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Triggers: What, why, and how to self-regulate

So, what do we mean when we say we are triggered?

Being triggered means that you're experiencing past pain in the present moment. It can feel like you're having a big emotional reaction that is disproportionate to what's actually going on.

With that understanding, you can probably appreciate that coping behaviours such as suppression and avoidance will produce a predisposition to feeling triggered in your present reality.

Why was I triggered?

As adults we typically become triggered by experiences that are reminiscent of old painful feelings. It's like the reopening of a wound that hasn't had a chance to heal.

For example:

  • You might get angry when you think you're being told what to do if you felt controlled in the past.

  • You might get anxious whenever someone isn't there if you had emotionally unavailable caregivers.

  • You might panic when you're in a situation over which you have no control if you have a history of feeling helpless.

Why does being triggered feel so awful?

When we experience a trigger our body kicks off a complex process of self-protection that readies us for four possible actions: fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. Check out this post for more info on these.

Our adrenaline spikes, and stress hormones like cortisol are released through our bodies and our brain.

Once our stress hormones are released, we often lose touch with our healthy coping skills and succumb to reacting rather than responding.

How do I identify my triggers?

Identifying our triggers is a 3 step process:

1. Notice the internal shift

Its not always easy to recognise what triggered us. Our heightened emotions and dysregulated nervous system can make it difficult to pinpoint what is exactly stimulated such a strong response. To identify the trigger, go back and try to find the moment when you went from 'OK' to 'not OK.' What felt upsetting?

2. Name your feelings

The next step is to notice how you felt when you were triggered.Did you feel sad, anxious, scared, angry?

One way to become attuned to our feelings is to notice the sensations in our body. Many emotional experiences start in the body before moving into our conscious awareness. For example, sadness might feel like a heaviness in your chest and shame might feel like a pit in your stomach.

3. Understand the trigger

Get to the root of your triggers by asking yourself the following questions:

  • When, in my life, have I experienced something like this before?

  • What does it remind me of? Are the feelings familiar?

  • What thoughts come with the emotions?

  • Is there a specific event from my childhood that stirred up similar emotions?

Here are some ways to self-regulate when you're triggered: