Trailheads in Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy
Updated: Feb 25
In Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy when something comes up that throws you out of Self or Self-energy, we call that a Trailhead. Trailheads are very similar to what in common parlance is a trigger. How this differs from a trigger is that the Trailhead is the emotional response to the triggering event and using that internal response as the start of an internal exploration to the root. Finding a trailhead is like seeing a door into the client’s internal world. Following the pathway from the doorway inward ultimately leads to the exiled parts in the client’s system and the burdens they are carrying (e.g., limiting belief, pain, trauma). This is a core idea in IFS therapy, and it is an easy way to assist the client gain access to his/her internal world or system and bring healing to the exiled parts of themselves.
So, depending on your personal history, a trailhead could be it could be a smell, a word, sound, imagery, how somebody else reacts... and what you are looking for is your emotional reaction to this or asking question, "What happened inside of me when [insert trigger here]". In IFS we call that a U-turn or turning from the trigger, to your emotional response to the trigger, or the Trailhead.
Somehow in society many times people think that actually getting triggered or having Trailheads is a negative thing, and if we find ourselves reacting we are doing something wrong. So do we ever get over being triggered? Will we always have Trailheads? The answer is that Trailheads will always be there and we will always experience triggers. There's no doubt, it's painful at times. However, the good thing is that by doing some work with your Trailheads, you start to understand what they are, and by following them to their root, you won't experience them in your day-to-day life as long, or as deeply, and it doesn't need to completely throw us off track. By learning the anatomy of your process and starting to parse out the links in the chain, we can unpack and make sense of what is happening for you, realising that often it is a pretty strong protest happening internally that is putting up huge arrows to what needs healing inside you.
So here's a simple way to start to break down the behavioural chain when you come across a Trailhead:
The first step is to pause and stop. Often when a client recounts an episode of when they got triggered to me and acted from the Part of them that experienced this, they will say "It just happened!" A question asked by people who don't fully understand the neurobiology of a trigger is, "What were you thinking?" The important answer is: you weren't thinking. When someone gets triggered their autonomic nervous system (ANS) goes into a sympathetic response meaning their ANS goes into hyperarousal, and their ability to think rationally becomes momentarily impaired. When someone gets triggered, it's a reactive process that takes over our bodies and minds very quickly. So, it's important to stop and take a deep breath as a means of slowing down the system. This orients us to the present and brings in the skill of noticing or mindful awareness. In IFS we talk about cultivating Self-energy towards an activated Part (e.g. a quality like calm which is facilitated by a deep breath). Once we have mindfulness or Self-energy on board, then we start to gain some separation from what's going on. This separation can be achieved in multiple ways either by externalising in some way such as writing or drawing it out (if that's possible) or by physically distancing ourselves from it by walking away. This way we can give ourselves emotional room to look more deeply into the process. At this point, we can start to bring more Self-energy (clarity) to the internal system. We can look at who, what, or where was the trigger and unpack the sequence moment-by-moment. Consider, is there is something feels familiar about this? What happened inside you when this thing happened? What is the body sensation that goes with the feeling? What is this pointing to? Often the reason that a trigger happens because there is some underlying issue, or unfinished business. By starting to develop the ability to respond differently, and doing this process over and over (like any new skill you learn, repetition is key), it gives us some room to move and that makes other behavioural and emotional options possible.
As a way of providing you with the experience of working with a Trailhead as an external person, try this Richard Schwartz IFS practice.