Have you noticed that some things and some people push your buttons? It is often only afterwards that you realize what has happened, and then you get mad at yourself for letting it happen, or you get mad at them, or both! These “buttons” are your emotional triggers. By increasing awareness, you can learn to take control of your emotional triggers and develop more effective ways to respond.
Understanding Your Emotional Triggers
A trigger is an experience that draws us into the past, evoking feelings and behaviors. For example, an ice cream sandwich may remind you of happy summer vacations, or a certain smell may bring back images or memories of your grandmother’s baking.
Learn to spot triggers. Triggers can be situational and/or social. Being at a certain relative’s home may bring back memories of being teased as a child. If your spouse is tense, you may feel yourself getting tense because your previous experience has been that when your spouse is tense, you end up having a huge argument.
You can’t avoid all the circumstances and people that elicit these triggers, but if you begin to notice and understand the subtle physiological changes that occur as the trigger is activated, you can retrain yourself to respond differently.
Let’s use this as an example: When you were at high school, one of the school bullies always used the same phrase or word to demean you. It happened over and over again and you “learned” how to respond. Maybe you withdrew in order to protect yourself, or maybe you felt powerless, or maybe you lashed out, taking your hurt and frustration out on others. Now, years later, you notice that every time you hear that phrase or word, that same feeling of powerlessness, fear or anger starts rising and you know that your emotional trigger has been activated. Maybe your palms start sweating and your heart starts pounding, or you may feel that sense of dread in the pit of your stomach.
If you can develop self-awareness, as these changes begin, you can recognize them, acknowledge them and make a decision on how you want to act. Instead of defaulting to your old learned behavior, you can reassess the situation and make a choice about how you want to respond.
Obviously, doing this in the heat of the moment can be challenging, so there are ways to make this easier.
Know your capacity. Proceed at your own pace. Small, but consistent steps are valuable. Remember that you learned these responses over a period of time and learning new responses will take time too. Start out by practicing new responses with people you know, love and trust.
Create a healthy lifestyle. Make yourself more resilient by taking good care of your body and mind. Eat right, sleep well, and exercise regularly. Make time to relax. Reducing daily stress makes it easier to handle intense emotions. Begin a daily meditation practice, or talk a walk or do some yoga. Make time to recharge and rebuild yourself.
Develop a strong support network. Close family and friends are vital to feeling validated and nurtured. When you're dealing with stubborn issues, it's good to know you have people who care about you, and want to help.
Show compassion. The more you know about your own triggers, the more insight you will develop into what people around you may be struggling with. Strive to be a little more patient and forgiving, and people will be more likely to do the same for you.
We all have our own unique emotional triggers, but we don’t have to be held hostage by them. If we understand what triggers us, we will realize that we have a choice in how we respond. We don’t need to resort to old patterns of behavior that no longer serve us.
Instead we can be thoughtful and deliberate about how we want to respond, and we can choose a response that is positive and that helps us fix the issues that get in our way, and allows us to move ahead in life.
This is not easy and it is not quick, but it is possible if we are willing to do the work.