Facing your emotional triggers can be excruciatingly uncomfortable. Depending on how aware you are in the moment of being triggered, it can feel like you’re once again Charlie Brown being denied the chance by Lucy to kick the football. “I can’t believe I fell for it again,” you might think.
However, being triggered or having your “buttons pushed” can actually be a wonderful opportunity for healing, growth, and gaining a deeper sense of who you are.
This article will cover what triggers are, what we stand to learn from the experience of facing our emotional triggers, how to shift your emotional response, and integrate what you learn for sustainable change. Five steps will be given for facing emotional triggers the next time it happens.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
What Is an “Emotional Trigger?”
We get triggered when something is said or done that “triggers” an uncomfortable reaction.
Let’s say someone receives a text from a friend breaking plans they had made. Our “hero” of this story had been looking forward to spending time with the friend. In an instant, the hero interprets the text message and the reason for the plan cancellation.
There are many “stories” that can be created to “explain” what’s happening, ranging from “something important must have come up for them at the last minute,” to “they don’t like me anymore.” Depending on the nature of this relationship, past experiences of this scenario’s hero, and how well this person can accept what happens without assigning judgment, a trigger may be possible.
For the sake of this article, let’s say that this person is triggered by the text. Certain thoughts are triggered (“my friend doesn’t like me as much as I like them”). Pretty soon, some intense emotions come up like disappointment, anger, or maybe shame. Those feelings will come with physical sensations like a tightening of the chest or a dropping sensation in the belly.
When anyone has those thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations, it’s really uncomfortable!
At this point, the hero of our story could spend the next several hours (days?) stuck in this thought-emotion-physical response loop—unless there is a shift!
One of the reasons we can land in a long-lasting trigger cycle is that we are actually resisting the experience! It’s understandable. Who wants to think and feel that for any amount of time? But when we can actually pause inside of the trigger and experience it fully, that’s the doorway to really understanding what’s really underneath it all.
It’s completely understandable that we have these button-pushing moments, but we’re always at choice when it comes to continuing our patterns or starting to question and eventually changing them.
Why We Get Triggered
The thing that triggers us isn’t nearly as important as looking at how our button was pushed in the first place. Believe it or not, the button is there for a reason! The trigger tries to protect us from going through a painful experience we’ve likely encountered earlier in our lives.
Triggers also alert us when a personal boundary has been crossed. We all have boundaries that consist of our beliefs, values, and ideas of how we want to be treated. It’s important to recognize that the person who pushed the button often has no idea the button was there, and they likely didn’t do it on purpose. (If they did do it on purpose, that’s a different article entirely!)
Reacting strongly in triggering situations is a lot like “shooting the messenger.” Instead of placing blame on the poor chap who inadvertently stepped on your toes, it’s time to push a different button—a pause button—and investigate what’s really happening.
5-Step Process to Facing Emotional Triggers
Remember, being triggered is a wonderful opportunity to uncover a wound from your past and tend to it. It can be a chance to move on from something else in your life that’s holding you back, and it can save your relationships.
So, here are some steps for dealing with moments when you face emotional triggers.
Step 1: Notice the Trigger
As mentioned earlier, one of the first things we tend to do when triggered is to resist the trigger and try to make it go away as soon as possible. As they say, what we resist persists, and we end up causing ourselves to suffer longer and more intensely than if we just let the thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations arise.
This is painful but not permanent.
Step 2: Stay With Your Feelings
Try to name the emotions coming up for you. Without trying to change or stop them, allow your emotional response to grow as much as possible. Notice the location of these emotions in your body. Where does your body feel the tension? Where are you most uncomfortable?
You may find that after a minute or so, this sensation will ease on its own.
Step 3: Ask Yourself These Questions
Now that the emotional and physical response is less intense, it’s time to get to know and understand the trigger.
Some questions to ask include:
- When, in my life, have I experienced something like this moment?
- What do these feelings remind me of?
- What thoughts come with these emotions?
- When else have I had these thoughts?
Allow the memories to come. Remember our hero? Perhaps the trigger for them was related to a time when their best friend decided not to play with them anymore on the playground because the friend wanted to play basketball instead. That memory may not have been on the top of the hero’s mind. But with the space to acknowledge the current emotional/physical experience and by noticing the similarities, our hero can now face what happened in the past and do some healing work.
It’s very important in this step to acknowledge and validate any younger self. This can be done by saying things like:
- Of course, I felt that way back then!
- It’s completely understandable that I would have felt ______________ and thought _________________.
- And “no wonder I’m being triggered right now—I see the similarities!”
Step 4: Investigate the Boundary That Was Crossed
We all have boundaries. We need them. Boundaries are the limits and rules we develop for ourselves. They come from our values, beliefs, and preferences for how we want to be treated.
If you’re uncertain about boundaries in your life, this could lead to confusion over why or how you’re being triggered. One way to get to know your boundaries is to uncover your core values.
Boundaries can be damaged when they’re challenged, crossed, or disrespected. Imagine a personal boundary like an invisible wall. When a wall was disregarded or crossed in an old memory, a hole was put in your boundary. When we’re young, we might not have the tools yet to fix any holes put into our boundaries. Instead, we install an alarm system instead of fixing the hole.
Later, the alarm system lets us know when someone new gets too close to the hole or tries to get through. The alarm system—aka our trigger—tries to keep us safe. Regardless, the hole is still there. How long do you want to go in your life before fixing that hole? And how often do you want to let that alarm keep going off?
If you can see the hole and do the work to heal it, you probably won’t need the alarm anymore. Put another way, once you can locate the hole and understand how it got there, then you can turn off the alarm and start to fix the hole.
Step 5: Notice the Internal Shift
Once there’s an understanding that “now” isn’t “then” and vice versa, we can start to look at how we want to handle things this time.
Notice the shift that happens when there’s clarity around how the unhealed past is informing the yet-to-be-experienced present. The past is what helps us create interpretations and stories about triggering moments. But a deeper understanding of the past can also help us gain clarity around how the present is very different.
To notice this shift, you could try the following:
- Write down your observations and realizations in a journal.
- Tell someone about your experience.
- Draw/paint about it.
- Talk to the person who triggered you (especially good if this isn’t your norm).
- Don’t mention it to the person who triggered you (especially good if this isn’t your norm).
Let’s say that after going through all the five steps proposed above, the “hero” of our story decides to contemplate what is known about the friend. Our hero remembers the friend saying that their beloved pet was acting strangely. How likely was the sudden plan change related to that fact?
Then again, maybe our friend decides that it’s none of their business why the friend can’t hang out. They’ll get together when the time is right. The fifth step is about helping the mind/body/spirit recognize that some action was taken to repair the hole in the personal boundary.
There are times when people do push buttons on purpose because they know you and want to get you where it hurts. In this case, it might be easy to feel justified in lashing out. The question to ask yourself is, “what am I really looking to happen by lashing out and reacting?
Maybe you want that person to know how wrong they are for intentionally pushing your buttons. In this case, ask yourself, “how will lashing out at them help them understand that they are wrong?” Chances are, it won’t., and you will have wasted a lot of energy and made the hole in your boundary even bigger!
Reacting to people who intentionally push buttons actually gives them the power they’re craving. Instead, if you can stay present with yourself in those triggering moments and use the exercise I shared, it could be interesting to see how strengthening your personal boundaries could work for you.
In the case of someone intentionally pushing your buttons, the question becomes, “why would I want to be in a relationship with someone who does this?” And that is another topic for another time!
Tending to your own triggers, buttons, and where you get hooked, regardless of the other person’s intentions, is a practice of self-care and healing that you will hopefully give a try.