We all have emotional triggers. Sometimes it's a sarcastic comment that might not be a huge deal for someone else, but manages to get under your skin and fester for the rest of the day. Sometimes, it's a tone of voice that makes you implode into shame. Sometimes, it's an event or a behavior that, on the surface, shouldn't be a big deal, yet it destabilizes you for hours. Sometimes, it's a whiff of disapproval and suddenly you find yourself in a cloud of anxiety, gloom or worry.
It's normal and healthy to emotionally respond to the world around us. When a horrible injustice happens, it's natural to feel anger or even rage. When someone we love gets hurt or sick, it's normal to feel sad, worried or scared. As humans, we experience a vast range of emotion at all levels of intensity, but that doesn't mean that all intense emotions are necessarily caused by "triggers."
An emotional trigger is an emotional response that is out of character from your typical behavior. A trigger is something that sets off a memory or flashback, subconsciously transporting you back in time. When you're triggered, you're no longer responding to the present situation. Instead, you're running old software, unwittingly trying to repair your past. For this reason, it can be challenging to identify what exactly our triggers are, but this process of getting to know and understand them can help us heal, and learn how to cope better in response.
We all have triggers, because whether we like to admit it or not, we all have baggage. During the course of our lives, we inevitably experienced pain or suffering. Many of these events weren't completely healed, processed or understood at the time, so our minds and our bodies recorded these events and spring these memories forward to help us heal. When we are triggered, it's because we are up against something unhealed from our past.
Here's a Six-Step process for helping you understand and gracefully navigate your emotional triggers:
Think of the last time you were triggered. It might have been something that made you extraordinarily angry or unexpectedly fearful. It might have been something that piercingly hurt your feelings or paralyzed you with insecurity.
1. What happened when you were triggered?
Remove yourself from the personal story and observe yourself from the viewpoint of a scientist watching an experiment. What happened to the subject (you) when triggered? Did you react? Did you avoid? Did you distract? Did you deny? Did you explode? What emotion were you feeling?
2. What else could you have done?
When we're triggered, we tend to become extremely narrow-minded and default to our most primal defense mechanisms. We shut down, or we hide, or we run, or we attack. But there are a billion other things that we can do. Try to list at least three other ways that you could have handled the situation. Be creative: the more outrageous, the better. (For example: I could have whirled around in circles singing Adele at the top of my lungs.)
3. Break the event down into component parts.
If you were to rebuild this trigger from scratch, what would need to be included? Does it depend on the time of day? Does it depend on where you are? Does it depend on the tone of voice? Who are the key players? As you go through this exercise, you'll realize the trigger is very specific and relies on a distinct set of circumstances to recreate it.
4. Search your history.
Brainstorm and search your history to find any events or situations that are similar to your list of component parts. Search your childhood, your parents, your school life, your teenage years, old relationships, teachers, friendships, etc. and look for similarities. The further back, the better. When you find something that feels similar, study it and notice any similarities in component parts.
5. Remove the historic residue from the trigger situation.
Recognize that your current response had little to do with this latest event, and more to do with unhealed baggage from your history. Instead of thinking that this is about your boss, your husband, or your friend -- realize that you may have been reacting to unfinished business with your mom, your dad or your second grade teacher.
6. Heal the history.
Triggers point us to the events and memories that were not fully processed, acknowledged or understood. To heal our history, we must honor the original event. This means that we need to offer ourselves the compassion and understanding that was originally lacking. When we have reverence for the unhealed events from our past, and take a moment to acknowledge the impact of these events, we move toward liberation. When the "trigger" is acknowledged and understood, it fades gracefully into our past, where it belongs.