Is Simply Removing Behaviour ‘Triggers’ Doing More Harm Than Good?

Published On: 23 March 2023

Reading time: 4 minutes

As human beings, we all get triggered sometimes. Certain environments, certain people, certain words – these can all provoke strong feelings and reactions. Some of us are aware of our triggers, but more often than not, we find ourselves caught in an endless cycle, where we automatically react on a subconscious level.

The same applies in our organisations, whether it is a school, or a health and social care setting. Sometimes, the individuals we support can become triggered, resulting in distressed behaviours. Naturally, as professionals, we try to protect individuals and interrupt the conflict spiral by anticipating and avoiding known triggers, such as transitions, particular phrases, or specific surroundings.

But this strategy is only successful in the short term by helping us manage a person’s feelings and behaviour. Instead, perhaps we need to shift our perspective of triggers and, rather than trying to evade or eliminate them, use them as a vehicle to support the individuals in our care.

The conflict spiral

What is a trigger?

A trigger can be thought of as a cue, prompt or call to action that results in a strong reaction, such as anger, fear or frustration. Because of this, we tend to view triggers in a negative light and, in our professional roles, try to reduce the chances of exposure to them. For example, when supporting an individual who finds loud environments difficult to tolerate, the temptation is, understandably, to avoid noisy places.

This certainly feels like a solution: by taking preventative measures, we can intercept the conflict spiral and reduce the likelihood of an incident. Well-intentioned interventions like this seem to work—at least in the short term. However, if triggers are continually avoided, then we unwittingly deny individuals the opportunity to grow their tolerance in different situations and fulfil their potential, both within the setting and in the outside world.

So how can we reframe triggers in a positive way and use them to support behaviour?

Triggers as experiences

First of all, it is important to remember that triggers provide us with valuable information. They cannot be perpetually avoided and nor should they be. Instead, it can be helpful to reframe them as experiences, and to use these experiences to support individuals.

By viewing a trigger as an experience and embracing it, rather than evading it, we remove any negative connotations and can instead ask ourselves questions like:

  • How can I positively influence this experience?
  • What can I do to support this person’s feelings during this experience?
  • How might this help the individual to grow and develop their tolerance?
  • Which behaviours might I expect to see as a result?

Consider again the individual who finds loud environments difficult. Over time, and guided by an emotionally available professional, gradual exposure to increasingly noisy surroundings provides the opportunity to reduce the intensity of the reaction and behaviour. Handled sensitively and patiently, we can change the perception of the trigger, downgrade the severity of the response, and enable individuals to tolerate more and more each time.

Cycle of Influence

How to support an individual through an experience

When you anticipate a trigger (or experience), be ready to help the individual to tune into any physical sensations:

  • What can you feel?
  • Where can you feel it?
  • What is going through your mind?
  • What do your feelings make you want to do?
  • What could you do instead?

Discussing out loud what is going on, physically and mentally, gives you the chance to intercept the cycle of influence and to steer that person away from a behaviour. Make suggestions or model different ways to respond while being aware of verbal and non-verbal communication. If you pick up on signs that the process is not going well, be ready to change tack and try a different strategy.

The key here is to take a measured and gradual approach. You may risk jeopardising the process by attempting to accomplish too much, too soon. 

Reviewing and updating information

Adopting a wholesale approach to reframing triggers as experiences can be a useful starting point for supporting individuals’ feelings and behaviour in the long term. This strategy starts with leadership and should permeate every level of an organisation if it is to be successful.

It is also crucial that we revisit and review information, such as individual support plans, on a regular basis, as triggers can change and evolve over time. For example, it could be that a 10-year-old child finds it impossible to tolerate transitions in the classroom, so this information, quite rightly, is noted on their record or care plan. However, it might be the case that, over subsequent years, transitions become less and less problematic, but the plan is not updated. On paper, at least, that same individual is still triggered by transitions but, in reality, this is no longer the case.

Out-of-date information may skew how staff and other professionals interact with an individual and may, unwittingly, perpetuate a situation that is no longer relevant. By regularly reviewing and updating our information, we can ensure we are in the best position to support those in our care.

Changing the paradigm

Triggers are not barriers; they are not negative; they are not something to be suppressed or eliminated. Instead, triggers reveal parts of ourselves that we need to explore, not ignore.

Thinking differently about triggers offers numerous benefits, enabling us to:

  • Downgrade the severity of a reaction
  • Minimise, or even eradicate, certain behaviours
  • Reduce the likelihood of incidents
  • Forge strong relationships built on mutual trust
  • Foster a positive approach to behaviour support
  • Develop individuals’ agency over their own lives
  • Build individuals’ capacity and confidence to respond differently

Ultimately, by embracing triggers and reframing them as an integral part of behaviour support rather than behaviour management, we empower the individuals in our care and enable them to thrive in every aspect of life.