What does getting triggered actually mean?

You’re in a friendly, normal conversation with another person, reading comments on a thread online, watching TV or reading a passage in your new book and everything is going well until – BAM! Your blood pressure is rising, your breathing becomes heavier, and you have an intense emotional reaction.

What just happened? –You got triggered – that’s what happened.

Triggers have somewhat of a negative undertone to them, but in reality they are guideposts revealing inner wounds that are asking to be witnessed and healed. I know that seems counteractive but triggers are a good thing and we invite you to embrace them. Trust me when you lean into what the underlying story or emotion is beneath the trigger, you will undoubtedly liberate yourself!

What are triggers?

You may have heard of “trigger warnings” or “getting triggered” by another person before. But what does getting triggered actually mean?

Emotional triggers are people, words, opinions, situations, or environmental situations that provoke an intense emotional reaction within us. Common emotions that we experience while being triggered include anger, rage, sadness, and fear.

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Virtually anything can trigger us, depending on our beliefs, values, and earlier life experiences such as a tone of voice, a type of person, a particular viewpoint, a single word – anything that sparks an intense emotional reaction can be a trigger.

Why do we get triggered?

We suffer from emotional triggers for three main reasons:

  • Opposing beliefs and values– When we are strongly identified with a certain belief, we may find it hard to be tolerant of other opposing beliefs. For example, there’s a reason why religion is such a triggering topic for so many people: beliefs give us a sense of safety and comfort, and when they are challenged, we feel (from an emotional and psychological standpoint) like our lives are being put in danger. Values stem from beliefs and involve what we hold as important in life. When another person disagrees or challenges our values, we get triggered because they are calling into question the truth and legitimacy of what we hold dear.
  • Trauma – Getting “triggered” is a term that traces back to the experiences of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often experienced by soldiers coming back from the war. When we are triggered due to past traumatic experiences, our reaction is often extreme fear and panic (or in some cases, anger). We get triggered when we see, hear, taste, touch, or smell something that reminds us of the previous traumatic circumstances. For example, a rape victim might be triggered when she sees men with beards because her abuser also had a beard. A man who was assaulted by his alcoholic mother as a child might be triggered whenever he smells alcohol. An adult who never fit in as a child may feel triggered when seeing groups of people have fun.
  • Ego preservation – The ego also known as the “small self” is the sense of self “I” we carry around. This artificial identity that we carry is composed of thoughts, memories, cultural values, assumptions, and belief structures that we have developed in order to fit into society. We all have an ego and its primary purpose is to protect us by developing elaborate “self-protection” mechanisms in the form of beliefs, ideals, desires, habits, and addictions (in order to prevent us from facing what we fear the most: the death of ego or self). When our egos are challenged or hurt by others, we are prone to becoming triggered – immediately. We will argue, insult, belittle, defame, backstab, sabotage people who pose a threat to our ego’s survival. Deep inner soul work supports us in being liberated from our egos, but remember it’s not a one and done healing, this takes time, patience and healing.

Signs you’re being triggered

So how can we tell when we’re being triggered? There are a few physical and emotional experiences you might have which may include:

  • Trembling – Muscle tension
  • Palpitations/racing heart
  • Choking feeling or trouble breathing/swallowing
  • Hot flushes – Chills – Sweaty palms
  • Dizziness or faintness – Nausea
  • Chest pain/discomfort
  • Feeling of detachment (known as dissociation)
  • Head chatter (repeating stories, conclusions, etc. all in the mind)

and of course a few seconds afterward…

We either experience intense emotions, such as disgust, anger, fear, terror, grief resulting in self-protective behavior such as shouting, arguing, insulting, hiding, crying, or otherwise emotionally reacting. Or we shut down and dissociate from the world around us.

We may even turn to coping mechanisms to numb ourselves from having to “feel” or remember the inner wound, such as: having a few drinks, binge eating, retail therapy, working out in an unhealthy fashion, using drugs to escape, or anything else to helps us avoid these intense emotions.

How to identify if you’re triggered

 

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When we aren’t aware of our triggers, let alone how to handle them, our lives follow destructive paths. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen unacknowledged triggers create suffering and chaos in people’s lives and I’m not immune either. I’ve had some very intense reactions to people and situations before and I have used a variety methods to numb and avoid my inner wounds.

Identifying and honoring your triggers is vital because without bringing them to conscious awareness and understanding of what was provoked, you’ll be constantly manipulated by your emotions replaying out old patterns and beliefs….you know that hamster wheel of spinning and spinning and going nowhere, right?!

It really is worth putting in the effort to explore your triggers and to heal the inner wounds beneath them. The more aware you are, the less you will be ruled by the unconscious forces within you and you can actually step off that hamster wheel. But we get it, the hardest part is actually committing to the process.

So with that being said, here are some simple ways to identify your triggers. 

 

Pay attention to your bodily reactions

Notice any tensing of muscles, increased heart rate, hot or cold flushes, tingles, or any physical change that generally indicates contraction. Turn it into a game: what is the first reaction your body has? Do your fists clench? Does your breathing accelerate? Does your face turn hot? Mentally note these reactions and even write them down. Remember that physical reactions can be subtle to extreme – so don’t rule anything out.

Notice what thoughts are racing through your head

Look for extreme thoughts with polarized viewpoints (someone or something is good/bad, right/wrong, nice/evil, etc.). You don’t have to do anything else but be aware of these thoughts without reacting to them. Let them play out in your mind. What story is your mind creating about the other person or situation? I recommend simply listing these thoughts in your journal to enhance your self-awareness. Also witness, repeat stories in your mind. Where do you instantly jump to when you’re triggered by your spouse? Is there a common story that plays out in your head? Do you instantly go to the extreme outcome when you are triggered by the same person? Again, simply be aware and witness the thoughts racing through your mind.

Who or what triggered the emotion?

Once you have become aware of your physical reactions, notice who or what has triggered the physical and emotional responses within you. Sometimes you will discover a single object, word, smell or another sense impression that triggered you. Other times, you will notice that you are triggered by a certain belief, viewpoint, or overall situation. For example, your trigger could range from anything like loud noises to men who are overly dominating and opinionated. Not only that, but you may have a whole series of triggers (most people do). Understanding your triggers is a process of un-layering; you’re peeling back the layers of the not-self you. Sometimes it’s a quick process and sometimes it’s deeply layered. Just keep going.

What happened before you were triggered?

Sometimes there are certain “prerequisites” to being triggered. For example, having a stressful day at work, waking up “on the wrong side of the bed,” going to a certain uncomfortable place (like the mall), listening to the kids fight – virtually anything could set the stage for being triggered later on. When you are trying to identify your triggers, often you can prevent yourself from being triggered in the future simply by slowing down once you’re aware of the trigger prerequisites.

What needs of yours were not being met?

Being emotionally triggered always goes back to not having one or more of our needs/desires met. Take some time to think about which of your needs or desires are being threatened:

  • Being acceptance
  • Feeling loved
  • Feeling safe
  • Feeling respected
  • Being liked
  • Being needed
  • Being right
  • Being valued
  • Being treated fairly
  • Being in control

Reflect on what unmet needs/desires are constantly reappearing.

Looking out for and becoming aware of your body, thoughts, and certain people or situations that set you off will help to prevent you from reacting in the moment as well as guide you to deeper areas of healing.

What to Do Once You’ve Been Triggered

Above I explored how to prevent yourself from being triggered … but what happens once you’ve already had a knee-jerk response to someone or something?

There are a number of things you can do when overwhelmed in emotions like anger or fear.

Here is what I practice and recommend:

  • Remove your attention from the person or situation and focus on your breath. So long as you’re alive, your breath is always there with you – it is solid and trustworthy, and therefore it is an excellent way to relax. Keep focusing on your in-breath and out-breath for a few minutes. If your attention goes back to the triggering person or situation, pull your attention back to your breathing.
  • Take a break. Pause and remove yourself from the situation. Walk away for five minutes and cool down. If you are speaking with someone, excuse yourself temporarily and say that you need to go to the bathroom or someplace else. Return when you are feeling more centered and calm.
  • Ask yourself why you’re being triggered. Our emotional triggers have a way of blinding us, so to counteract that, be inquisitive. Ask yourself, “Why am I feeling so sad/angry/anxious?” Understanding why you’re being triggered will help you to regain a sense of calmness, self-awareness, and control. Try following the feelings back to their origins by thinking back on other situations that made you feel what you’re currently feeling. Sometimes, the connection isn’t clear, so you may have to do a bit more digging. Approach them with curiosity to get more insight on what may have triggered them.
  • Don’t bypass your feelings, but don’t act them out either. Repressing or trying to “control” your feelings isn’t the answer; however, you can delay your emotions. For instance, if you’re feeling enraged by someone, instead of exploding at them, consciously set those feelings aside to experience and unleash later in a healthy way. You might choose to express this anger by screaming in your room or doing an intense anger-fueled workout. Whatever the case, be very careful of repressing your emotions. There is a fine line between consciously delaying your emotions and unconsciously suppressing them.
  • Give your heart some love. Place your hand on your heart space and take deep breaths. Remind yourself in this present moment that you are love and that you are desiring to heal. This triggered moment does not define you and you have the ability to heal. Give yourself compassion that you are honoring this moment and you are choosing a different way to respond to your triggers rather than continuing old patterns. Continue to breath and speak compassionate words to yourself in this moment until you feel safe.

Let’s hear from you! What ways have you worked through your triggers? Do you have insights to methods and tools to support you in healing through your personal triggers?

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