How To Cope With Triggers

Man shouting at phone

We’ve all been there.  Some situation occurs and you react before even thinking about it.  Or maybe you do pause to think for a second, but still cannot help but react in a patterned response.  What happened? How could you go from zero to freak out in a matter of milliseconds?  “Triggers” happen when any certain something (a “trigger”) causes a negative emotional response. The emotional response can be fear, sadness, panic, flashbacks, and pain, as well as any physical symptoms associated with these emotions (shaking, loss of appetite, fainting, fatigue, etc).

A lot of the time, triggering occurs as a result of a traumatic event; the person is triggered by anything that reminds them of that event.  Sometimes, it happens through fears and phobias unrelated to trauma. And sometimes, it happens for no reason at all!

Once you react your brain instantly manifests a reason for your reaction that somehow justifies your behavior, even if it makes no sense.  For example, you got very angry because you couldn’t find an invitation to that party you’re going to this afternoon.  You blame your significant other or housekeeper for moving things around, your boss for making you work too many hours and adding papers to the piles around your home, or your pet for knocking things off of the counter.  You may ignore the fact that you are tired and your patience are running thin. You possibly bury your unhappiness with your boss or your life. But once you step back, take a couple deep breaths to calm down and refocus, you realize where you put that invitation.

 

Here are 5 ways to consider as a start to help identify “hot buttons” or triggers:

1. Notice your emotional reactions and how it appears in your body

Pay attention what’s happening in your body.  What’s the first thing that happens when triggered?  Do you clench your fists? Does your heart rate increase?  Does your face turn red or get hot? Are you frozen or feel like fleeing the situation?  Make a note of these sensations and write them down. No matter how extreme or subtle the reaction may be, don’t rule anything out. If you don’t recognize your feelings, you can’t change them, and this could negatively impact your relationships.

2. Pay attention to thoughts that appear as intense or repetitious.

Be mindful of extreme thoughts with strong opinions.  Nothing has to be done about these thoughts except be aware of them and simply don’t react to them.  Are you creating a script in your mind about the other person or situation? Try keeping it in your mind and let it play out.  For example, if you think: “He or she will leave me like the others did.” Try journaling these these thoughts to help become more self aware.  Then begin to change the script in your mind. Accept yourself as being powerful and not the victim.

3. Who or what triggers intense emotions?

Once you’re able to recognize and be more self aware of your physical reactions, notice when someone triggers extreme emotional AND physical responses within you.  You may discover it’s as simple as a word, object or another sensory impression that triggers you. Other instances you may notice being triggered by a particular belief, viewpoint, or situation.  For example, your trigger could range from anything like a strong scent to a partner who exhibits a certain behavior that reminds you of an ex. Be aware that you may have many triggers, many people do, so stay open to noticing what and how things set you off.

4. Do you know what happened before you were triggered?

At times there will be certain situations that will set you up to be triggered.  This could be anything from having a stressful day at work, being sleep deprived to seeing someone from your past.  When trying to identify your emotional and physical triggers, you can often prevent yourself from being triggered in the future by slowing down once you’re aware of experiences with triggers.

5. What are your unmet emotional needs?

Emotional triggers can usually be traced back to one or more of your deepest needs or desires that were unmet, abused or taken away.  Being honest with yourself, really take some time to think about which of your needs or desires went unfulfilled. Some of these needs might be acceptance, love, attention, respect, safety, or being needed. By being aware of your unmet emotional needs, you’ll be better able to cope.

 

Try practicing these steps at any point, even when you first notice a reaction, to help you think through your triggers and responses.  Determine what you want to do next and shift into the emotion that will help you get the best results.

  • Relax – breathe and release the tension in your body.
  • Detach – clear your mind of all thoughts.
  • Center – drop your awareness to the center of your body.
  • Focus – choose one keyword that represents how you want to feel in this moment. Breathe in the word and allow yourself to feel the shift.

Gaining awareness of triggers, becoming more conscious of extreme reactions and not becoming defensive, is a great start to coping effectively. The key to successfully coping: Stop trying to avoid your emotions. Instead, choose to feel something different when an emotion arises. This is how you gain emotional freedom.