are coming FROM the person, animal, or thing I am hearing, seeing, feeling, or smelling.

My "negative" triggers I work on as much as my awareness allows. I have some friends and associates who don't shy away from the subject, and freely share and compare their own. When I discover a new one, I take note and focus on defusing it. Being a human with a working amygdala, I will always be discovering old triggers, and creating new ones. I'd like to get past my fear of centipedes, dirty dishes, and driving in Boston. Luckily, triggers aren't all problem-causers or I'd never leave my room. Some of them are kind of nice.

Click this link for a helpful page: Identifying Your Triggers