Wow! Emotional triggers have incredible power, don’t they? Triggers can occur from the slightest glance, comment or tone of voice. In my experience the intense sensation evoked by a trigger is out of my control and it can alter my state of mind longer than I care to admit. And based on what I hear from my clients, I’m not alone.
Common questions I hear from them are, “Why do I get triggered so easily?” and “What can I do about it?” To answer those questions and to lay down the framework, I’d like to start by defining some terms you’ll see in this article.
Emotion, trigger, integration…What do these words mean, anyway?
First, an emotion is a shift in integration.
The brain is responsible for integration which means it differentiates feelings and experiences and then links them in some way. When integration happens, we feel alive and energized.
The term emotional trigger is a blocked integration that results from something happening either internally or interpersonally. The trigger begins in your mind and then is sparked by your own thought(s) or an interaction with another person.
Upon the event, rather than integrating the emotion in a healthy way leading to an optimal feeling of well-being, your mind either pushes the emotion down into chaos or down into rigidity.
Chaos is when bits and pieces of these different feelings break through, and suddenly we’re angry and acting angrily, or we’re sad and acting sad, in a way that doesn’t feel connected to the rest of who we are.
Rigidity on the other hand says, “I’m going to stick to my beliefs, my rules, my postures, only allow certain things into awareness,” and we become rigid, and that becomes problematic for fully engaging in life.
In either a chaotic or rigid state, we are divided; we’re split. We are not able to connect fully to everything that’s happening in the present. This is when trouble and panic set in.
Just to review, a healthy integration leads to feelings of harmony and well-being whereas a trigger is caused by an event or memory that results in blocked integration; a downward shift.
Why does the brain create these integration blockages?
Whenever we experience physical or emotional pain, we have a natural impulse to withdraw from it. That makes perfect sense. For instance, the common hot stove example: if you put your hand on a hot stove and it hurts, we have a natural impulse to withdraw from it.
Now of course, it’s easy to follow the way our body reacts to pain. But what can sometimes be overlooked is how our mind tends to follow the same pattern. The same impulse gets applied to emotional pain. When it arises, we withdraw from it using all sorts of techniques. For instance, we may:
intellectualize our feeling and reaction
project it onto the other person: “You’re the one feeling this.”
deny it and say, “No, it’s not happening.”
dissociate and actually experience some kind of autonomic distancing
shut down in different ways
distract ourselves: we’ll simply look at another screen and not feel it
The problem is every time we respond in any of these ways, anytime we move away from feeling, we become split off from our feelings, and this lays the groundwork for an emotional trigger. The reality is the feelings, thoughts, images are out of our awareness, but they don’t really go away.
The Ways We Try to Get Away From the Pain
If you’re as old as I am, you might remember the terms: Repressed and Suppressed. I remember hearing psychologists talking about repressing and suppressing feeling and memories. Well, these old ideas are the same, just with different language. You don’t hear as much talk about “the unconscious” nowadays, but when a trigger occurs it is when feelings are either “repressed,” meaning pushed out of awareness so we don’t have access to them, or “suppressed,” pushed away for the moment. If we were to turn our attention, we could connect with it pretty easily. But in either case, when these occur, we’re not integrated. The emotions are not available to us.
This issue comes down to a fairly straightforward process: We move away from painful emotion in some way and then we lose any direct access to those feelings.
Do You Have an Open Wound?
A metaphor that seems to work well when talking about emotional triggers is a metaphor of an open wound. Think of a time when you’ve had an open wound and how it felt when it was touched or scratched. Now think of the reactivity or reaction to that sensation. The sensitive reaction is like that of a reaction to an emotional trigger. In other words, if you consider a cause effect relationship, the cause is the thing that happened, the trigger. The effect is the resulting emotion or sensitivity.
You can see what needs to be considered is not just the trigger. There's something underneath it that's vulnerable, raw, open, and unhealed; it hasn't healed over completely. It is a vulnerable and raw place. Emotional triggers serve a purpose; we don't just randomly react. There's a reason why we might become reactive or impulsively react and respond to something.
What Can We Do About the Wound?
Wounds make you more vulnerable in the world and more reactive when they get scratched so it is helpful to consider and combine strategies for how to live with an open wound.
Strategy #1 Explore ways to acknowledge a hurt and vulnerable place and engage in some self-compassion. Bringing in empathy to soothe the wound helps to begin the healing process. We can work with having compassion for the reactivity, not judging oneself harshly for it, and realizing that the reactivity makes sense given that an open wound was scratched. This is especially important when a person has deep emotional pain caused by betrayal.
Strategy #2 Maintain awareness that this wound is there and this trigger is there. Consider and integrate agency around: How can I make choices in my life that may minimize exposure of this wound to situations that are likely to scratch it? Remembering if it gets scratched, you may react.
Accepting the reality that we cannot control the people in our lives who may push our buttons or scratch our wounds. But with greater awareness we can make some better choices such as our choices of friendships, relationships, jobs. You’re not saying, "I'm just going to give up on certain things because of this wound." But rather you’re choosing to put yourselves in places and situations that honor the wound and its state of healing. Knowing too that when the wound has healed, you may re-engage more fully with others or in circumstances that are more challenging.
Healing is Possible
A memory of a difficult experience is the source of a trigger and memories don’t disappear, but healing is possible when you have a trusted guide helping you through the healing process. Healing involves being aware of the choices you make that put you in situations when you’re most vulnerable and likely to cause a triggered response. Also, recognizing that healing occurs over time, our choices for how we live our lives can expand because the wound is healing.
Have Some Curiosity
Sometimes it’s challenging to recognize your trigger patterns. Often clients who suffer from emotional triggers tell me about uncomfortable responses to things happening in their life. They simply don’t understand why they’re feeling the way they are because they haven’t yet made the connection to what is triggering them. But please keep reading…there’s hope!
Researchers have looked at what happens in the brain when a person is inspired by curiosity. When someone feels curious, it strengthens the functional connectivity between the reward system and the memory and learning systems. A desire is created, and the brain says: “I want to fill the gap in my knowledge,” and the reward system tells the person to approach or consume the information. Through that functional connectivity, whatever you learn in that state becomes more deeply encoded in memory. Therefore, curiosity makes us both seek knowledge and retain it.
Interestingly, this concept can be applied to someone who is trying to understand, process and heal from emotional triggers. When you’re curious, you’re in a learning mode. You’re paying attention, and externally focused a little bit while also being focused on your own internal process. You’re becoming an expert on yourself. This mindset is incredibly empowering for people when they start recognizing their triggers and noticing what happens. When we make a triggered response predictable because we understand it, we take away its power.
Try Practicing Self-Compassion
Self-compassion is known to have many benefits and that’s why my mentees are encouraged to apply it as an effective tool in their recovery strategy. Triggers often leave us feeling threatened in some way but by approaching the situation with an element of self-compassion and remembering “We all suffer sometimes and I’m not alone in this” the threat is reduced.
Where something can touch that wound and set off an automatic reaction, practicing self-compassion can enhance and speed up the recovery. People with high levels of self-compassion can:
rebound from the stressful situation more quickly,
make some sense of it, and
maybe even make some relational amends or repairs, with themselves or others if they did something that was harmful in that moment.
Self-compassion increases heart-rate variability, both baseline and in-response moments. You could think of that as being another reason to cultivate this mindset of self-compassion, because it puts you in a different physiology so that it’s a little bit more difficult to be triggered.
Did you know You Have 3 Brains?
The body is the origin of movement processes including muscle movement, tension, hormones and the immune system. These bodily states pass through the neural networks around the heart and around the intestines – the first two brains of our body. Our third brain is the head brain. When people say emotions only come from the head, it is not a complete picture. This is important because as you'll see the body responses should be considered when we process triggers.
Now that you have a better understanding of emotional triggers, I’m going to give you an example of what processing a trigger looked like with a client I met with on Tuesday. To protect my client’s privacy, I’ve modified the situational details. For your benefit, I bolded the high points.
What does it mean to “process” an emotional trigger? Here is a Step-by-Step Real-Life Example
Backstory: The client was in a business partnership with three friends. A triggering event happened when the other three partners made a business decision without her. My client was livid over this and erupted in anger at her friends. As I explored my client’s reaction, I found the suppressed feelings that were really driving her pain.
My client understandably felt excluded; but the three friends were part of a business unit that was responsible for making particular decisions. My client was not part of this business unit.
The questions begin with the body: "Tell me what you were feeling." She replies, “I was angry. The three of them made their decision without my input. The four of us as partners…” I said, "You are angry, and I understand that because you felt excluded. What's beneath the anger?" She asks, “What do you mean what's beneath? Anger is anger." I said, "OK, but just sit right now with the anger and imagine these three partners of yours making their decision and become aware of your body."
Body awareness is a crucial piece when working with emotional triggers. The body gives off important cues that should be considered.
She said, "Well, I am angry, I am angry," In this moment I’m inviting her to go beneath the words into the bodily sensation. Body sensation happens in the here and now, but you can also have memory of a body sensation. Right in the moment though, she's saying, "Well, I was angry, I was angry," and I said, "What do you feel now?"
The shift: You could see a shift in her state. This brings us back to earlier when I referenced an “emotional state,” we’re talking about a shift in integration. And this shift can often bring some important information to the surface.
My client went from an agitated angry state to this other down shifting integration. She started getting teary and said, "I think I feel really sad." I said, "Well, stay with that." She said, "They shouldn't have done it." She started getting angry again. I said, "We can understand there may be a drive to do something with the very uncomfortable feeling you are having of sadness, so you get angry to defend yourself, but what would happen if you could just feel the sadness?" She started getting very sad and said, "What am I supposed to do with it?" I replied, "You are supposed to be with it and actually just sit with it."
The Narrative Point of View: This is crucial. We are human doings AND we are human beings. Often, we get into the doing mode; that's the brain mode, the mental mode, the relational mode and you are doing, doing, doing.
So often we get stuck in the “doing” of life. We’re so focused on “doing,” that we can sometimes forget about just “being”.
For my client to just rest in this feeling was huge for her. Now, at this point, we were able to access her “being” state, to just sit with her sadness, then we were able to move forward and begin processing.
Then she began sharing memories from her childhood...about being excluded and her siblings being favored by her mom. Her father was an alcoholic and not with the family, so the mother was the big deal. She'd been close to her father and now her father left, and her mother favored her two younger sisters. My client shared this information with me as if it were happening in the moment. As the session went on, I had her stay with the sadness and that emotion began to emerge even more. I said, "What do you feel with the sadness? Stay with the sadness.” She told me she was incredibly lonely because her father was gone, her mother favored her sisters, and for years she was the ignored one.
Explanation: She was describing an implicit memory; a constant, unspoken memory that is embedded within this narrative: No one is going to exclude me. It came out in this enraged state of action, and now during the session, she’s not doing, she’s simply being with the sensation of sadness that she never let herself be with before.
This led to a breakthrough moment for my client. By simply having the awareness of what sets off the reactivity, she can start to change the way she relates to the trigger and eventually reduce its influence. Furthermore, she started to understand that her actions are being driven by states of integration, which is an: emotion. This emotion put her into chaos or rigidity. In this case, her emotional trigger was about exclusion. You’d say there's an aspect of her that is particularly sensitive to being excluded because of this childhood history. Now her job as an adult is to allow the more adult state of mind to recognize there's a self-state that's sensitive to exclusion, that has the emotional trigger of trying to push against exclusion with the action of anger.
Learning this in the session my client came to a place of an incredible sense of empowerment. She said, "I've got to go back to my friends and apologize. What they did was actually pretty reasonable, but it triggered me because I wasn't aware of the sadness that was really there."
To take it one step further to experience lasting healing, she had to take an adult part of her and literally learn to care for this excluded younger self or part. She did this by:
differentiating aspects of her earlier experience from her present-day experience
showing curiosity and self-compassion instead of anger at herself
embracing with humility she's a human being who just wasn't aware of her past and how it can affect her today
simply learning to “be” with it
Conclusion: With this client, I was able to help her explore the shifts in her state which helped her identify an emotion tied to a past pain. Once she could make this connection and sit with her pain, she became empowered to change the way she reacted to her trigger.
Now, what about you? What is triggering you into fear, anger, shame or anxiety? Click here to schedule your Free Confidential Consultation today to process your triggers away! Don’t wait!