Triggered: Symptoms by John Burke

At Gateway Church in Austin, we kicked off a new series called Triggered.

John Burke is a NY Times bestselling author and internationally known speaker plus our senior pastor. He shared on the symptoms of what triggers us.

The Four Messages in the Series:

Humbly Seeking
Signs, Lies, and Wonders
Living Free

Next Steps:

Work through the following questions and Scriptures on your own, and get together with your running partner, life group, or friends and family to talk through what you are learning.

Triggered: Symptoms Next Steps

Message Video:

Triggered – Symptoms from Gateway Church on Vimeo.

Message Notes:

All of us, because all of us—without exception get wounded somewhere along the path of life. After 30 years of ministering to people—deep into people’s lives, I can say with confidence, no one makes it through without some scars. And that can set us up to be triggered. 

Have you noticed how easily Triggered people are today? 

Road rage is a great example. I was driving on Lakeline this year when one driver changed lanes kind of wrecklessly—the other driver honked and maybe shot the bird. But the guy in front slams on his breaks, gets out of the car, the other guy does too—and it looked like a fight breaking out. Over WHAT?  A bad lane change and horn honk? No…there’s something deeper going on. There’s unresolved hurt getting Triggered.

And if you’ve been on social media—there’s a Meme war going on about the word Triggered—mostly related to politics, name-calling, both the left and right getting nasty because we all get Triggered even if we deny it.  And some of you are already Triggered just because I’m talking about being Triggered—some because you are feeling a reaction inside anticipating things you’ve experienced being made light of. I’m not going to do that—I promise.

So why should we talk about this in church? 

Because it’s real, and it’s affecting most all of us. But it’s a very serious topic for many here. I know several war vets who have experienced severe PTSD. When my friend Ben, at Gateway Central, came back from getting a Purple Heart for bravery serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, he’d be sleeping in a thunderstorm and the sound of thunder would literally jolt him upright in bed, heart pounding like a jackhammer, reaching for his gun, reliving all the feelings of combat real time. He’s found healing, and is a leader here at Gateway, but only after realizing—something deeper is going on.

I have another friend who shared with me about changing jobs, and something about the new office environment was bringing back traumatic memories of the room she was raped in, it was making it hard to work or concentrate—not want to run].  This is not light stuff to make fun of with Memes—it’s a broken, evil world, and evil would love to keep us living in that old prison of memory trauma. But God wants to set us free, and he will. And many of you have suffered childhood or adult traumas—be it abuse, neglect, divorce, racism, betrayal—and it’s still affecting you today.  And let me say to you, this series is just a start—the trauma you’ve experienced needs more than a 4 week series to find healing. We have a list of trusted therapists we can recommend, and we have lots of Restore groups starting—take advantage of it so you don’t live today in the trauma of the past.

But Triggered is not just about severe trauma victims–after 30 years of trying to lead people to Love God and Love Everyone Life by Life—I’m finding it increasingly difficult to get people to not react emotionally and run, or lash out, or gossip, or let fear or anger drive their reactions—but instead learn to quiet your soul and listen for God’s voice and follow His Spirit.  Because that’s what we all want—even if you don’t know God yet—what He promises, I guarantee you want.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” – Galatians 5:1

When we do not have control over our emotional reactions—but they control us—we are slaves, not free people. 

  • When we find anger erupting at our spouse (or boyfriend or girlfriend) because we get triggered by something they said (and spouses get really good at knowing what to say—don’t they!
  • I’ve seen so many marriages spiral into divorce over unhealed wounds that keep getting triggered). 
  • Or when we find ourselves yelling at our little children—over spilled milk?—there’s something deeper going on in us that needs healing and growth.
  • I’ve seen people in Life Groups have close friends, a second family, felt loved, like they had best friends, then one conflict (one political difference discovered)— and bam—a deep emotional chasm opens up and swallows the person with feelings of intense hurt, fear, rejection and they never come back.

Something deeper is going on.

It affects us at work—you get a piece of negative feedback, and instead of using it to get better, it sinks you into old feelings of “You’re worthless, see you’ll never amount to anything.”  Or you get defensive with your boss, argue your case, blame others—but it hurts your upward mobility cause your seen as unteachable. There’s something deeper going on.

See this is not just for those suffering severe trauma—all humans have been wounded from the sins of others.  

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Romans 3:23

No Perfect People—which means you were raised by sinners—they did things that were not God’s will, and it hurt you, and if you have kids, you’ll do things that hurt them because you don’t do God’s will perfectly, and you’ll raise little sinnlings.

But that’s not the end of the story—for all who realize it, don’t deny it, we can be forgiven by God through Christ’s payment on the cross, brought into relationship with God, accepted into his family as sons and daughters, and as we can grow through this as we follow His Spirit day by day—look at God’s promise:  

So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves… But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control…Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. Galatians 5:16, 22-25

We all want to be loving, patient, kind, peaceful, self-controlled people—and yet—sometimes we just react. We get triggered—which means we are not following His Spirit in that moment. That’s why we need to look at this.

So what’s happening when we get Triggered?

Very real physiological events take place. I get triggered too, by the way. Kathy and I aren’t perfect people—we can trigger each other–if Kathy triggers me—and I just react, I just make things worse.  But understanding what’s happening in my brain has helped me, and I think it will help you too. A medical doctor, Scott Vaudry, who taught at the church I worked at before starting Gateway explains… that we all perceive reality, but our perspective of reality is limited, and colored by our past histories. Which means, we think something is true, but your truth may not be true. Or not the only truth or the ultimate truth. The problem is, we feel like it’s SO true, that we assume it’s the only truth.  

You perceive reality from a certain vantage point. There’s nothing wrong with this vantage point, but we tend to assume it’s the same vantage point of others—when in fact, they are standing on a different peak with a different vantage point. So we have 2 stories of what we see as reality—but from 2 different vantage points.

Understanding Others’ Perspectives

You’ve probably seen this famous painting.

  • Depending on how you look at it, you’ll see a different woman. 
  • Do you see an old woman? Or do you see a beautiful young woman?
  • Both are there—the old woman is looking forward to the left, see her? 
  • The young woman is looking away from us to the left–her back is to us.
  • Okay—so most of you now see both.

There are 2 perspectives, but to see both: First, you have to be open to seeing a 2nd perspective.

But also, you have to be motivated to see both perspectives—you don’t want to be that person who couldn’t see both. 

BUT—when we have relational hurts and wounds of the past, and we trigger each other, you’ll be amazed to hear, we are neither Open nor Motivated to consider the perspective of the other (to be open to a 2nd Story that may be true from a different perspective). We only see our truth (the 1st Story we tell).  This sabotages relationship—and learning and growth.

The challenge is that your truth, or mine, is often accurate.

  • It’s accurate—you saw the Old Woman—it’s not untrue, it’s just incomplete. 
  • That’s important—to not be completely right does not mean you’re completely wrong.
  • Or… You don’t have to be wrong to be not completely right.
  • You have to be open and motivated because you can’t simultaneously see the Old and Young woman—you have to be willing to shift perspectives.

Now what does this have to do with being Triggered?

When Triggered, you’re having an automatic response to a threat you perceive as true–but the most dangerous of your truth may not be true.

Here’s why:

  • When you get Triggered, the primitive part of your brain takes over in the limbic system or amygdala – it’s the part of your brain that’s only concerned with survival—fight or flight. 
  • The amygdala controls strong emotional reactions—emotional memory, emotional reactivity—particularly fear or threats.
  • So past negative emotional memory gets stored there.
  • When you feel threatened, and the limbic system or amygdala is driving, it doesn’t care about relationship—it only cares about survival. 
  • It will do damage to your relational world, especially if your truth that’s driving it is not completely right.
  • Sometimes we do damage to relationships reacting out of perceived threats that are actually unhealed emotional memories getting Triggered.

You also have another part of your brain, the neocortex, this is the thinking, rational part of your brain.

  • This is also the relational part of your brain. 
  • All the faculties needed for relationship, for working together, empathy, harmony, cooperation, collaboration, mercy—all happen in the neo-cortex.
  • Now, here’s the problem—your neocortex is precise, but very slow. 
  • When we get triggered, the Limbic system reacts first. Because your Limbic system and Amygdala are very fast, but not so accurate.
  • So what happens is when you get triggered, your Limbic system quickly takes over—it flashes a red warning light (figuratively) and sends messages to the Hypothalumus to flood the body with adrenaline and hormones to make you ready to fight or run.
  • Now, the problem is if the neocortex doesn’t re-engage to rationally, relationally slow down and think—you can react to perceived threats that are not real threats, or something that feels true, but it’s not really the full truth.

Our nation is polarized. Both sides seem to be easily triggered. There’s something deeper going on. God is calling us to something so much higher than Political Solutions (we are not a church that takes sides politically, but some things that get politicized God cares about, so we do too).

God is calling us to Love and Unity—to bring His Love and Healing to all people of all nations–but we will never get there this way.

Jesus last prayer he said:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” John 17:20-21.

Unity—across our differences and divides—but only the Love of God can help us heal and stop reacting and dividing. But If we’re not going there and leading the way, we’re not following Jesus.

This is what’s happening when we get triggered.

Our Limbic System stores memories, emotional memories, and we all have these memories that make us paranoid, and hypervigilant. There are things in your life your Limbic System is looking for (scanning for) to make you paranoid and hyperviligent.  

You can see this in an MRI – when a person gets really triggered, the part of your brain that can reason, think, see different perspectives, that’s good relationally—that part shuts down, it literally goes dark on the MRI, the only part that lights up is the Limbic System–part that doesn’t care about relationships—just fight or flight auto-response.  It only wants to protect you—and it’s reacting based on stored emotional memories of the past—that can activate a response that feels just as real as the original trauma or emotional memory—if that memory is not addressed and healed. Usually a lie or half-truth gets attached to that memory.  

It may be those emotions just shrink us, just make us give up because we’ve stored a memory and a lie from past experiences that says you’re gonna lose, it’s gonna hurt, just prepare yourself. So one bit of bad news and you spiral into dismay, reacting by just shutting down or giving up—but it’s still out of self-protection.  Or you blow up—you lash out, you defend your position, you start to blame or deflect or argue your case.

When that happens, your brain is getting hijacked.

Like when terrorists flood through the isle of an airplane and take over the controls—that’s what’s happening to your brain. It’s getting flooded with chemicals that suppress the thinking, relational brain, shunt the blood vessels, tense your muscles—get you ready to react swiftly.

So when you are Flooded, when your brain gets Hijacked from being triggered—here’s what happens: you’ll become overly vigilant and paranoid, you’ll lack empathy or compassion, you’re irrational, you lack awareness, your incoming data is imperfect (cause it’s filtered by the irrational part of your brain), but…you’re overconfident. 

You’re more sure than ever that you’re right and right for your reaction.

When you’re triggered and hijacked—you’ve never been more wrong, but you’ve never been more sure you’re right.

You’ve been in an argument with that person—haven’t you—how fun was that!? Don’t be that person.

Cause think about the implications—in that state, you don’t care about anyone else, you see only one perspective, and in that state you can’t learn or see new things.  You can’t listen to God’s Spirit or do what God tells us in scripture:

You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. 20 Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires. James 1:19-20

We usually bring the opposite into our worst fights, quick to react, slow to listen and slow to ask questions or hear the 2nd Perspective—and that’s what sabotages working relationships, friendships, marriages, it’s also what undermines churches. 

So how do we get Un-Triggered?

This is what we’ll dive into the next 3 weeks, don’t miss them, but here’s a quick overview. First you learn to…

Spot the Symptoms Early

You may no know why you react emotionally—it’s okay—God does know why, He’s not mad at you for it, He doesn’t condemn you for it, and if You ask Him, He will lead you to understanding and healing those memories but also replacing lies that get tied to them with truth.

So your assignment this week—in Next Steps–Spot the symptoms. Write down observations of when you have strong emotional reactions and ask the Why questions. I give you some to think through in Next Steps. Then you have to learn to Dis-engage the amygdala and then

Re-engage the Rational Brain

When you get Hijacked, your brain and body have literally been flooded with hormones—ever say things you later regret? Uh-huh, Amygdala Brain talking.  So if you’ve gotten really worked up, it takes 20 minutes on average to return to a rational, relational mind. So take a 20 minute walk—or sit alone and pray—then come back to the situation. The next few weeks, I’ll give you some things to do that will save you SO MANY needless fights that go nowhere but down the toilet. 

Search for Lies, Agreements, and God’s 3rd Story perspective

You have a perspective and story you tell—it’s partially true, but not all that’s true. Other’s have a 2nd story that’s partially true, but not all that’s true.  God alone knows the 3rd story—how all our little “t” truths fit in the bigger Reality only God knows. Jesus promised:

“If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples [my followers]. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:31-32

And as we take God at his word—start to act as if His Truth is bigger than our little truths, it sets us free. So you have to start writing down, what are those unhealed memories and what lies or agreements did I make that are not in line with God’s bigger 3rd Story?

Let God Heal the Wound  (or Deceitful Memory)

We’ll talk more about how.  And let me say 2 things that can be a great first step—we have Open Share groups in our Restore/Recovery ministry on all campuses. It’s a place you can go to start to process this stuff—it’s not just for addictions—the root of all addictions is damaged relationships—with God, ourselves, and others. 

Go to to find groups and classes but that Open Share group meets weekly, anyone can come, start to process in a safe, confidential place—No Perfect People Allowed, so you don’t have to worry about being judged.

Form a New Habit to Respond to God’s Spirit  (instead of the trigger). 

In the end, reacting to Triggers is a habit of mind and body that we can change—and we can instead respond willingly to God’s Spirit—and in time see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self control growing naturally in us just like fruit naturally grows on healthy trees.  That’s my prayer for all of us. 

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