Grooving A New Response
“The good news is that every time you become aware of your triggers and notice your response and the way your core beliefs influence your feelings and behaviours, you weaken old patterns and strengthen new ones.” — Nick Trenton
Think of a recent experience where you were emotionally triggered. Try to recall the details as best you can. What emotions did you experience? Where did you feel the emotions in your body? How long did it take you to recover from the triggered event? Here’s the thing: being triggered is uncomfortable because we believe a person or situation is the source of our pain. Where in fact, our reaction is disproportionate to what is taking place. That is, our triggers or wounds are emphasised when we react to something outside of us.
For instance, if loud noises remind us of a parent who screamed at us when we were young, it will trigger us as adults. It can be unpleasant and suddenly we are taken back to an experience in childhood and reliving it through our physiology. Even though we know there is no threat to our safety, our mind perceives it otherwise. It is recalling the memory and flooding our body with stress chemicals that can overwhelm us. This is what people with PTSD experience, although being triggered is not as intense, it can still activate the same stress response within the body.
So how do we know if we are triggered and not reacting to a negative event? This is an important question often asked by people. Triggers have an underlying theme connected to an experience in the past. To illustrate, I am sometimes triggered by loud noises with a particular decibel range. House alarms or loud music with a heavy base can trigger me into a fight-or-flight response. I can feel overwhelmed by the loud noise and unable to control my body’s reaction because my mind-body perceives it as a threat. Naturally, through my work over the years, I have learnt to become mindful of my body and so the triggers nowadays are less severe.
To take this idea further: when we are triggered, it is a signal of unfinished business from our past. By unfinished business, I am referring to unresolved wounds or trauma we must attend to. By attending to our wounds, we develop a compassionate narrative about what took place in the past and rewire our nervous system to perceive the trigger differently. When I speak about rewiring our nervous system, I am referring to grooving a different response to the triggers, that becomes our new normal. So, if our reaction to loud noises is to respond with anger, anxiety or shut down, through practise, we create new neural networks in the brain to perceive the trigger differently. This can take time and why we must develop a compassionate relationship with ourselves as we are healing. This is because there will be moments when we will slip back into our old patterns, since we are attempting to change years of conditioned behaviour. Can you relate to this? If you experienced triggering events, what methods or interventions have you tried? Were they successful? How do you know?
Name and Tame Your Emotions
“Name it to tame it.” — Daniel Siegel
Considering this, here are four ideas to help you work through your triggers:
1. Identify Your Stress Patterns:
Recognise when you are triggered and understand the theme of the trigger. For instance, I mentioned earlier about being triggered by loud noises. This includes people who yell or scream, house alarm or loud music with heavy bass. Therefore, I’m mindful of inhabiting my body when I am caught in a triggered event and soothe myself without overreacting to the stimuli.
2. Soothe Yourself:
This involves inhabiting your body through mindfulness and diaphragmatic breathing to calm your nervous system. These practices move you out of a sympathetic (fight or flight) response to a parasympathetic (rest or digest) response. This is an important practice because you are conditioning the mind and body to react differently to the triggered event. In time, you will have created new neural patterns in the body to help you respond differently to a trigger.
3. Name And Tame Your Emotions:
This is a practice created by the American psychologist Daniel Siegel, who talks about naming your emotions to tame them. For example, if being triggered by loud noises leads to anger, simply name the emotion, which puts a brake on the nervous system succumbing to the flood of negative energy. Naturally, this should happen when you have calmed your body, since you are identifying the emotion that causes the trigger.
4. Rethink Your Relationship To Trauma:
Many people perceive their wounds as a lifelong sentence because they see themselves as broken or wounded. But it needn’t be this way because you can heal your wounds with the right therapeutic interventions. You can learn to turn down the volume on your trauma without losing your identity. Trauma does not mean you are broken or wounded. Rather, it is a way to develop a more compassionate way to relate to yourself through the events of the past.
Triggers can be valuable messengers informing us of the importance of processing our pain from the past. It may involve working with a trained therapist if the triggers are imposing on our mental and physical well-being. For example, a method I have found useful in dealing with triggers is IFS (Internal Family Systems). Whilst the method does not directly deal with resolving triggers, it helps to treat the wounds from our childhood that contribute to the triggers. In other words, we are dealing with the source of the trigger rather than the triggering event itself.
Finally, being triggered needn’t cause us pain and distress. It can be an opportunity to make peace with our past and reshape our memories of what took place. As a result, our relationships improve and our response to triggers gets better because we are no longer held captive by painful memories. Similarly, we change our physiological response to the triggers and may even consider changing our lifestyle habits, such as practising meditation, mindfulness, exercising regularly or improving our diet to help our body deal with stress. After all, if being triggered represents unfinished business from the past, we have the power to change our response to our painful memories, so they no longer hold us captive in the present moment experience.