Emotional Triggers

A trigger is any word, person, event, or experience that creates a certain emotional reaction. Sometimes a trigger is positive but this post is about how to handle the negative ones.

I like creating lists so this post will just be a list of how to deal with emotional triggers that can cause negative responses.

Name it. In the well-known fairy tale about Rumpelstiltskin, discovering his name means being free of his threats. Likewise, we can keep a written list with the names of our familiar, often-repeated triggers. These could be particular people, words, places, or behaviors. Being on the lookout for our triggers makes us ready for them. Then we respond consciously instead of acting on reflex.

2. Seek the source. Identifying the source of a trigger reaction — a specific event or trauma — is central to freeing ourselves from it. Triggers based on past trauma show us where the past invades the present. But they also allow us to look directly into the hidden world of who we are. When I accurately locate where a trigger comes from in myself, for instance, I notice that I can usually reduce its wallop substantially.

  • Name the issue. Give it a name so you can deal with it.
  • Identify the source of your triggers
  • Breathe and don’t react first
  • Understand that you may have to choose acceptance. You can’t change people and so you have to deal with them in the best way that works for you.

3. Be aware of projection. Trigger reactions are about projection. For example, if one of your parents was angrily violent toward you, you might be triggered by anger in others today. This is because your body fears a repetition of that original sequence, even though anger and violence aren’t inevitably linked.

Or maybe your first love left you for someone else, and now you’re unsure of your attractiveness in every new relationship. We predict outcomes based on past experience.

While it’s always possible that anger will lead to violence, or your new love interest will fall for someone else, that would be a coincidence, not a given.

Most important, when we make our reaction all about other people, it leaves us powerless, because we can’t change them. When we take ownership of our reactions, we take a step toward healing and letting go of the original injury. (Try these six trips to help you stop projecting onto other people.)

4. Notice hyperarousal signs. When we’re triggered, cortisol and adrenaline course through us — so we might feel fragile, disorganized, and disoriented. We’re unable to self-regulate in that moment, so the first order of business is to focus on calming ourselves down.

To do this, have some favorite relaxation techniques at the ready. Take a deep breath. Go for a quick walk around the block. Head to the bathroom and splash your face with cold water. Do anything that will help bring you back to the present moment.

5. Don’t fight the inner voice. If you’re being triggered by an inner critic, don’t reply with an opposing opinion — that reaction will only start an argument with a force whose sole training and mission is to put you down.

Instead, try using the inner critic’s voice as a bell announcing it’s time for a break. It can remind you to deploy a self-care practice, like an affirmation: I trust myself to do the best I can. This also works when you’re starting to obsess over a worry: I trust myself to handle whatever happens. Then these inner voices can become tools to help us evolve.

6. Practice knowing and showing your emotions. Emotions are like muscles: They develop in healthy ways by being used appropriately. Likewise, if we’ve hidden an emotion like anger or sadness for most of our lives, our ability to cope with the feeling becomes stunted. This is one reason a reaction may feel awkward or exaggerated when we’re triggered.

As we practice knowing and showing our emotions, we become less likely to react inappropriately when we have strong feelings.

7. Take a breather. When we’re triggered, we lose our objectivity. We may feel like the wind is knocked out of us. This makes it much harder to say what needs to be said. Try stepping away for a moment to let the ego calm down. This makes it easier to communicate nonjudgmentally about the effect someone’s action or an experience has on us.

8. Try an echo response. If someone is shaming or insulting us, we can simply repeat aloud to that person — slowly — the exact words that are triggering. This creates a pause that can prevent us from being bowled over or feeling victimized. In an aikido style, we are directing the energy back to its origin.

9. Be ready for family. Family members know every one of our buttons and exactly how and when to push them — it’s no wonder that we’re often at our most reactive around them. If you know a particular family member is a challenge for you, be on the lookout. Be as present as you can, and if the situation reaches fever pitch, vacate the premises. Having boundarieswhile being loving is the goal. (See “How to Stop Dreading Family Gatherings” for nine tips to handle difficult relatives.)

10. Find the humor. If it’s possible, find the humor in a triggering situation. This is one of the fastest ways to diffuse the stress response.

11. Know you’re not alone. We become easy victims of our triggers when we believe that everyone else is able to control theirs. Triggers lose a lot of power when we realize people we trust and admire are affected in the same way we are.

12. Seek therapy. If a particular trauma trigger is creating unmanageable stress, seek professional help. Somatic therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) can help you integrate bodily memories into present awareness. (For more on EMDR, see “How to Change Your Brain”.)

13. Practice acceptance. As upsetting and challenging as triggers can be, it can help to remember that they are one of the body’s ways of pointing us toward our own healing and wholeness. And every one of us has them. Similar triggers happen to all of us; they are simply part of life.

A practice of accepting what we cannot change — knowing that people will say or do things that set us off, fo instance — is a way to be kind to ourselves. We don’t have to accept abuse, but we can learn to take in stride that triggering events will happen.

Peace and Blessings.

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