Triggers: Do You React or Respond?

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By Vera Wilhelm

January 18, 2022



Managing Triggers: Do You React or Respond?

A client recently told me that she was standing at an intersection waiting for a car to stop. When the approaching car showed no intention of slowing down, she stepped into the street, barely avoiding a collision. ‘I have no idea what happened, that I would do something like that just to make a point, she told me. ‘I felt so provoked.’

Whether at home or work, most of us have been there. Someone who talks in a certain tone of voice acts aggressively or defiant, and we have a much stronger reaction than expected or justified. We feel triggered.

What’s a trigger?

Triggers come in the form of events or experiences that cause an excessive emotional reaction. They can be compared to a barely healed wound that gets irritated and causes a sudden, painful reaction. Triggers are often rooted in fears we hold based on previous experiences and activate our limbic or emotional center of the brain into a fight, flight, or freeze mode. So reasoning with them is usually not an option, as we are often unaware of what triggers us, and our reactions can happen so fast that they erase the distance between stimulus and reaction.

A number of emotions can cause a trigger reaction, including feeling:

discounted or ignored, excluded, controlled or told what to do or feel, taken advantage of, and/or be concerned that someone is crossing our boundaries or poses an imminent threat.

However, not each time we are told what to do, for instance, causes a trigger reaction. Only when those reactions seem excessive and disproportionate may we suspect that we got triggered by an emotional pain that may have its roots in the past more than in the present moment. Like the barely healed wound, these pains are concealed but flare up easily. The intensity of our reactions can negatively affect social and professional relationships and get in the way of connecting with others.

What to do about being triggered?

There are several ways we can resource ourselves to break the circuit of stimulus and reaction in favor of a more reflective response.

Taking a mental note of those moments and creating awareness of what sets off reactivity is the first step. Once we better understand what or who triggers us and when we can start to change the way we relate to the trigger and eventually reduce its influence. The ability to observe ourselves as we are being triggered and focus on thoughts and feelings at the moment makes us less activated in the amygdala. This immediately changes our reactivity as we don’t feel as compelled emotionally as when we are oblivious to what is happening.

Calming yourself by taking deep breaths, taking a short walk, or doing mental fitness exercises (paying attention to sensations such as touch, sound, or vision) helps the body to self-regulate from a rush of adrenalin and cortisol. It brings us back to the present moment.

Being curious by exploring what could be the root cause underlying the trigger shifts our mind from reacting to seeking knowledge. When we are curious, we strengthen the functional connectivity between our brain’s reward system that is anticipating receiving something desirable and the memory and learning systems that help us retain the memory more deeply and learning systems that help us retain the knowledge more deeply. Even if we discover that we don’t really know, we still get out of the reactive mode and take a wider, more panoramic perspective of the issue, shifting the response.

Meeting a trigger with self-compassion rather than engaging in an inner argument that puts us down.

If the trigger is an inner critique (I’m not smart enough, etc.), it’s useful to acknowledge the voice as a reminder to step back and take a break rather than run with the emotion. Reaffirming that you are doing your best and feeling compassion for the underlying wound that may cause the trigger gives a sense of agency with more options to respond.

Creating healthy boundaries can be especially helpful if we find we get triggered by people who are closest to us or with whom we share a lot of common history. Being as present as possible in such moments and expressing the emotions that you feel (faster heartbeat, feeling anxious, etc.) and your need to take a break as things heat up can be helpful to delay reactivity. Also, reminding ourselves that it’s normal to get annoyed with certain people or attitudes and that we just need to accept what we cannot change can reduce our need to react strongly and provide more perspective and agency. Again, practicing some mental fitness exercises is extremely helpful to access this perspective at the moment.

Once we develop tools to handle triggers, we break the immediacy of stimulus and reaction by resourcing ourselves. That step gives us more confidence that we can handle the situation and more options to respond rather than react. A powerful way to resource ourselves are mental fitness techniques. To find out more about my offer for mental fitness coaching, please click here.

We hope you found this article on managing triggers and if you should react or respond helpful. Are there any topics you would like to see The Gypsy Nurse cover in an article? Comment them below.

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  • Triggers: How We Can Stop Reacting and Start Healing by David Richo ©2019. (book)
  • How to let go of anger through mindfulness by Tata Brach (article)
  • How to Work with a Client’s Emotional Triggers – NICABM (course)

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