Firstly, what is an emotional trigger? An emotional trigger is an experience that touches a core wound. These wounds are left behind from previous painful experiences we encountered in our lives. Everyone gets triggered and everyone’s triggers are different. Many people find a triggering experience so painful that it can lead to a relapse into addictive patterns. It can also lead to depressive episodes and a general feeling of being out of control. Many people experience Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder(CPTSD) due to past negative experiences but learning to manage triggers can change a person’s whole world. Understanding your emotional triggers and how to work through them is a journey you deserve.
Why do triggers cause such distress?
Have you ever become upset apparently for no reason? Perhaps you feel anxious or overwhelmed and unable to function all of a sudden. These symptoms can be an indication that you have been triggered. We experience our past in the present moment which is why we often have what seem like inappropriate reactions to present experiences. When something feels negatively emotionally familiar, we may experience regressive behavior. The behavior may even seem childlike as we use survival responses to help us cope.
We become emotionally flooded during a triggering experience. It may be difficult to think, act or speak rationally because the logical part of our brain shuts down. We are taken back to a time when we tried to protect ourselves from harm but perhaps couldn’t. The fallout from that is a deep feeling of vulnerability and panic. Our nervous system reacts to what it remembers as a threat and takes over our logical selves.
Examples of triggers
All of us will have different triggers. Often we may find it hard to identify them and their associated behavior. Some things to watch for when you experience triggered behavior are times when you have felt vulnerable. Perhaps you felt embarrassed about something. Maybe being criticized caused you to react irrationally. Seeing someone rage in anger or extremely distressed caused a deep emotional reaction that you weren’t fully aware of. Being pressured or controlled in some way made you feel vulnerable. All these examples may cause a trigger effect deep in the subconscious self where we keep most of our trauma.
Working through triggers
On a personal note, I recognize that I’ve become triggered when I am irrationally angry over seemingly small things. Through therapy, I have discovered that I was not allowed to be angry. I was not allowed to speak my anger regarding traumatic and unjust events. If I did speak the repercussions were violent or shaming so I learned to be quiet. Feeling like I am being abandoned or discounted is also a massive trigger for me. I remain highly vigilant for signs that I am not liked or not being included. I have a tendency to people please and abandon myself to feel included. It’s taken me years to even recognize this in myself and it can be quite a challenge to pull myself back.
There are steps to the process of overcoming our triggers which have certainly helped me.
It starts with recognizing we are triggered. As I said previously irrational anger is the first sign for me. I want to scream and shout, send angry texts about why I’m angry, and make who or whatever has made me angry understand what they’ve done. But the point here is – I am hurting.
In this state or any state of triggered behavior, it is important to take a minute. Ask yourself what sensations are being experienced in your body. Sometimes, these sensations will feel familiar. The important thing right now is to name what you are feeling and not where the feeling is coming from.
Self soothe is also a term used to describe the regulation of our emotions. Deep conscious breathing or slow movement can help regulate our nervous system. Remember we are reacting from our child self so compassion and understanding for where we are in the moment is vital. Getting frustrated or judgemental towards our emotional state further adds to our already deep distress. The buzz words here are slow, gentle and compassionate. Triggers take us out of our bodies in an attempt to protect us. We may also disassociate from reality and seem spacy or not with it.
When you notice that your thoughts and actions have become rational and calm again, take some time to process what happened. This is a really important step to help you trust yourself. Essentially you are parenting yourself with love and kindness in this step. Giving the triggered part of yourself the understanding and time it needs to heal is a powerful gift.
The gift of long-term healing will change your life and only you can enable that. There are so many therapeutic options available now and I urge you to being your process. For anyone in recovery from addiction, Dr. Jamie Marich Book Trauma & The 12 Steps is a great place to start. Suppressed emotion and trauma are the root of all our issues. It truly is possible to unhook from our triggers and the associated behaviors. Healing is possible.