Emotional Triggers

This week I turn our attention to an important and often challenging topic of EMOTIONAL TRIGGERS. As the word implies, an emotional trigger is an external event, experience, person, action, or word that sets off a strong emotional reaction within us. These emotions can be hatred, anger, fear, disgust, shame, anxiety, panic, or even strong grief reactions. Once triggered, these emotions tend to take a while to dissipate and can often linger with us for hours or even days. Racing thoughts that are polarized in nature (i.e. extreme in terms of right/wrong, good/bad, nice/evil, etc.) tend to occur and we can lose touch with our ability to see an event in more nuanced, complex, or realistic ways. Pretty much anything can be a trigger and each one of us has our own unique combination of triggering events which determine a great deal of how we experience life.

Because of their intensity, emotional triggers tend to lead us to feel as though our feelings have more control over us than we have over them. Triggers arising from childhood wounds and traumatic experiences leave an imprint in our bodies and psyches that echo through our current lives in ways that can turn our inner worlds upside down. Until we become conscious or aware of these wounds we tend to act in reactive ways, often feeling remorseful and regretful afterwards for having lost control of ourselves. These reactive behaviours can be anything like becoming a people pleaser and becoming overly complying, detaching or withdrawing, lashing out at others in anger and blaming them for how we feel, becoming excessively needy or demanding of others to meet our needs, or turning to addictive substances or behaviours in order to escape our inner reality.

With most sources of our emotional wounds arising within the context of a relationship, it makes sense that the past would become the most evident within the context of a present intimate relationship. This can make our intimate relationships the most emotionally intense experiences of our lives. It also means that if we wish to create a stable and healthy relationship with our lovers, we need to take personal responsibility for our emotional triggers. This means developing an awareness of what our ‘buttons’ are and how we experience them so that we can enhance our mastery over them without letting rage, anger, fear, disgust, guilt or sadness destroy our relationship.

The following process is useful:
1. Begin by noticing your body’s reactions. This means turning our attention inwards inside of focusing on what is happening outside of us.
2. Notice the thoughts that tend to go hand in hand with these physical sensations. These may be thoughts, images, or fantasies that are not necessarily the truth of what is actually happening and so tend to be full of assumptions about the other person’s intentions, beliefs, behaviours, or even their character.
3. Pay attention to the exact thing that triggered you. This could be a look, a smell, a sound, a word, an opinion, a viewpoint, or a particular situation, place, or relationship dynamic.
4. Take note of the bigger picture of your day. In other words, what else happened in the day that may contribute to you feeling more susceptible to stronger emotions?
5. What unmet need may be beneath the trigger? This may be a need to feel appreciated, accepted, respected, noticed, cared for/understood, or any one of our many human emotional needs.
6. Ask yourself these questions:
a. Why is this event/word/look etc. troubling me so much?
b. Where else have I felt this feeling before? In other words, is there something about this event that reminds me of a negative event from a past relationship?
c. Is there something from when I was a child that this situation is reminding me of?

Once we are able to reflect on our triggers in this way, we are enhancing our ability to contain our strong feelings in ways that serve us and the people around us. By recognising that we have been triggered we are immediately in a more empowered position in relation to what is moving through our bodies and minds. From here we are offered the opportunity to slow right down, practise breathing deeply, find some humour in the situation, and if we feel to, question the associated belief systems that no longer serve us.

Let this post be an invitation to explore your own emotional triggers this week.