Have you ever found yourself saying… I’m getting triggered or I feel so triggered? You may have felt emotionally put off after seeing an old high school friend that’s mighty successful now, a house that resembled your childhood home or an opinion about climate change that you couldn’t agree with less. An emotion you may have felt during this trigger resembled an intense sudden flooding of anger, fear, shame or sadness which led your body to react in a respective manner; either an intense constriction in your chest and throat was felt (fear), the sudden urge to run away (fear/shame) was experienced or your fists clenched firmly and your face flushed red (anger) when you were mistreated or didn’t get what you want.
When I asked our awesome community of 27K+ on Instagram about what triggered them I got a variety of responses. Triggers ranged from seeing people from high school, having fake gossips being spread around, having statements like, “You need to listen better,” said to them, socializing in large groups, smell of cannabis, hearing news about suicide, loud noises, the colour yellow and having the toilet seat up.
Each circumstance described above may not have much in common but the one thing that does bind them together is that they all can be a trigger for someone. But what exactly is a trigger? What does it really mean and where does it come from?
Emotional triggers are people, words, opinions, situations or environmental circumstances that can provoke an excessive emotional reaction within us. They commonly evoke the emotions of anger, fear, shame or sadness leading us to act from a place of survival. Because our subconscious mind is in full swing we tend to act in disappropriate ways to protect ourselves. In this blog, we will be discussing the three common sources of emotional triggers and how to notice and identify them within yourself.
The three common sources of triggers are…
(1) opposing beliefs and values
(2) PTSD or CPTSD
(3) ego preservation
- Opposing Beliefs and Values
When we’re strongly attached to a belief we may find it difficult to accept or even tolerate an opposing belief. This is one of the reasons why religion and politics are such touchy subjects because it calls us to question the truth and legitimacy of what we believe in so dearly. You may ask, but isn’t knowing who you are and what you believe in important? It sure is, as a matter of a fact waking up every morning without having beliefs and values would be a scary world to live in (so having them is important). The key to good emotional well-being, however, is in recognizing how attached we are to our beliefs. Are we capable of understanding that what we believe in may not be the ultimate truth but a combination of cultural, personal and genetic influences. Are we capable at accepting and recognizing that what is true for us and what works for us may not be the same for others. The less attachment we have over what is right and wrong, true or untrue the less triggered we become when someone has a differing opinion.
- PTSD or CPTSD
Getting triggered is tracing back to an event that had a post traumatic origin. A PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) or CPTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) flashback can be triggered by an object, person, place, touch or smell where the victim is likely to respond with an immense amount of fear and panic. The difference between PTSD and CPTSD is that PTSD is a single traumatic event like a sexual assault and CPTSD is a series of traumatic events like emotional, physcial or sexual abuse. A sexual assault victim may experience a trigger when she sees men with beards because her perpetrator had a beard. An adult man who was emotionally abused by his mother in childhood may be triggered when he sees a woman that portrays similar characteristics of behaviour. Someone who was outcasted as a child may be triggered by seeing people having fun.
- Ego Preservation
The ego is a sense of self that we carry around. It’s an artificial identity we hold on to composed of thoughts, memories, cultural values, assumptions and belief structures designed to help us fit into society. Every living being possesses an ego where its core purpose is to preserve the self through a series of coping mechanisms centred around beliefs, ideals, desires, habits and addictions. All of this effort to run away from the one thing our ego fears the most- it’s own death. When our egos are challenged, provoked or hurt in any shape or form we become triggered and act in maladaptive ways to protect ourselves. We will argue, defame, insult, backstab, sabotage, assault and even murder (in severe cases) people who pose a threat to our ego’s survival. Luckily, through inner work like shadow work and self compassion we have the ability to liberate ourselves from the hands of our ego.
Recognizing a Trigger
We all have a vague idea of what triggers us but may have a weak understanding of the dynamics behind our triggers. In this part of blog we will be looking into a step-by-step guide on how to notice and become more aware of how our triggers impact our being and behaviours.
Take a moment to think about a recent event where you felt uncontrollable anger or anxiety. Once you’ve selected the event proceed on with the guide.
- Pay attention to your body reactions.
Our memory systems may be flawed but our bodies tell the full story. In every moment of the day our body is letting us know whether something is good for us or whether there is something to be concerned about. Therefore, it is an important source of information. It also is a great tool used for grounding ourselves; when we’re stuck in an emotional hijack the only thing we really have control over is our bodies therefore understanding what our bodies are going through is key to managing our triggers.
Are you experiencing…
- palpitations/ racing heart
- Choking feeling
- A constriction in the chest
- Hot flashes
- If you could label the emotion, what would it be?
Labelling emotions allow us to become less ambiguous about our internal experiences. When we label emotions we enable ourselves to see emotions just as that – emotions. No longer do we attach it to a state of being but rather see it as a visitor.
If I could label the emotion it would be ___________.
- Notice the thoughts in your mind. Are they calm and observant or are they drastic and polarized? Polarized thoughts are thoughts that centre around labelling things as right or wrong, good or bad, holy or evil, and woke or for the weak (a concept seen so prevalently on social media these days). What story is being played over and over in your mind (you may come to observe that there is one main message being replayed in many different scenarios)?
Don’t try to control these thoughts, simply observe them.
- Who or what triggered the emotion? Was it an object, a type of person, an opinion, a smell, a colour or a viewpoint that triggered the emotional reaction? Sometimes you may come to label the trigger easily (like oh, yeah it was that comment) but other times the triggers can be a series of complex stimuli. Take a moment to reflect upon this.
- What happened before the trigger happened? Sometimes there are specific prerequisites that trigger us. For example having a stressful day at work, hearing teenagers arguing near a convenience store, waking up on the wrong side of the bed, or going to a shopping mall can put us over the edge; virtually anything can set the stage for a future trigger. Becoming aware of the effects of these setups can help us be more prepared for future events; enabling us to establish healthy coping mechanisms when triggers hit.
- What need isn’t being met? Every conflict we find ourselves in is because of an unmet need. This way of thinking can be revolutionizing because we no longer place the blame on self or onto others but instead recognize that a need isn’t being met. This thought process is a lot less ego driven and more solutions and fairness driven. When we acknowledge the needs that aren’t being met within us we have a much greater capability to communicate these needs to others and to find ways to fulfill them within ourselves. Take a moment to reflect upon the list below. What need isn’t being met?
- Being liked
- Being needed
- To see and be seen
- To understand and be understood
- Being right
- Being valued
- Being in control
- Being treated fairly
That’s a wrap on the step-by-step guide on how to identify triggers. If you’d be interested in learning how to manage triggers with greater effectiveness and kindness take our ‘Emotional Intelligence for Beginners’ Course. For more information click here.