If you walk by a bakery and smell cinnamon, you might be triggered to walk in and get yourself a sweet snack. When you walk into your home after a long day at work and your partner asks you a question, you might be triggered to get defensive or resentful. “Why is he bugging me when I’m barely in the door?” “She’s been home all day, why is she asking me if I called the plumber?”
You’ve been triggered. Your partner says or does something, and you just react. The word, “reaction” is an important word here. Think of what “re” at the beginning of a word: it means “again.” So, by definition, a reaction means that you’re acting again in a way you’ve acted before. You’re triggered and reacting because this is reminding you of something from your past.
When you’re triggered it’s generally happening below your conscious level of thinking.
You don’t think, you just “do.” An emotional trigger is basically anything that happens currently that reminds your brain of something that’s happened to you earlier in life.
When you’re triggered, you lose your ability to think something through, problem solve or make a thoughtful decision. This leads to falling into the same negative patterns and arguments over and over again.
Everyone’s got triggers. The goal is to be able to identify when you’re triggered so you can act and not re-act.
Sign that You’ve Been Triggered!
There are actually many signs when you get triggered, both emotional and physical.
Physical changes in your body can include feeling sick to your stomach (or like your stomach has “fallen out”), sweating, headaches, a tightening in your chest or feeling your heart beating faster. These are all stress responses because this trigger is causing a stress response.
The emotional reactions are varied. One of the first things you might notice (now that I’m making you aware) is that you start to think in black and white terms. In other words, you feel like you “have” to fight, or you have “no choice” but to lash out, leave the house, or get a drink. I tell my clients, if you only feel like you have two choices, then you’re caught up in black and white thinking. There are always multiple choices and options in any situation. But, when you’re triggered and having a stress response, that rational, problem-solving part of your brain shuts down, so you end up in that black and white thinking.
When you’re triggered you might also start to blame your partner or think of yourself as helpless/a victim in your relationship. “He always attacks me, I have no choice but to defend myself.” “There’s nothing I can do if she refuses to change any of her behavior.” “What am I supposed to think when he leaves his socks on the floor for me to pick up?” “She makes the money, if I say no she’ll just do it anyway.” “I know what he’s going to say, so there’s no use even asking.”
Thinking you have “no choice” is a good way to know if you’re being triggered.
Being triggered means you are in a fear (not a love) state. You’ll get into a loop and react the same way whenever it happens. You might usually:
- Get angry or defensive
- Get clingy or needy
- Start blaming (or acting like a victim/helpless)
- Run (leave the room; shut down; isolate; withdraw)
- Get passive (yes dear, people pleasing)
- Avoid and procrastinate to the bitter end
What to Do When You’re Triggered: 6 Easy Steps
Doing these steps in order is key because the first three are all about turning on your parasympathetic nervous system which will calm your brain enough to be able to do steps four through six!
- Stop. That’s right; the moment you realize you’ve been triggered, you need to stop and not react. Just be still and in your body.
- Shrug. do a shoulder shrug and then make sure you relax your tongue (it’s usually on the roof of your mouth or pressing against your teeth)
- Breathe. Notice your breathing. Make sure you’re breathing out of your belly (not your chest). Take one deep breath and release it slowly.
- Name the fear. Are you anxious, angry, scared, overwhelmed, numb? See the feeling like a cloud moving past you. You can say, “I’m experiencing anxiety” but don’t say, “I’m anxious.” Separate it from yourself. It really isn’t you.
- Name what’s under the fear. What does this situation remind you of? If you used the words “always” or “never” – what were the other times you experienced this before your partner?
- Get Perspective. Try not to judge what’s going on and try to bring perspective to the situation. What else could be true about this situation? Are you being correct or effective? Don’t be afraid of your emotions – work with them and try to see them objectively.