So far the word “triggering” has been associated with post traumatic stress when a person has been in life-threatening situations. Some sensory event (sound, image, smell) causes the moment to come alive again, more than just remembered, vivid enough to have consequences. I had never heard of anyone associating it with a positive experience until David Alm suggested it as a Twitter comment, but clearly the positive intense emotional moments that are so overwhelming that they seem supernatural must be triggered in some similar way. Understanding the mechanism of this well enough to be able to cause them on purpose is the substance of this narrative: how can liturgy trigger or “call” a moment of emotional intensity? The key is sensory.

This is why the ecosystem and history of the person or group must be known for liturgy to be effective. Science says the sensory system is the code that calls back memory. This is significant at this time of year. Those who have had miserable, quarreling, bereft holiday experiences may be triggered many times over the next few weeks. Those who can remember happy times with loving people will find themselves feeling pretty good.

Persons working with addiction have suggested that creating a series of positive emotions is a necessary preparation for success in life. Addiction has been the experience most pain-free for some people, but pain-free is not happiness. What are the “good times” that can be triggered in memory? Tim, who works with boys at risk, once took his younger boys out for ice cream together. Or they went swimming or camping. Abused kids have far too few peak moments of mastery, acceptance, of being listened to and assured of value. The lack of experiences explains why so many authoritarian attempts to change troubled kids fail from the beginning, develop into Oppositional Defiance, and can even prompt suicide as a means of escape.

Triggering seems to be related to “flashbacks” in which one suddenly remembers, nearly re-lives moments. Hypnotism is a way of causing a flashback. Flashbacks are more likely to be positive, but our strange culture is more attracted to the negative idea of triggering, though conventionally warning against such a possibility.

“A flashback is a vivid, often negative memory that may appear without warning. It can cause someone to lose track of their surroundings and “relive” a traumatic event. Triggers can take many forms. They may be a physical location or the anniversary of the traumatic event. A person could also be triggered by internal processes such as stress.

“The exact brain functioning behind triggers is not fully understood. However, there are several theories about how triggers work . . .In some cases, a sensory trigger can cause an emotional reaction before a person realizes why they are upset . . . Another theory is that triggers are powerful because they often involve the senses. Sensory information (sights, sounds, and especially smells) play a large part in memory.”

https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/trigger

Academia.edu offers a paper called “Self-Triggering? An Exploration of Individuals who Seek Reminders of Trauma” by Benjamin W. Bellet, Payton J. Jones, Richard J. McNally They were noting the clinical phenomenon of people who had learned to trigger themselves over painful memories to the point of obsession. They were trying to find meaning, to solve the problem. Sometimes they blamed themselves. This seems highly related to religious quests even when they are in secular terms like looking for the meaning of the universe. It can be like investigating a wound in hopes of a cure or at least a diagnosis.

Some methods seeking to help will try to overlay negative memories with new images of happiness and success. This can turn into an obsessive demand for cheerfulness instead of the understanding and sharing that is more likely to succeed. Tim’s “red chair” — adapted from Fritz Perls’ idea of the hot-seat — as focus of a group effort to pay deep empathic attention is an opportunity to resolve at least the plaguing reality and hopefully allow felt acceptance by the person in the chair.

“These contemporary personal narratives are consistent with some reports from clinicians who have published case studies of patients who feel compelled to expose themselves to situations reminiscent of their trauma (c.f. van Der Kolk, 1989, for a review). These have included combat veterans (Blank, 1985), survivors of sexual abuse (De Young, 1984; Herman, 1981), and individuals who have lost parents in childhood (Hilgard, 1953).”

My own experience with a triggering event includes a group meant to explore persons entering ministry. I had made a rather lengthy little speech about something and the leader cautioned me that I might be “taking up too much space.” I burst into tears without knowing why and could not stop. When resolved, it was clearly a childhood message from parents who thought I was a “big girl” who didn’t need attention. I had felt my existence was not justified.

How does this kind of thing fit with the deliberate recovery of trauma in hopes of habituation, like people who look at snakes to cure being terrified of snakes? I’m not sure such repetition is justified or effective. Conversely I don’t know of anyone systematically using the recall of peak moments as therapy, though there is always a lot of talk about them. Maybe it’s easier to take a pill.

Arousal of any kind is often a wanted experience. Adrenaline addiction is an extreme form, but the arousal of challenges like climbing or new experiences or, indeed, an amusement park or terrifying movies are all sought-out experiences. Maybe retriggering negatives is simply a matter of seeking control. Must arousal entail going out of control, as in drunkenness?

“Those who self-trigger may also gain a sense of control by keeping themselves in a persistent state of distress and thereby avoiding “contrast effects,” (i.e., rapid and unexpected transitions from a euthymic or positive mood to a negative mood). Indeed, research suggests that those with pathological anxiety may persistently worry in order to prevent sudden shifts in affect due to negative events (Crouch, Erickson, & Newman, 2017).” This sounds like some “worry wart” mothers who constantly nag their children.

A triggering or evocative liturgical event took place in Saskatoon decades ago. It was Christmas eve, the traditional time for candlelight services and I had arranged the congregation on two sides of tables full of candles. Lighting candles while remembering was a common and popular practice. The service was divided into various short pieces about birth and infants to honor the Nativity. In the intervals people were invited to light the candles.

By the end there was a huge dangerous conflagration! If there had been a sprinkler system we would have been drenched. NOT recommended! But arousing! Afterwards people said they had recovered deep memories. None admitted trauma. I suspect no one has forgotten that night. This dramatic incident has remained one of the reasons that for me liturgy as a peak experience stays a fascination.

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.