When dealing with emotions, unfortunately as human beings, we don’t have the capability of locking our feelings away and dealing with them when it’s a more convenient time for us. There will be times when we experience a full emotional upheaval at any given time, whether we are ready to deal with it or not.
On the bright side, emotions are like our own personal alarm system, they sound off to give us information about what is happening with us internally and externally. It’s our job to pay attention and tend to whatever is coming up.
However, once in a while (or maybe more frequently for you), something will happen that will make your internal alarm system sound all its bells at once... -loud, high and with great urgency. The problem is when that “something” that happened does not warrant such an enormous reaction, it leaves you feeling crazed and confused. This is what mental health professionals call "emotional triggers."
An emotional trigger is when a person, place, thing, sound, or situation elicits intense physical feelings or an unexpected emotional response. You suddenly get hit by a series of uncomfortable feelings that are not really aligned with whatever just happened because, you are actually not reacting to what’s happening now, but you are responding to something deeper from your past.
A few summers ago, after running into someone I was not expecting at a Target parking lot, I instantly felt as if the world was disappearing around me... Panic began to come over me fast but, somehow I managed to get myself to my car. Holding myself up with the door to my Jeep, I stood there feeling like my heart would beat out of my chest at any moment, and that I would soon collapse from not getting enough oxygen into my lungs. However, after having experienced a few similar occurrences over the years (which I sought therapy for), I was able to recognize what was happening to me and I was able to get myself out of fight or flight response. I breathed deeply for a few minutes and waited for my body to sync to my mind and tell it that -I was not in danger, and that I was ok. And after about 5 minutes, I really was. I was fine.
Sound familiar? Maybe you had a similar instance after seeing an ex who hurt you deeply, or while hearing a song, or smelling something from your past that has negative attachment or memories.
We all have triggers with similar responses. The commonality that all triggers have is that they are unexpected, and they come from negative past experiences, deep old wounds, or stored trauma. When experiencing an emotional trigger your nervous system gets activated, and you don’t feel safe, so your brain gets on fight or flight response.
Here are some examples of what emotional triggers symptoms feel like:
Your breathing becomes shallow.
Your heart starts racing.
Your body feels shaky,
Your chest feels tight,
You go into dissociation mode
You start feeling scared, panicked, or anxious
You start sweating, and have difficulty breathing
You start feeling like you have no control over your emotions
You have the urge to run away
You have a panic attack
You have flashbacks of traumatic events
You have outbursts of anger or sadness
Being in a relationship when you have unmanaged emotional triggers can be a lot more challenging because our emotional reaction to our triggers are so misproportioned with reality that our partner will not understand and most likely take offense and/or feel that they are under attack. And furthermore, your ability to convey to your partner what is actually happening might be hindered be by your own fears. You might feel embarrassed, ashamed, or fear being judged or ridiculed. But it’s really important to push through and get a hold of your triggers, not just for your relationships, but for your own self-care. We need to learn to recognize and manage our emotional triggers because if we don’t, they can really negatively impact our lives. Many people believe that having emotional triggers has held them back from living their full potential.
Let us look at your specific triggers.
Think about what emotions come up for you when you are triggered.
Do you get angry, sad, jealous, panicked or overwhelmed?
Where do you feel it in your body?
Is it your chest, your stomach or your whole body?
What does it feel like?
Does your breathing become shallow?
Do you feel your heart pounding out of your chest?
Does your mind go blank?
And, do you have trouble regulating yourself or calming yourself down when this happens?
**Write down your past experience with emotional triggers.**
Here are 5 strategies that can help you manage your emotional triggers in your relationship:
1- Take a break or a step back. You never want to respond to your partner from a triggered place. If you do, you will either act out as a victim where your partner becomes the villain and is trying to hurt you, or you will find yourself reacting with righteous anger:
"You did this to me."
"You are making me feel this way."
"You are wrong."
"How could you do this to me?"
Either way, your partner might get counter triggered. They will perceive your reaction as a direct attack and judgment on them which will cause a series of back-and-forth fights and disagreements in your relationship until eventually, someone checks out and leaves.
Instead let your partner know you are feeling triggered and need to take a little time to self-regulate. If you have the type of f relationship where you know your partner is eager to help. Ask them to help you. If you do not have this type of relationship, or you are not yet comfortable with divulging information about your emotional triggers, tell your partner that you are feeling uncomfortable, uneasy, etc. and that you are just going to step away to calm yourself down. Give them an estimated time when you will be back or when you will calling them back. This is consciously disengaging. And by letting your partner know that you are stepping away for an hour or so, or however much time you need, your partner will understand that you are genuinely trying to calm down and figure things out as oppose to just abandoning or punishing them.
2- Self- regulate (calm yourself down). Once you step away, use breathing exercises to help you regulate. Deep belly breaths are really effective because when your nervous system is activated and your brain is fight or flight response, taking these belly breaths will help by starting to slow everything down, and relaxing and calming your body. And after a few moments, your brain will receive the message that "hey, everything is slowing down, so I guess there is no danger here." And after a little while your mind and body will be able to be in tune.
Quick Note: It’s important to practice belly breaths prior to having an emotional trigger so that you can do them properly when they happen.
3- Separate the facts from fiction in your story . As soon as you start thinking irrational thoughts picture a big stop sign or a caution sign. This will remind you that you are not responding to the present. -Remind yourself that when you are triggered, your ego is telling you a warped version of what’s actually going on. And It’s most likely turning you into a victim in this story. It does this to protect you.
After you have calmed yourself down with the belly breathing and you feel that you are coming back to the present reality, take a look at what just happened. Retrace your steps. Can you pinpoint what you were doing or what the particular moment was where you started to feel the negative emotions? Or felt This trigger coming on?
By practicing separating the ego story from what is really happening, you will be able to become the observer of your emotions, take away some of the trigger’s power, and be able choose a better reaction. This does take a lot of practice, but if you are patient and don’t give up, you will find that it will gradually get easier.
4- Practice self-acceptance. Acknowledge your feelings and accept what’s happening. You don’t need to dismiss your emotions. Listen to them without judging yourself or falling into the negative self-talk and beating yourself up for feeling this way. Accept that you have triggers. Understand that most people have them and that they all come from a deeper place of fear, pain or trauma that we carry from our past. Taking away self-judgement will help you look at them differently. You can then view your triggers as your mind’s way of protecting you from danger. And perhaps as a way of telling you it’s time to do a little healing work.
5- Work with a licensed professional. If you know that you have emotional triggers and have not been able to get a handle on them, or feel they have been keeping you from living life to its full potential, please speak to a therapist that specializes in emotional triggers. There are several approaches they may take to help you deal with them. And you want to have a set of tools ready to use when this happens.
Knowledge empowers you to move away from reaction mode and into self-care.
So by paying close attention to your emotional triggers, what comes before the reaction, where they originate, and what the emotional and physical sings are, you can get a handle on them, and maybe even heal them. However, sometimes triggers are so deeply rooted that it may be hard to recognize them. So most people benefit from seeking professional help.
Although it does takes great practice to learn how to emotionally self-regulate, with patience and perseverance, you will succeed, so don't give up! And if you are comfortable enough to tell your partner about your triggers and they agree to be on board with helping you, believe it or not, this will bring the communication and health of your relationship to a whole different level.