Triggers are everywhere. There is no way to escape feeling triggered at some point in your day, week, or life. The goal is not to get rid of them necessarily, but to learn how to manage them, calm down, and focus your mind. 

What are triggers?

Triggers are when your body or mind feels intense emotions or has an emotionally charged reaction to something that is happening in the present moment that reminds you of the past. People with PTSD, those who have been to war, for example, can feel intense emotions when they hear a loud noise.

They drive down the street and a tire blows out on another car. All of a sudden, they are back in a bunker facing bullets. Th is a prime example of feeling triggered. 

Triggers remind your senses of unpleasant emotions or unresolved pain existing in your body. They are thoughts or feelings that induce or increase symptoms like anxiety, eating disorders, anger, shutting down or addictive behaviors. 

The past enters the present.

When you feel a strong emotional response, it’s a recreated sense that something from the past is happening in the present. That emotional reaction can also be called an emotional trigger.

These can be familiar feelings from childhood if you’ve ever felt abandoned or rejected. Had a bad breakup or ever cheated on? If so, future relationships are triggering when it comes to trust and feeling secure. 

Internal vs. external triggers:

There are two types of triggers to discern that equip you at calming your mind and body to take good care of yourself. There are internal and external triggers. Internal triggers start in our body or mind such as pain, muscle tension, anger, sadness, loneliness, anxiety, feeling out of control, abandoned, or rejected.  

External triggers come from the environment. For example, smells, certain people or places, significant dates, time of day, certain sounds, or getting into a conflict. 

Triggers are an indicator that something deeper is going on within you that needs some attention. Usually, when people feel triggered, they see it as a negative thing.

But I’d like to present your own triggers can be a positive way to learn more about yourself, calm yourself, and find ways to love yourself. 

With that said, emotional triggers serve a purpose.

Your emotional triggers can serve a valuable purpose in your life. For example, the person mentioned earlier with PTSD from his time at war has an opportunity to heal that part of him that is still very reactive and distraught. He knows there is still unprocessed pain from traumatic events when his reaction to the loud noises or certain smells causes his emotional state to decline and not function well. 

Do you notice heightened emotions in your relationship?

Another example is when a couple is in conflict and both tend to resort to unhealthy communication patterns. Relational conflict can certainly bring up difficult emotions or past traumatic experiences. This can happen if one partner is triggered and fears rejection and the other one is triggered and feels not good enough. Both of these people have an opportunity to look at their childhoods and understand how the past gets brought into the present when feeling triggered. 

Once you know what your triggers are, you can communicate to your partner and have a level of sensitivity for each other. You can’t fix each other’s emotional triggers or mental health issues, but you can certainly be sensitive and caring once you know where the vulnerable areas are. 

This ideally creates an even deeper connection and bond with each other. Your reaction can be a gateway to greater self-awareness and connection in your relationships. The key is being able to understand exactly what your experience has meant to you and to be open to understanding the other person in your relationship.

Good news: professional help can make a huge difference!

When you can explore past triggering events and learn how to make sense of your reactions, you come to recognize and develop new ways of coping and communicating. Seek professional help if needed.

This kind of support will help you understand why you feel angry, help you notice your range of feelings, help you identify past and present triggers, and ultimately, create a more controlled and positive sense of well-being.

 Here are valuable techniques to calm down and focus your mind.

 Try any or all of these 10 steps and learn how to manage when you’re feeling triggered:

 

  1. Explore what is going on in you and around you. First, start with what you already know about your past. Make a list of what could be potential triggers. Do this without any judgment or criticism. Since you are now shifting to see triggers and the knowledge of them as empowering, remove any shame and see what comes to mind.
  2. Do a trauma timeline. Can you identify childhood trauma that may have happened? Including bullying at school, parents’ divorce, or a best friend moving away. Again, don’t judge, just see what comes up. Perhaps there was a big trauma like sexual abuse, loss of a parent, etc. All of these matter when it comes to knowing who you are and what causes you to feel triggered.
  3. Breathe. The greatest gift we have is breathing. When you do feel triggered at the moment, take a deep breath! This can be lifesaving. Deep breathing engages our frontal lobe and helps us get out of our “triggered brain” where we have lost all reason and rational thought. When triggered, we are in our emotional brain and tend to say and do things we can regret. So, breathe and take time to think through what you want to say and do in the situation.
  4. Develop a practice of mindful meditation. Meditation is great for learning how to regulate your body and mind. Being aware of what is going on inside you and what you may need during certain situations is very empowering. Meditation can also help decrease your reactions and feel more in control of your anger.
  5. Ground yourself. Feeling triggered means your body and/or mind is somewhere in the past. The goal is to get back in the present moment. Name 5 things around you or get in touch with each of your senses by naming what you see, hear, smell, feel, and taste at the moment. Once you do this, you are back in the present, more in control, and able to take care of yourself appropriately.
  6. Do some writing or journal about what you’re feeling and what it reminds you of. Is it a childhood part of you that is hurting and needs comfort? Is it a past trauma that you can connect to and if so, ground yourself (step 5)?
  7. Create a strong support team. Who can you call and talk to if you’re feeling triggered? Reach out to safe, trusted friends or seek therapy for support and care. There is no time like the present to start building a support network. You only need 2-3 people to create a supportive team.
  8. Own your emotions and reactions. Don’t blame anyone else for triggering you. You need to own and take responsibility for your own emotions and how you react. As stated previously, there is no shame in this. Practice self-compassion realize you are reacting out of your pain and forgive yourself.
  9. Take a break. Once you feel triggered, it takes the body at least 20 minutes to calm down and regulate itself so that you can engage the rational part of your brain. If you need longer, take longer, but taking that time out can be an incredible enhancement to self-care and calming your mind.
  10. Practice the NO SHAME game. The no-shame game is doing all the above steps without any judgment or shame.

 Triggers are everywhere, all the time!

 Every person on the planet gets triggered. It happens daily, probably every second of the day somewhere in the world. Life is filled with triggers at work, in relationships, with your kids, watching tv, going to happy hour with friends, and listening to certain songs. 

Don’t be afraid of your triggers. Learn to notice and embrace them as your body’s way of communicating to you that it needs some attention and healing. When you remove the shame from the trigger, you can love yourself and honor what you’re needing. Your mental health depends on this type of self-compassion.

Lesley Goth, PsyD is a mindfulness and weight loss coach. Lesley has developed an 11-week online program helping women understand the emotional triggers that have kept them stuck in a yo-yo dieting cycle and unable to experience sustainable weight loss. If you’d like to take the first step to experience sustainable weight loss, you can contact Lesley here.