How to Deal with Emotional Triggers
You know what really triggers me? When people use the word trigger the way I just did. Perhaps you've been hearing this lately, usually with regard to bad behavior inspired by someone else's bad behavior: "I'm only yelling because your attitude really triggers me." "Maybe I shouldn't have run over him, but I got triggered when he took my parking spot." "Your Honor, my client Dr. Lecter did kill and eat the victim, but let the record show that it was raining on his birthday, which is very triggering for him." Triggered: our culture's get-out-of-jail-free card.
Here's the problem, though: Reflexively insisting "I was triggered!" allows us to believe we're merely victims of circumstance, a passive gun being fired by someone else's hand. Which makes it easy never to take responsibility for anything, ever.
The principle to keep in mind is that triggers explain—they don't excuse. Emotional triggering is, at root, a survival response. Our brains create powerful associations between things that hurt us and whatever happened to be occurring when we got hurt. Once you've been hit by lightning, even though you know that the odds of its happening again are astronomically low, the touch of a single raindrop may send you running for cover.
It's easier to forgive misbehavior in ourselves and others once we understand this powerful connection between environment, emotion, and reaction. But recognizing our triggers doesn't give us carte blanche to do whatever we want, everyone else be damned. On the contrary, it makes us responsible for recognizing triggering situations so we can change our unconscious reactions. Really pondering the concept of triggering can guide us into wiser thoughts and actions.
Identifying your triggers is key.
Take a moment to notice any strong negative emotion you're experiencing. If you're not feeling anything negative now, congratulate yourself, and then think about the last time you were upset. Whether your unpleasant feelings are present or past, don't judge or resist them. Send your memory backward in time to find the moment when you switched from "okay" to "not okay." Did you begin feeling bad at breakfast this morning? While going to bed last night? Earlier yesterday when you were making a soufflé, chewing gum, shaving your cat?
Once you recall the approximate time your mood went sour, notice what felt most upsetting: a comment from your boss, a story on the news, the number on the scale. Be patient with yourself as you search for the precise trigger. It's a delicate skill that takes practice. You might want to enlist the help of a therapist, a coach, or a friend, especially at first. But even on your own, tracing bad moods back in time will eventually help you spot the triggering event.
At the outset, this is an exercise in hindsight. You won't even think to identify your trigger until after it's pulled. But with continued attention, you'll start recognizing triggers sooner, and one day, even as you're firing off shouts or tears, part of you will be saying, "Oops, there I go again." You'll then have a choice: Continue to blast, or put the safety on your psyche.
Compassion can turn on your safety mechanism.
Great peacemakers—Gandhi, Mandela—have shown us how to disarm violence. Even in the face of hatred or despair, they didn't allow themselves to be negatively triggered. Instead, they applied what the poet Rumi called "a mighty kindness." How did they manage to love their enemies? By practicing on themselves. Offering kindness to yourself is the "safety" that can stop your negative emotions from firing uncontrollably.
Next time your anxiety, depression, or anger is triggered, mentally offer yourself kind wishes. This is so simple, it sounds almost simpleminded, but if you do it relentlessly, it's also extraordinarily effective. I like to start with some loving-kindness phrases from Buddhism: May I be healthy. May I be happy. May I be free from suffering. Then I build on that, creating a long mental litany of kind wishes. Tailor your loving-kindness wishes to your specific needs: May I be filled with confidence. May I release my fear of anthrax. May I be free from the compulsion to scream in meetings. And so on.
If you haven't had much practice being kind to yourself, you can enlist the aid of others. Ask your sister, best friend, or parole officer: "If I call you when I feel triggered, would you please wish me well or suggest something kind I can do for myself?" Very few people refuse this request. Everyone senses that the more we help one another put on the safety, the less we all risk being shot.
With time and mindfulness, you can disarm entirely.
Kindness, applied persistently, will begin to reduce your reaction to emotional triggers until uncontrollable explosions no longer occur. And at that point it's time to empty the gun. The bullets are associations sparked by trauma—whether a horrific trauma such as an actual war, a moderate trauma like a breakup, or the baby trauma you had at age 5 when you thought that Santa Claus was watching you pee.
To unload your own emotional gun, ask yourself, "When, before the most recent trigger, did I feel this upset?" Allow your memory to bring up any situations that share the same emotional tone. Then repeat, "When, before that experience, did I feel this upset?' Continue asking this question, each time, giving yourself plenty of time to free-associate. There's no rush. Eventually, you'll arrive at the memory.
Just as kindness is the universal way of putting on your emotional safety, the universal way to unload your emotional ammunition is presence. Be here, now, holding the memory of the original trauma and—this is the key—noticing that here and now isn't there and then. The smell of burnt toast doesn't mean your house is burning down. An argument with your partner isn't the abuse you suffered in childhood. Fire, abuse, or any other trauma may still occur, but you are different. You're older, wiser, more capable. You're free to negotiate life more skillfully than you could when that first awful thing occurred. You have options. You can stand up for yourself; express your preferences; get help from friends, counselors, the police. As you notice your ability to act on your own behalf in the present moment, the terrible helplessness and self-abandonment common to all trauma slowly yields to a sense of personal empowerment.
In time, accessing your power through present-moment awareness can become your automatic reaction to negative situations. As you grow more practiced in noticing your triggers, offering yourself kindness and remembering that the power to heal your life is always available in the present moment, the situations that once set you off lose their explosive potential. In fact, triggering situations may become as positive as they once were negative. One day a child's sulkiness will trigger a calming conversation rather than an inflammatory argument. Losing a parking space will trigger humor, not rage. Situations that once devolved into emotional massacres will trigger the internal process of liberation from your negative conditioning. This process can take you all the way from despair to enlightenment, and that's certainly worth a shot.
Martha Beck's latest book is The Martha Beck Collection: Essays for Creating Your Right Life, Volume One (Martha Beck Inc.).