Updated: Oct 13, 2021
You know that feeling, one minute you’re perfectly ok, feeling calm, relaxed, engaged and focussed, and the next minute you’re in an emotional place you hadn’t planned to be, on the ceiling or down on the floor, feeling anxious, wound-up, wounded, teaful, angry. Few of us want to feel these ‘negative’ feelings. It doesn’t feel good and we often don’t know what to do with those difficult emotions. We can feel very stressed, overwhelmed and before we know it, we’ve spiralled and we’re struggling to regain control.
In counselling, we start to explore some of those negative thoughts and feelings that bring us to this point. Often, through curious exploration, we can start to identify our own, individual triggers that are unique to us. Once we begin to identify our own triggers, we can start to have a better understanding of ourselves, of what are individual triggers are, how we respond to them and why. In developing a better understand these things about ourselves, we can start to feel less self-critical and have more compassion for our ‘triggered’ selves and, over time, we can begin to practice different responses that can help us to feel more in control.
But how do we identify our individual triggers? Imagine you and nine other people are sat in a room. An enormous tiger with giant teeth and a terrifying roar crashes in through the window. Three of your group run out of the door and flee for their lives; two of the group start bellowing at the tiger and hitting it with big sticks; two of the group freeze on the spot and start shaking and crying; two start trying to stroke and pet the tiger; one person feels afraid and weighs up his options. It is clear in this scenario that there is clear and present danger that would be considered to be pretty much universal.
Alternatively you and nine other people are sat outside a café enjoying a coffee and a chat. Across the road is a man. He is shouting loudly and gesticulating towards the group. Three of the group ignore the shouting, it’s nothing to do with them. Two of the group look up with mild curiosity and carry on chatting. Two of the group glance around to see what the fuss is all about. Two of the group start waving and shouting back, they seem to know the man. You on the other hand immediately detect a threat and feel anxious or afraid. Your conditioned response kicks in, in one of the following ways:
- Fight – you jump up, fists at the ready or stick in hand ready for battle
- Flight – you head for the nearest exit or hide
- Freeze – you become frozen to the spot, trembling, unable to move
- Fawn / Fun – you jump up and offer the guy a coffee or start joking around with him (people pleasing’ or funning around in order to make yourself more endearing to the person you see as threatening)
In this scenario, you are the only one who is triggered. It may be that you've experienced shouting associated with violence or aggression in the past, so when you hear shouting, your conditioned response kicks in as a way of keeping you safe. All of the other members of your group perceive that the shouter may be shouting for perfectly innocent reasons, maybe he’s had too much to drink, or hailing a taxi or calling out to get a friend’s attention. They are more curious than triggered. This is an indication that the danger is not necessarily universal, in this instance, it's specific to you.
Our response to fear is often programmed as a result of our early life experience. It’s the way we keep ourselves safe in response to unsafe situations or the scary or threatening behaviour of others towards us, often (but not always) in childhood. Our inner ‘threat detector’ becomes finely tuned to those unsafe scenarios or behaviours that we don’t like or fear in others. We learn to detect threat instantaneously and respond accordingly to keep ourselves safe.
The problem arises when our inner ‘threat detector’ detects potential threats everywhere. A bit like when your smoke detector is going off when you’re just cooking toast! If it’s going off all of the time and interpreting situations or the behaviour of others as unsafe for us or threatening, either physically, emotionally or psychologically, we can feel afraid, anxious, angry, irritable, upset or worthless. But just like we wouldn’t call 999 to deal with a bit of burned toast, neither do we need to call in the big guns to deal with the uncomfortable and sometimes scary feelings that we are experiencing. Unless the threat is immediate and perilous, there is often time to carry out a personal safety scan and adapt our personal safety responses. This strategy can be more helpful to us as adults, saving the emergency response for when peril is very real and present.
So how can we help ourselves to feel less triggered (i.e. anxious, stressed, angry, upset or irritable?) We can start with a trigger tracker. This doesn’t have to be complicated.
1) Get yourself a trigger tracker. This will help you to identify your personal triggers. Or you can download a weekly mood tracker free here. You can also download apps, just keep a note on your phone or get yourself a mood journal. The important thing is that it’s simple and easy and becomes second-nature to keep a track of your mood changes.
2) Set yourself a schedule: decide when is best to jot down a few notes – what will work best for you? Will it work better at certain times of day or ‘in the moment’ as you notice any changes?
3) Monitor your mood changes: start with how you feel when you wake up – on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being low and 10 being great, rate your mood. Along with a rating from 1 to 10, use a word to describe how you’re feeling (tired, low energy, anxious, ok, fine, brilliant). Then throughout the day, track any changes.
4) Track your triggers: when you notice a change, think about what was happening when your mood changed. What was happening just before. What were you doing; what were others doing; what were they saying; what were you thinking? Use all of your senses. What could you hear, see, smell, taste and touch? These could be big things such as an argument with a friend or loved one or small things such as you heard a tune on the radio. It could be something someone said, a facial expression, a scent, a specific behaviour in someone. Don’t worry if you can’t immediately identify the specific trigger. Note down the feelings you were left with or the thoughts you were thinking.
5) Identify patterns: over time, you may start to identify patterns which will help you to identify your specific triggers.
6) Name the triggers: if you’re able to do so, assign names to the triggers and write them down. My specific trigger is…….I’m triggered when………..
7) Discuss your triggers: if it feels safe to do so, discuss your specific triggers with those close to you; they may be able to listen to you and help you to identify and manage your triggers. If you are triggered by their words or behaviours, are you able to talk with them about it? Their intentions may be benign and not intended to hurt you, they may not realise their words or actions trigger you. However that does not invalidate how you feel. You are entitled to feel your feelings and you are entitled to let others know the impact their words or actions have on you.
8) Reframe the triggers: once we understand ourselves and our triggers better, the triggers may start to lose some of their potency. Reframing is a helpful way of reducing the power of our triggers. Try to think of different ways to interpret the trigger so that if feels less threatening, painful or upsetting.
9) Traffic lights: knowing your personal triggers can help you to develop a traffic light system in order to take action before going straight from green to red. Learn to recognise when you start to feel uncomfortable and your amber light is flashing. What sensations are you feeling? At this point, if it feels safe to do so, you can signal to others that you are on amber and ask for help or support or…
10) Or remove the trigger: Once you know what your triggers are, you are in a much stronger position, you can take action. You can begin to reframe how you perceive your triggers. Where it feels right to do so, you can create some boundaries between you and your triggers. Where necessary, you can put distance between you and your individual triggers by reducing your exposure to them or remove them altogether if needed.
Your relationship with your individual triggers is personal to you. You developed your safety responses to those specific triggers for a reason, to cope with unsafe situations; your triggers have kept you safe up to now. However as we transition into adulthood, our safety mechanisms may become outdated or unsuitable in new environments and around different people. The good news is we can continue to grow and find alternative responses that fit each situation. But let’s never forget, our triggers are there to protect us from clear and present danger. So.....if an enormous tiger with giant teeth and a terrifying roar crashes in through your window….RUN!!!