Working with emotional triggers - for the benefit of you and your relationships
In our daily life we all get triggered from time to time. We can suddenly go from a normal conversation or interaction to withdrawing from our friend or partner or responding with words that are less than loving. And, it all seems to happen in a millisecond… because, a lot of the time that is exactly what happens when we are triggered. Our brains pick up on a cue that is interpreted as a threat by the limbic system of the brain, initiating a reaction to the threat. This reaction looks like fight, flight, or freeze. For example, if my brain interprets my partner’s words or facial cues as threatening, I may respond in irritation or anger with harsh words. Or, I could respond by withdrawing from contact or my emotions and cognition could freeze and I could lose contact with my ability to feel and think clearly. Notice when this happens… sometimes we can only notice this after the fact, but it is worth the effort to look at the chain of events to identify our triggers and our patterns of response. In this way, we can take the first step toward change.
Once you have identified the pattern you can turn your attention inward to investigate, with compassion, what in you that was triggered and the origins of this reaction. A way to do this is to set aside some time (15-30 minutes or more), bring up the experience (what was happening, the images, your feelings at the time, the thoughts you had before, during, and after), and notice what emerges. You may have a memory of an earlier experience that is similar or connected to this or you may stay with the feeling and see what vulnerable parts of you (perhaps you as a young child) were provoked by the experience.
Mindfulness practice is a way in which to gain awareness of triggers and to reduce the sense of overwhelm that often comes with them.
HOW TO WORK WITH EMOTIONS
1. Turn toward your emotions with acceptance-
Bring attention to the emotion without trying to change it, just notice. How do you notice the emotion in your body- where is it located, what is its size, shape, temperature, and anything else you notice?
2. Identify and label the emotion-
What emotion is it that you notice. Label it by noting it “this is sadness” or “this is anxiety”. (see feelings list below)
3. Have acceptance of the emotion-
By allowing it to be as it is, you reduce resistance and allow the emotion to freely move through your system. If we attempt to turn away, stuff, or deny the emotion, it often makes it worse- gaining more momentum or leaking out in surprising ways.
4. Realize the impermanence of your emotions-
Allow the emotion to move through like a wave that approaches, crests, and retreats. It will pass if you do not obstruct it through attempts to stuff, tighten around, change, or cover it over with another emotion (sometimes anger covers deep sadness that we don’t want to feel… depression sometimes covers anger that we were not allowed to feel)
5. Inquire and investigate-
Mindfulness helps us to calm our nervous system which allows us to activate our rational mind and wise self. This means you go from being emotionally reactive to more thoughtful and present. As you are present and nonreactive you can investigate the emotion - “Why do I feel this way?” You can gain more of a perspective about the emotion, think clearly, and act in an appropriate and relational way.
6. Let go of the need to control your emotions-
See what unfolds as you gain more clarity about your emotions. What are your needs based on what you discovered? Contact or connection? To state or enforce a boundary? To grieve something or someone lost? Support or assistance? Rest and relaxation?
Often what we find in our inquiry signals some healing that needs to be done so that you are not bringing in past hurts to your current relationships. Your partner can be a part of your healing but they are not responsible for the behavior of past partners, so directing your anger toward them because of what others have done to you is simply not fair. Learning how to handle difficult emotions will help you deal with issues more productively. You’ll have a much healthier relationship and your loved ones will thank you.
Try it and let me know what you discover. And, feel free to reach out for support – I am here and welcome you to take a step toward transformation. Feelings List:
Anger: resentment, irritation, frustration Fear: apprehension, overwhelmed, threatened, scared Pain: sad, lonely, hurt, pity Joy: hopeful, elated, happy, excitement Passion: enthusiasm, desire, zest Love: affection, tenderness, compassion, warmth Shame: embarrassment, humble, exposed Guilt: regretful, contrite, and remorseful
With much love and appreciation,