What Triggers Reveal
Our emotional triggers are not merely our reactions to unpleasant situations but are an indicator to deeper underlying issues related to self-worth and self-acceptance says Sharmila Bhosale
You are passing by on a street on a lazy afternoon, humming happily to yourself when the aroma of freshly baked biscuits wafts by from a nearby bakery. They smell of roasted chocolate, cashews and something unmistakable that you cannot pin down. You inhale this delicious medley and pause in your tracks as a wave of a deep and undefinable sadness washes over you. You seem to dissolve in this feeling of gloom as the aromas mingle around you, finding that your feet have a leaden, heavy quality to them.
You have worked extremely hard on a project report. You are proud of the outcome and as you clip it in a file; you feel a sense of fulfilment. You couldn’t have done better. You stride into your boss’ cabin and hand it over to him, on target, on deadline. He smiles, and reads it, pausing on certain pages to mark something with his pen. He hands it over to you when he’s done, saying good job, but also pointing out that there are some areas which need changes and improvements. He says he has marked it and asks you to work on it and bring it back tomorrow. You feel a slow flush of anger building up within you, and something throbs in your head. At the same time you feel rejected and criticised.
You go out festival shopping with your spouse. As always, he overspends, buying more sweetmeats than necessary. While he is making the purchase, you tell him that there is no need to buy so much, and to cut down a few things. He doesn’t listen and you give up while he pays the bill. As you leave the shop and start walking towards your home, he suddenly flares up and tells you that you always try to dictate things to him, how you do not respect his wishes, and how you always like to dominate him. You are aghast, upset and close to tears. How did a suggestion turn into an angry tirade? Spilling into the entire evening and sullying the entire atmosphere at home.
Can you spot the common factor in these instances?
Triggers: Short-circuits in the mind
Running through all these seemingly diverse examples are experiences of something coming by without warning and taking you hostage. Shooting you down actually, without giving you any time to defend yourself against its sharp onslaught. Like a bullet finding its mark.
Srilatha Srikant, Psychotherapist and REBT practitioner says, “Something occurs, you react, and then you automatically make up a reason that seems to justify why you reacted that way. For example, your child tells you he got poor marks in a weekly math test and you explode angrily. You blame your boss for making you work overtime, thereby preventing you from monitoring your son’s studies. You feel as if you are being treated unfairly or unjustly by the world in general. Much later, you feel guilty that you overreacted and wonder why you did so.”
Little wonder, that these emotions that hijack your senses and moods are called triggers.
Emotional triggers are people, words, opinions, circumstances, or environmental situations that provoke an intense and excessively emotional reaction within us. It is any topic that makes us feel uncomfortable. They reveal or try to alert us to those aspects in our life we might feel frustrated or unsatisfied with.
Quoting Epictetus, an early Stoic philosopher, who said, ‘People are disturbed not by things, but by their views of things,’ Srikant says, “Our emotional problems are closely linked to how we think about ourselves, others and the world and how we act, based on such thinking. Our emotional triggers may be reminders of past hurts or wounds that haven’t healed; they may be threads of past stories or relationships that are still left hanging. They make us feel stuck, psychologically threatened and often caught in dysfunctional behavioural patterns. These are our ‘hot buttons’ and we often display a primal ‘fight or flight’ reaction to these perceived threats.”
Like many of us, Bhakti Vora, a homemaker, was, for many years, an emotional ‘matchstick’. Her (over) reactions to situations and people left her emotionally burnt out. She used to get inflamed at (in hindsight, a pattern of) perceived provocations. She would burn inside at what she would consider slights and insults.
“If my emotional triggers were anger and irritation, physically I could feel the adrenaline rush to my hands and legs and I would grit my teeth and even curse the concerned person, which would be followed by a headache. I would feel physically drained. I would either lash out at the person or do the same alone. I ended up cribbing and complaining the whole day to people who were not even related to the incident. The environment around me would be chaotic and gloomy as a result,” she says.
Kinds of triggers
Triggers can take many forms. They may be a physical location, for instance a place which evokes strong feelings which are tied to an incident or the anniversary of the traumatic event. A person could also be triggered by internal processes such as stress.
Sometimes triggers are predictable, or apparent. For instance, a soldier may have flashbacks while watching a violent movie. In other cases, triggers are more subtle. A person who smelled a particular perfume during a sexual assault may have a panic attack when they smell the same perfume in a store. But most times we are cognitively not aware that our outbursts are related to a particular unpleasant memory.
More often than not, the brunt of our reaction is borne by people who are not linked to the original trigger at all. In fact after our outburst, we often feel a sense of embarrassment and guilt, and wonder, as do people around us – ‘where did that come from’?
The entire build-up from being triggered to acting out occurs very swiftly, blurring the distinction between the physical sensations and psychological resonance. It seems like a single reaction to the incident or person in front of us, but looking back we realise it was an over- reaction and are puzzled as to why we reacted that way.
Why do we get triggered?
But why do we get triggered? How does an incident which could have happened years ago carry a charge so much time later? A charge which we don’t even seem to be aware of. What causes people to react so differently to the same situation?
There are several apparent reasons:
Contradictory beliefs and values: When we align ourselves strongly or are deeply attached to a way of thinking we find it difficult to be tolerant of other beliefs. That’s because we feel a certain comfort or acceptance in our beliefs. When they are opposed, we feel challenged and attacked. We get triggered since we think they are calling into question what we identify with. Rethink of all the hot buttons that religion has pressed over the years. So much so that people often steer clear of discussing religion or politics since it evokes strong reactions.
Previous trauma: When we have experienced any kind of trauma and haven’t integrated it into our system, a residual unresolved charge of that event remains in our body. We may have suppressed strong feelings which arose that time, and these feelings remain locked in our system, coming out at unexpected moments much to our horror. When we see, hear, touch or smell something that reminds us of that experience, we get triggered and a strong reaction tumbles out. A man who was assaulted by his alcoholic mother as a child might be triggered whenever he smells alcohol. An adult who never fit in as a child may feel triggered when seeing groups of people having fun.
Safeguarding the ego: The ego is an inherent self-built proof of identity that we carry around like a badge of honour. Depending on the extent to which we identify with it, we get triggered when it is hurt or challenged by others. We then argue, belittle, defame, demean, backstab, sabotage and even assault people who we feel pose a threat to its survival.
Suppressing feelings: If we suppress our original feelings because of any fear, they are likely to burst out unwittingly at the press of any unconscious button.
“We sometimes deny or suppress our feelings because they are so painful. For example, if I get angry when I argue with my mother-in- law, I may tend to stuff that anger or pretend that things aren’t really so bad. So, I may withdraw physically or emotionally from that situation. But feelings can’t be bottled up for long. They boomerang at unlikely moments. For example, I may tend to overreact at even a minor event involving my mother-in-law,” says Srikala Srikant.
Perceived inadequacy: Since triggers are often linked to a perceived inadequacy about ourselves, any comment or action linked to that space triggers a reaction. For instance, while growing up I was among the first in class to get spectacles, and children being children, often was at the receiving end of jokes like ‘double eyes’ and ‘chasmis’. I spent many moments thinking of a smart comeback, trying to push away the feeling of hurt, staging imaginary scenarios in my head about my looks, and yet could not help feeling less than others in some ways. This sense of unease with my physicality remained with me for a few years, and any remark about my spectacled look produced a revulsion within me, so much so that I would label and judge that person as someone not worthy of having as a friend. The feeling of being attacked persisted for a significant amount of the day. Likewise, if, for example, if I am feeling very insecure about my performance at work, a mere suggestion by my boss that she is slightly concerned about my project’s progress may cause a trigger reaction in me. And another colleague who is confident of her work will not react or retaliate in the same way if the boss makes a similar comment to her.
What triggers reveal
Our triggers are indicators to our pain body, the hurt inner child that we continue to carry within ourselves long after we have grown up.
We often carry an unhealed negative belief about ourselves that gets triggered by an external stimulus. Once we get to the origin of this belief it is not difficult to control and overcome out triggers.
But the question is how do we get to the root of our discomfort, to the hot seat of our hot buttons, which may be buried so deep within that it might take many layers to excavate? How do we manage our triggers and stop being hijacked by our emotions?
In Brené Brown’s book, Dare to Lead, she mentions, “Wherever perfectionism is driving us, shame is riding shotgun.” The truth is, most of our emotional triggers stem from perfectionism. We feel ashamed to admit that we’re angry because we have see a co-worker get a promotion. Or when we see that our best friend is more popular, while we might still be struggling with being accepted.
Whatever the ‘theme’ or ‘topic’ that fosters these unpleasant feelings in us, it’s important to put shame aside. Brené Brown motivates us to embrace vulnerability and truly ask ourselves: “What is it about this person’s experiences or opportunities that make me so angry?” If we allow ourselves to ask this question, we can begin to spot our emotional triggers. Bring them into focus, bring them out in the open so that we may see them, understand them, for that is the only way we can deal with them.
Disciplined self -work
Engaging in disciplined self-work, which includes introspection, being aware of our feelings, noticing our reactions and looking within ourselves for answers, instead of indulging in blame-game and pointing a finger at external factors, is the key to disarming the triggers.
Identifying your triggers is the first crucial step in bringing them to the fore. They can be dismantled through recognition and attention. They can be dissolved in the crucible of attention and acceptance.
A close friend tells you that she has landed her dream job. You feel you should be happy for her, but instead find a strong undercurrent of envy coursing through you.
There’s someone you follow on FB with whom you are constantly comparing yourself. Maybe because you want the amount of likes that the person receives.
What’s the thing that bothers you the most about their posts? How do you handle it?
What about a certain topic of conversation that triggers you every time–whether you’re hanging out with your friends or in a family setting? What do they talk about that always raises your hackles, keeps you on the edge, leaves your bristling for some time afterwards?
Answering these questions openly and honestly can bring you closer to spotting your emotional triggers.
“Acknowledging and accepting our feelings, no matter how negative, and developing the capacity to tolerate intense emotions, is important.” Says Srikant.
“At all times, asking ourselves, ‘What was going on in my mind when I was experiencing that feeling of anger/anxiety/guilt/jealousy and the like’ is key to understanding our triggers,” she adds.
Some themes behind our triggers could be:
• Feeling humiliated • Feeling rejected • Feeling invalidated • Feeling helpless • Feeling small • Feeling unloved/unlovable/unworthy
The important thing about identifying our triggers is that it allows us to be more aware of our own mental health. It offers us valuable emotional literacy, a currency that brings a wealth of benefits to the quality of our life. When we are more aware, we begin to take responsibility for the way we manage our emotions, how we self-regulate as opposed to letting emotions get the better of us. We learn to not be at the mercy of our emotions. It’s when we can’t manage or process them appropriately, we end up reacting with others.
Pay attention to your bodily reactions
How do we know we are being triggered? How do we know we are acting or reacting out of a buried upset? The best place to look for an answer is within our body. In our physiological changes. That is the first place our trigger shows up, throwing open our festering wound. For instance, common symptoms of being under the influence of a trigger include trembling, a racing heart, choking or trouble breathing/swallowing, hot flushes or chills, dizziness or nausea, chest discomfort, a feeling of detachment/unreality (known as dissociation), sweating. These are followed by a full-blown attack which consists of intense emotions such as hatred, disgust, anger, fear, terror, grief, resulting in self-protective behaviour such as shouting, arguing, insulting, hiding, crying, or otherwise emotionally reacting.
Notice any tensing of muscles, increased heart rate, hot or cold flushes, tingles, or any physical change that generally indicates contraction (or physically recoiling from what you’re experiencing). Turn it into a game: what is the first reaction your body has? Do your fists clench? Does your breathing accelerate? Does your face turn hot? Mentally note these reactions and even write them down to journal about. Remember that physical reactions can be subtle all the way to extreme – so don’t rule out anything.
Says Bhakti Vora after years of deep work in identifying her underlying patterns, “My emotional trigger was fear, and I felt butterflies in my stomach. In the long run it culminated in chronic acidity which in turn affected my skin and I became prone to throat allergies. I would not be able to confront the actual people but removed my frustration on close family. Over a period of time I started realising that I wasn’t at peace and I wasn’t motivated or looking forward to everyday. Physical ailments like acidity and skin allergies made me rethink and realise that they were in fact connected to my psychological triggers i.e. anger and fear.”
Notice your thoughts
Look for extreme thoughts with polarised viewpoints (i.e. someone or something is good/bad, right/wrong, nice/evil). You just have to be aware of these thoughts without reacting to them. Let them play out in your mind. What story is your mind creating about the other person or situation? I recommend simply listing these thoughts in your journal to enhance your self-awareness.
Who or what triggered the emotion?
Once you have become aware of your physical reactions and thoughts notice who or what has triggered the extreme physical and emotional responses within you. Sometimes you will discover a single object, word, smell or another sense impression that triggers you. Other times, you will notice that you are triggered by a certain belief, viewpoint, or an overall situation. For example, your trigger could range from anything like loud noises, to men who are overly dominating and opinionated. Not only that, but you may have a whole series of triggers (most people do), so be vigilant and open to perceiving a whole spectrum of things that set you off. As always, it’s important that your record these triggers in some kind of journal (whether printed or digital). Writing down these triggers will help to sear them into your mind so that you remain self-aware in the future.
How to handle triggers
Once you are able to identify your ‘raw nerves’ or ‘hot buttons’, a few exercises may help you lessen, and then dissipate their impact. “With a combination of regular meditation, nature walks and pranic healing; I was able to work on my triggers and bring about a considerable change in my behaviour and my outlook towards life,” says Bhakti Vora, who feels more at peace with herself and calm during her interactions with others. Her close friends have noticed the change in her over the years. “When faced with situation that would earlier have made me angry I now end up responding instead of reacting most of the times. In terms of fear I have worked hard on courage. I no longer feel that fear when faced with a situation. I stay calm and try to think rationally. Result being the situation isn’t that huge at all.
Here are some effective techniques to disarm your triggers. What is crucial is consistent practice and awareness.
As discussed before, to pinpoint your patterns, and see your reactions, putting them down in black and white, shows up your triggers in a clearer light. Write down your feelings and reactions in a para or more, every single day. After every fortnight go through the pages. You will get insights into your thought patterns and behaviour. You will also be able to spot certain common undercurrents that run through all your diverse situations. Once you spot them make a note of them too. A few months later you will get to know yourself in a deeper way.
Being emotionally triggered always goes back to not having one or more of our deepest needs/desires met. Take some time to think about which of your needs or desires are being threatened.
Srilatha Srikant says, “Emotional triggers could relate to negative or painful experiences that we may have had in the past. The origin of our triggers may be scripted by our earlier relationships. However, it’s not past events that cause us present misery. We maintain the current disturbance by the unhelpful self-talk and things we say to ourselves about that past event. If I’ve been treated badly or cheated upon by boyfriends in the past,
I may well have trust issues and may keep telling myself that I am essentially unlovable. This causes my disturbance.”
Remove your attention from the person or situation and focus on your breath. Not only will it centre you, but also help you view your reaction in a detached manner as if viewing yourself from afar as one of the players in an exchange. Keep focusing on your in-breath and out-breath for a few minutes. If your attention goes back to the triggering person or situation, pull your attention back to your breathing.
Remove yourself from the situation. By walking away from a potentially heated situation you distance yourself physically from the event, restoring a degree of distance. If you are speaking with someone, excuse yourself temporarily. Return when you are feeling more centred and calm.
Accept your feelings, but don’t act on them
Repressing or trying to “control” your feelings will only enhance the triggers. However, you can delay your emotions. For instance, if you’re feeling enraged by someone, instead of exploding at them, consciously set those feelings aside to experience and unleash later in a healthy way. You might choose to express this anger by screaming in your room or punching a pillow or throwing darts. Whatever the case, be very mindful of repressing your emotions. There is a fine line between consciously delaying your emotions and unconsciously suppressing them.
As Peter Hollins says in his book The Hidden Influences Behind Our Actions, Thoughts, and Behaviours, “A psychological trigger is something that causes us to act out of urgency – not correctness or even happiness. It’s a switch that is flipped outside of our consciousness.” And this acts as a fertile ground for some of the worst decisions of our life. Managing our triggers could well be a game changer for us. Instead of firing in the dark, and being a hostage to our own self, we can learn to defuse the triggers, see the light, and set our selves free.
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