We all have emotional triggers. You know the feeling when someone makes a jokingly-mean comment that might not be a huge deal to another person, but totally destabilises you for the rest of the day? You feel this way any time someone expresses any disapproval of you. Suddenly, you find yourself feeling off centre and thrust into a bout of anxiety, depression, guilt or shame.
It can be challenging to identify what exactly our triggers are, but this process of getting to know and understand them can help us heal, and learn how to cope better in response.
But why do we all have triggers?
In short, because we were all children once. When we were growing up, we inevitably experienced pain or suffering that we could not acknowledge and/or deal with sufficiently at the time. So as adults, we typically become triggered by experiences that are reminiscent of these old painful feelings. As a result, we typically turn to a habitual or addictive way of trying to manage the painful feelings.
Once you know your triggers, you can consider the origins of them.
So what are your triggers?
What do you do to manage the painful feelings that are triggered?
Do you face your triggers head-on or attempt to avoid the pain?
A client of mine is a very competent physician, but she gets painfully triggered when someone she cares about isn't available. When she calls her daughter at college and her daughter doesn't return the call, she gets upset and sometimes even begins to blame her husband for her pain (even though it has nothing to do with him).
Until my client began her work with me, she didn't realise that "unavailability" is her trigger, and that she most often tries to avoid her old pain by blaming her husband. But now that she is aware of the trauma from her childhood neglect, she is learning to compassionately attend to her inner child in order to heal.
Do any of these situations trigger you? Identifying your triggers is the first step to healing from them.
Someone rejecting you.
Someone leaving you (or the threat that they will).
Helplessness over painful situations.
Someone discounting or ignoring you.
Someone being unavailable to you.
Someone giving you a disapproving look.
Someone blaming or shaming you.
Someone being judgmental or critical of you.
Someone being too busy to make time for you.
Someone not appearing to be happy to see you.
Someone coming on to you sexually in a needy way.
Someone trying to control you.
Someone being needy, or trying to smother you.
Once you know your triggers, you can consider the origins of them. If you identify with any of these, ask yourself what they might relate to from your childhood experiences.
Only you can heal your triggers, so take a little time to go inside and make sure to be patient, kind and compassionate.
As I showed with my clients situation, it's typical to avoid our triggers when we are unaware of them. Do any of these avoidance techniques relate to you?
I get angry.
I get needy.
I comply. I become a people-pleaser.
I shutdown and withdraw from the other person.
I blame someone else for my pain.
I turn to an addiction – food, drugs, alcohol, sex, porn, shopping, work gambling and so on.
If you do relate to any of these responses, how do you feel about them?
You'll probably realise that the pain doesn't go away just because you try to avoid it, and you may even end up in more pain.
I encourage you to be very honest with yourself about your triggers.
Even if this approach feels harsh initially, it will help you learn to be very compassionate with yourself. This honesty about your triggers what will eventually heal them.
Awareness of the triggers
How are emotional triggers formed?
How emotional triggers are formed is not fully understood, but it is thought that the senses play a huge part. Smells, sights, sounds and tastes are powerful elements when it comes to forming memories, particularly when associated with negative ones.
When a sense is linked to a traumatic experience, just the repetition of this sense is enough to produce the same reaction in the present as experienced in the past. The reaction, in this case, the emotional trigger, will start to happen before the person is even aware of what has upset them.
Knowing what emotional triggers you have and how they affect you is the first step into conquering them and taking back control over your life.
Here are some typical emotional triggers, see which one you most identify with:
You feel anxious when someone leaves you.
You think that a person is not listening to you.
You feel helpless over situations where you have no control.
You do not feel valued or appreciated.
You feel that you are not good enough.
You think that you are being judged all the time.
You feel belittled and worthless.
You feel controlled by someone.
Someone is making you feel guilty about leaving them.
Someone is never happy to see you.
Someone is harassing you sexually.
Someone is being too needy and wants to cling to you.
If you can identify your emotional triggers, you can then try and work out where these negative feelings came from. Look back to your childhood and see whether some of the feelings you are experiencing now can be related back to events when you were younger.
The more aware you are of triggers, the less potent they become. Every time you imagine the narcissist saying that trigger and imagining yourself responding in way that keeps your emotions in check, you are reconditioning the trigger.
You are changing the cycle.
Try to identify as many triggers as you can, so that you can be prepared.
For example: The narcissist says, X and typically, you respond with “Y”.
There are many strategies available, the key point is to find the one that works for YOU and helps you tolerate the distress of forced dealings with the narcissist, as in custody situations, workplace narcissism and bullying and in family situations where you’ve chosen to continue a relationship with a narcissist for personal reasons.
You can, for example: distract yourself from the argument,
take a walk,
engage in other activities that are physically active,
say a prayer, remember your spirituality,
listen to quiet music,
read a pleasant story or poem,
do something social, etc.
Once you’ve identified the triggers and developed more helpful alternatives, you can put them together. Imagine a trigger, then imagine remembering your GOAL of PEACE and NON REACTION to the narcissist’s antics. NOW imagine responding in a self-respecting and calm manner.
PRACTICE EXERCISE ONE:
Write down all impulsive reactions you have to the narcissist’s words and actions.
Identify as many impulsive reactions you have to them and know that these are your triggers.
Come up with a list of things that you can do immediately when under verbal attack, to deal with it, without REACTING BACK (as we know this just fuels a narcissist to fight harder)
What can you say to yourself? What can you focus on? What would be distracting? (from your urge to retaliate verbally or physically) What would be soothing? (of your frayed emotions) Practice putting these things together.
Imagine the trigger and then imagine that you provide the alternative, less hostile, and more constructive responses.
PRACTICE EXERCISE TWO:
Rehearse Ending the Conflict Gracefully
One of the biggest problems with being upset or overwhelmed by the narcissists behaviors is that we cant think well when we’re upset. We often cannot find useful words that would make the situation better so we end up on autopilot, spewing out the same responses that haven’t worked for us in the past.
Some possibilities to consider include the following:
Observing that you are fighting and remember that you don’t want to waste anymore time doing that
Realise that you are experiencing a very strong emotional reaction and name it for yourself
Realise that you don’t want to continue down the negative path
Recognise that you are overwhelmed and need to get some distance to evaluate how you choose to respond
Take a break and go back to the conversation when you are ready.
How to handle trauma triggers caused by narcissistic abuse
It is not possible to consistently avoid known trauma triggers, but avoidance is an option. You can try to avoid some triggers altogether, but make sure you do not diminish your quality of life by doing so. It is better to identify and handle the symptoms of a trigger than to deny yourself a full life. In that spirit, here are the steps to managing sudden trigger symptoms:
Recognise your behaviour or physical symptom as the result of a trauma trigger.
Perhaps it seems simplistic to say to yourself, "Something triggered me and now I feel this way." However, your brain needs to hear it. You must remind your brain that where you are now is more important than where you were then.
Breathe deeply and slowly until your brain gets the message.
You could use a different breathing technique if it feels better to you.
Focus on the sights, sounds, smells, textures and/or tastes of the present environment.
Focusing on the here and now helps your brain react according to the present instead of the past.
During this process, you might recognise the trigger. If you do, remind yourself that the trigger is only a trigger, not the real danger. Sometimes you'll readily identify the trigger and sometimes you will not. Identified triggers help you more because recognising the trigger lessens its potency; the next time that trigger occurs you probably will not react as harshly. Identifying the trigger is not as important is coping with your symptoms. Help yourself come back to reality first -- attempt to identify the trigger later.
Do something that will make you feel more safe, calm or confident.
It is a good idea to think about what your safe thing is before experiencing a trigger so you can immediately know what will help you feel better after the stress of the trigger subsides.
The process of handling a trauma triggered symptoms works well. However, some symptoms spread more broadly and vaguely across your environments.
For example, if I had not retraced the conversational path with my friend, I may have continued to damage my relationship with him with future outbursts. Likewise, if I do not recognise a bout of depression as being a trigger symptom, then I will continue to experience depressions when triggered in the future.
Hidden trauma triggers and symptoms of abuse
Hidden triggers result in former abuse victims acting and feeling much the same as they did while in the abusive relationship.
For example, hidden trauma trigger symptoms could include sexual dysfunction, sleep disturbances or your return to substance abuse. In fact, any symptom of abuse is a symptom of hidden trauma triggers because both linger after a person leaves the abuse.
During abusive relationships, victims develop depression, generalised anxiety disorder, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and/or other mental disorders.
Hidden trauma triggers can cause depressive episodes and a rise in anxiety levels just as panic causing triggers can cause PTSD to flare.
Types of hidden trauma triggers
Anything can become a trauma trigger, hidden or not. Typically, a trigger that causes large-scale symptoms, as seen with hidden triggers, results from an ongoing situation or relationship.
A co-worker's accent could become a hidden trigger and cause you to feel confused whenever he speaks to you. An evolving relationship with a friend could take a turn for the ugly and trigger you to act defensively or aggressively in all of your relationships.
Generally you do not automatically associate the trigger with the abuse or your abuser. It is only after you recognise an old symptom of abuse return that you can make the connection between the past and present.
I know that sometimes it seems the abuse from the past refuses to let us loose to enjoy the present. But remember, the abuse cannot control you any more now than it did then unless you allow it.
It is tiring, yet, if you continue to be aware of my hidden trauma triggers and on the lookout for their symptoms, you will overcome them. The only way you can fail at healing is to stop trying to heal.
*Both women and men could be abusers or victims, so do not take my pronoun choices as an implication that one gender abuses and the other is victimised.
Coping With Triggers
Now, the best way of coping with triggers is to avoid them altogether. However, this is almost impossible to do. Why? Well, you cannot really avoid your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. Much of these are out of our control. In regard to external triggers, we can take some steps to manage our environment (for example, not going to certain places that we know will trigger us), but we cannot control everything that happens to us. For example, you might inadvertently come into contact with a news story or conversation that reminds you of your traumatic event.
Because we often cannot avoid triggers, it is important to learn ways of coping with triggers. Effective, healthy coping strategies for lessening the impact of triggers include:
The more strategies you have available to you, the better off you will be in managing your triggers. In addition, the more coping strategies you have, the more likely you will be able to prevent the development of unhealthy coping strategies, such as alcohol and drug use.
Further, simply being more aware of your triggers can be beneficial. As a result of this increased awareness, your emotional reactions may begin to feel more understandable, valid, predictable, and less out of control. This can definitely positively impact your mood and overall well-being.
Some Final Important Information About Triggers
Although it is important to increase your awareness of your triggers, doing so can cause some distress. Some people might actually become triggered by trying to identify their triggers. Therefore, before you take steps to identify your triggers, make sure you have a safety plan in place in case you experience some distress.