Being triggered is an intense experience most of us would rather avoid.  However, a trigger is a valuable messenger carrying personal truths. It is trying to help you bridge the gap between your current reality and your heart’s desire.  Triggers are simply reminders of past hurts and traumas.  It requires presence.  And when you are willing to be present with these painful experiences in your past, there’s wisdom and inner peace on the other side that can never be taken away from you again. This post outlines a rough guide on how to deal with triggers.

What is a Trigger?

A trigger is any strong emotion that causes intense discomfort in your body, triggered by an external source.  Maybe it is how someone looks at you, causing shame to wash over your entire body, reminding you of how your mother looked at you when you didn’t behave at the dinner table.  Maybe it’s the smell of fire that causes panic to shut down all your senses, trapping you in a dark and dangerous void, reminding you of the fire that killed your father when you were just a helpless toddler.  Or maybe it is hearing the words “that’s just the way it is…” that causes anger to rise within you, reminding you of the many times your parents uttered those same words and you were powerless to change it.

A trigger is an indication that you’re accessing an old memory.  It’s also an indication that you’re ready to process it and let it go.

Without being triggered, you are stuck in the past, unwilling to move forward and grow.  Being willing to embrace a trigger allows you to grow emotionally.  It enables you to bridge the gap between your current reality and your deepest desires.

If you are brave enough to feel, really feel.

What to do When you are Triggered

Each trigger will require a different response.  No amount of practice or skill will ensure you won’t get triggered in the future, just like no mother can give birth to a baby without experiencing the pain of contractions. But there are a few guidelines to make the process easier.

Here’s a 6-step process to help process a trigger.

1. Breathe

When you experience any negative emotion you will most likely hold your breath, keeping air moving through your body.  By consciously breathing in deeply to full lung capacity and then holding your breath for as long as comfortable before exhaling slowly, you are creating space for the emotion to move. It also allows you time to calm down before reacting to your programmed reptilian brain responses.

2. Be Present with the Emotion

The next step is to go toward the emotion with curiosity.  This is hard and takes practice.  Initially, you might not be able to be present with the emotion for even a few seconds, but the more you practice the longer you will be able to stay.  Until you can sit with the discomfort long enough for it to naturally shift.

Emotions, like a baby, need presence.  When a crying baby is held by its mother, it calms down.  Similarly, when you can be present with yourself while feeling a strong emotion, you will calm down and the emotion will disappear or at least reduce in intensity.

Become aware of the physical sensations in your body.  Where in your body is the feeling?  Does it feel like a contraction, a void, or perhaps a heaviness?  If you could associate a colour or shape with it, what would it be?

By becoming curious about the physical sensations the emotion will naturally start subsiding (after an initial increase in intensity).

3. Listen

Presence is often enough to allow an emotion to shift, however, to ensure that it is processed and not shoved under the rug simply to re-appear later, it’s important to listen to its message.  The sign to indicate you understand is a light feeling of relief and insight.

What you are listening for is emotional needs. What would you rather have happened if you could go back in time? Or, what do you wish you had that you didn’t? For example, if a boss treats you badly, pushing all the mindless work on you and making you feel worthless, you might need someone who checks in and cares about your well-being or asks whether you have the capacity or what your preferences are.  Or, if you feel anger when your partner leaves the dirty dishes assuming you will do it, maybe you want someone who talks about the responsibilities in the household and distributes them equally. Or, if you feel ashamed and incompetent when you present a topic at a meeting, maybe you want a kinder audience or a supportive group to help you present yourself better.

The key is to look at what you want, rather than get stuck in the negative experience of what you don’t want.  You need to shift your focus from the negative feeling to the solution.  If you’re stuck in blame, read this post on how to take personal responsibility.

4. Re-frame

This is the missing key I wish I had known about years ago.  Re-framing allows you to integrate much faster and easier.  NLP looks at the human being as an ecosystem rather than a single entity called by your name.  It treats the part of you that wants to stay the same as a separate entity than the part of you that wants to change.

Re-framing is essentially the process of conflict resolution between the different, opposing, parts within.  The process for NLP 6-step re-framing can be summarized as follows:

  1. Identify the pattern to change.
  2. Establish communication with this responsible party to obtain a Yes/No biofeedback baseline.
  3. Identify the positive intent behind the negative behaviour.  What are you getting (or did you get in the past) from this behaviour that benefits you in some way, even if it is unconscious?
  4. Create alternative behaviours that will satisfy this intent.  In other words, keep the outcome, but identify different possibilities to achieve this outcome.
  5. Repurpose the responsible part.  Is it ready to take on the responsibility for the new, desired outcome and approach?
  6. Do an ecological check.  Invite opportunity for other aspects within you to raise any objections before proceeding.

5. Shake It Off

A very simple but effective way to aid in processing emotion is to physically shake it off. Or dance it out.  But move!

If you want to go even deeper with how to use shaking to alleviate trauma without needing to re-experience the emotion, look into Trauma and Tension Relief Exercises, or TRE, which was designed to make trauma release accessible for underprivileged communities who don’t have access to therapists and counsellors.

6. Have a Salt Soak

An essential part of my trauma toolkit is to have regular salt soaks.  The more regularly you do it, the more the calming benefits.

If you have access to a bathtub, add two handfuls of Epsom salt and mix it into a lukewarm bath.  Add 5 – 8 drops of your favourite essential oil, lavender is especially good for calming you down.  Soak in the bath for at least 20 minutes and simply let go.

If you don’t have access to a bathtub at home, book a 20-minute or longer session in a flotation tank.  A floatation tank is like a nervous system reset.  It is the most effective tool I’ve come across and the numerous benefits according to scientific research include stress relief,  anxiety and depression relief, relieving insomnia, and alleviating muscular pain.

Find the Treasure Behind the Trigger

Triggers are not comfortable, but they are valuable. It is the source of wisdom and personal truth.

Next time you are triggered, be kind to yourself and try to find the treasure hidden behind the emotion.

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With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.