Ever had that moment when someone says something, and a wave of white-hot emotion floods your body?
You feel angry, upset or outraged. Sad, lost or afraid.
Whatever the emotion is, it’s strong. Perhaps overpowering. And the time between the event and your reaction is minimal.
The other day, I opened an email from a friend. I began to read – and I felt my stomach jump, and my jaw clench. How dare he say that? He was completely wrong. I dashed out a few angry lines of text.
With a few choice words, I was going to show him exactly how wrong he was.
I hovered over the send button, ready…
…and I slowly lifted my hands off the keyboard, and took a breath.
Luckily for my (good!) friendship with this person, I caught myself in time, realising my reaction was far disproportionate to his words. All he had done was put forward a point of view that I didn’t agree with. I just hadn’t realised exactly how much I disagreed until that email.
My reaction wasn’t about him, or his words, or his opinion.
It was about the associations that I had with that opinion, and the feelings it triggered in me.
When I explored it by journalling, I found it was because I felt defensive about the topic. Possessive. It felt like he was making a negative comment about something important to me – but more than important to me, I found I had identified so strongly with the opposite opinion to his, that it felt like he was criticising me personally.
But of course, his almost throwaway comment wasn’t about me. In fact, he wasn’t even that negative about the topic when I reviewed the email later.
I was the one who’d somehow loaded a lot more meaning onto it than he meant.
Our brain is a sophisticated piece of equipment, and it has many short-cuts and ways of handling the huge amount of information it’s processing at any given moment.
One such short-cut is that it remembers situations which were associated with a strong emotion in the past, and creates a sort of emergency response to get us out of that situation more quickly in future. This response is then much faster than our more rational, or logical brain (which sometimes tries to keep up by making up explanations – you should have heard the rude thoughts I had about my friend before I realised what was going on).
What we call an emotional trigger is therefore a kind of conditioning – something happens and we associate that event with bad things – not just in the moment, but in the future too.
It’s a survival thing – just like when I ate a goat’s cheese sandwich in a hotel in Ireland and got food poisoning, and my body’s response to that food has been to avoid it ever since, even though there’s probably nothing wrong with most of the goat’s cheese I come across.
You Need to Take Accountability for Your Emotional Triggers
I like the concept of being ‘triggered,’ because it’s a reminder that we may overreact to certain things, no matter how calm and chilled we are most of the time. Sometimes people, sometimes topics. My friend in the story above doesn’t trigger me as a person, I enjoy his company, but that particular comment did.
But just because someone else ‘triggers you’ doesn’t mean that your emotional reaction is their fault.
We still need to take responsibility for recognising what triggers us, and then decide what to do with those thoughts.
How Being Triggered Can Help You Grow
It’s a useful exercise to track what triggers you. If you can recognise your triggers or potential triggers, you can make efforts to explore them and understand why this is the case, and eventually, move past that emotional response.
But if there are certain innocuous people, topics or things that make you fly into a rage, or give you that wash of emotion where you fly off the handle, then if you can understand the reason behind that, you can do something about it.
If you know the what and the why, you can first of all see if you can spot this kind of situation coming before it occurs, and defuse it before it happens – take the heat and emotion out of it and respond to it in a logical way rather than an emotional way.
Why You Should Face Your Triggers
Neil Gaiman, in his engaging and dark book of short fiction ‘Trigger Warning,’ makes the point that actually it’s only through facing some of the things that trigger us that we can grow and get past them.
The controversial idea of putting such trigger warnings on media or materials to warn those with mental health difficulties that what’s within could unsettle or upset them promotes this avoidance – but avoidance can cause feelings of helplessness which can lead to depression.
If we focus too much on the idea of trigger warnings, we start to encourage people to over-identify with their trauma, and we also don’t give them enough credit for resilience and healing (research suggest that less than one in ten of those who had experienced trauma such as natural disasters, accidents or the sudden death of a loved one, though this is higher among those who have experienced sexual abuse).
But everyone has hot buttons, or triggers, to some degree, and for most people, avoidance isn’t helpful. In these cases, day-to-day triggers shouldn’t be avoided, but noticed: We need to bring a conscious awareness to what triggers us, and work to process it, whether we do that with a therapist, a friend or by journaling.
My first week back to work after my father died, I was in a bar with work colleagues, when a particular song came on the radio. I disappeared to the bathroom, and burst into tears. The song had been one which my father had loved, and it had triggered a huge wave of grief in me.
Seven years later, I can listen to the song and enjoy it – and it triggers wonderful memories and a feeling of love. I didn’t avoid the trigger, but I did process the thoughts and feelings that it elicited.
Next Time You’re Triggered, Ask Yourself This
What triggers you? What causes that rush of intense emotional distress, that catches you before you even notice it? What jerks you off-course and means you behave out of character?
Sometimes it’s an obvious emotional wave that crashes over your head, submerging you in whatever terrible emotion has been triggered, whether it’s sadness, anger, upset and so on. At other times the trigger is more subtle, and more pernicious – and harder to find.
Your goal is to find the emotional trigger, and even if you don’t catch yourself in future before it happens, you’ll eventually be able to step out of whatever mood or emotion the event has incited much more quickly.
Spend a few days this week noticing:
- How often are you triggered?
- What were the strong negative emotions (there’s a list here) you felt in reaction to the trigger?
- What was going on when you were triggered?
- Do you know what or who it was that triggered you?
- Is there just one person or thing in your life who triggers you?
- Do you know why you had this response?
Most triggers stem from experiences we had as children, where we faced difficult situations that we couldn’t properly process at that stage of life. So the brain stored it away to ensure we avoid such situations in the future.
My final suggestion, then, is to show that inner child a little compassion. Nurture him, let her play, show her a little self-care.
Help her to let go of emotions that are no longer needed, so she can spend more time experiencing the emotions that light her up inside.