Do you ever find yourself acting like a bratty kid, blaming other people for how you feel and wondering why? It’s possible you’re experiencing an emotional trigger. It’s natural to shrink from feeling the shame, fear, or anger that comes with being triggered, but there is a path to freedom. I’m going to give you my very best tools for navigating triggers because I know from experience that learning to use them is effective and highly satisfying.
What is a trigger?
An emotional trigger is something that happens in your experience that sets off a memory or flashback transporting you back to the feelings and sensations of a core wound or past trauma, usually from childhood. Triggers can be activated in many ways. Here are just a few…
- Something that is spoken to you
- An action someone takes (or doesn’t take) toward you or another
- A look someone gives you
- Something you see or hear
- A memory that arises
- A scent or smell
Triggers are very personal; different things trigger different people. It’s human nature to want to avoid situations and stimuli that may trigger you, but it’s impossible to orchestrate your entire life to avoid them. You will generally react to a trigger with an emotional intensity similar to what you experienced at the time of the core wound or trauma. Triggers are usually activated through one or more of the five senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste.
Geeking out on triggers
When we are triggered, there’s a very strong tendency to project the blame elsewhere to keep ourselves safe from the intense feelings we learned how to block at a very young age. I became a bit of a geek around this process during a time when I was in a 9-month dark night of the soul (DNS) and was also committed to growing through it. It was neither fun nor easy, but I persisted, and my persistence paid off in spades.
I made myself a checklist that I could go to when I was triggered so that I would have step by step guidance when I was in that place of feeling frozen inside. The first trick, I found, was to recognize and admit to myself when I was triggered. The second was to find the willingness to move toward it instead of pushing it away. I often found a thick wall of resistance. If I could get myself to the checklist, I could begin to take baby steps toward shifting and healing very old patterns.
It IS possible to heal emotional triggers. It requires a willingness to learn and practice (over and over) a rather counterintuitive approach… moving inward, toward and into the feelings produced by the trigger rather than projecting those feelings outward, blaming and accusing whatever or whomever activated the trigger.
There’s a strong and (very human) tendency to stuff triggers back down and avoid them at all costs. But you can’t avoid them without without cutting yourself off from all forms of intimacy. By intimacy, I mean deep connection and honest communication with all the people who are meaningful in your life: your partner, your other family members, and your friends.
A child in an adult body
Being triggered is like being a little child in an adult body. It’s easy to say things that are hurtful, things that can’t be unsaid. Taking actions you would not normally take when you are not triggered can lead to regret, guilt, and damaged relationships.
When you are triggered, it’s like being five years old again. It’s important to remember that and to be gentle with yourself, as you would with any five year old.
The first, biggest step
The most essential part of moving through triggers is the recognition that you are triggered. It’s so easy to get lost in the feelings of fear, anger, rage, sadness, shame, or embarrassment that it takes a strong commitment to awareness and practice to be able to notice and admit when you are triggered. It’s ridiculously easy to deny that you are triggered until you get the hang of it.
Ask your “observer” or inner witness to help you notice when you are triggered so that you can move through it instead of reacting to it as if you were a little child again. If you find yourself suddenly feeling upset, that’s a clue that you may be triggered. Anytime you feel strong, unexpected emotions is a good time to check in with yourself about being triggered.
One step at a time
As soon as you identify that you are triggered, go to the list below. You will likely be emotionally frozen, deep in your child self, and you will need simple, step-by-step guidance to navigate your way through the maze of feelings. Remember that you are not this wounded child, but that it’s a part or parts of you that never grew up past that painful time.
Below is the list I have ready to go to when I’m triggered. I keep it accessible as it’s likely my inner five year old won’t go to the effort of hunting it down. Sometimes I have to force myself to go to the list, as I would rather just push the blame outside myself. With practice and commitment, you can do this!
The Step by Step Process
- Stop and breathe
- Resist distractions that will take away the pain (alcohol, TV, etc)
- Turn your attention inward (not outward toward the source of the trigger)
- Slow things down
- Initiate self-care
- Decide to move toward the discomfort
- Get curious
- Feel your feet, move your hips, bring it down into your body
- Remind yourself that this is yours, not caused by anything around you
- Take more deep breaths
- Move the energy (SAFELY) if you can:
- Scream into a pillow
- Pound on a soft piece of furniture
- Make primal sounds: wail, growl, etc.
- Have a tantrum on the floor with pillows under your fists
- Shake out body parts or your whole body
If you have support available:
- Ask your support person to hold safe, neutral space for your feelings.
- State how you feel using “I” statements and feeling words. (I feel ______and ______.)
- Avoid words that imply blame, such as rejected, ignored, or attacked.
- Acknowledge the parts of you that are in pain.
- Send empathy, understanding, and compassion to the parts of you that are in pain.
If you don’t have support:
- Treat yourself with compassion and move toward self-care
- Be with your upset inner parts, let them know you love them
- Honor the feelings your upset parts are feeling
- Ask your upset parts what they need
- Ask your upset parts if they would be willing to not flood you with their feelings
If memories surface, they may be clues to the original hurt that is replaying when you are triggered. Allow them to rise and ask your inner witness to help you recognize how they currently impact you.
Catalyst not cause
With practice, you can move toward full self-responsibility. In most cases, you can come back into your true self without acting out toward the person or situation that appeared to cause your pain; ultimately, that person or situation was a catalyst rather than the cause.
Once you’ve mastered the above steps, you can move toward more advanced practices.
Take some quiet meditation time and go inside and ask to speak with the part or parts of you that were triggered. Engage in a dialog to understand what this little child part is experiencing and what it needs to heal. Be a safe grownup for this part… let it share everything it wants to. Help it feel safe and comforted. Once the inner part knows it’s safe, it will be less likely to act out in the future. If it does, you can check in again and see what it needs to feel safe again.
Another advanced option is to ask your body or a part of your body to share information with you. This can be done from a quiet, meditative state. Ask, and then listen with all your senses. You may receive information in symbolic or metaphoric ways, such as a color, texture, sound, or symbol. You may hear words or see images. Be open to what emerges without judgement or second-guessing. Your body has a wisdom and a voice all its own.
Working in groups
I recently had the honor of holding space for a group of women during a weeklong retreat as many of them got triggered into ancient sisterhood stuff. One felt left out, as if she did not belong in the group. Another decided it was her fault. Others also felt they were at fault. Another had an old memory emerge from her teenage years where she decided she had done something evil and had been punishing herself ever since. Everyone was in pain.
These amazing women found the courage to sit with what they were feeling and not distract themselves. I held a clean, clear container and encouraged them to share what they were experiencing. It took a couple of days, but eventually we broke through to the other side. And what was on the other side was emotional freedom.
When we are willing to do the inner work instead of blaming, judging, and shutting out other women or complaining to others about them, we take huge leaps in our own consciousness and for the collective sisterhood.
Life long rewards
I know this whole process probably sounds distasteful and not at all fun. The rewards, however, are life-long. Triggers come up less and less often. When they do come up, you have the tools to move through them. You actually clear them from your body and your psyche, layer by layer.
As you clear these energy-sucking triggers, you free up more of who you truly are and have more capacity to be fully present with the people you love. You deepen your capacity for emotional intimacy. You heal the wounded and abandoned parts of yourself. And that is what leads to freedom, happiness, and wholeness.
Free up your life force
I believe the biggest energetic storehouse of emotional triggers, especially for women, is the pelvis. The base and sacral chakras hold so much of the wounding humans experience and yet there’s very little guidance on how to heal this area of the body and energy field. This is what I specialize in… giving women a safe, sacred space and simple, powerful tools in which to heal these “forbidden” areas and reclaim the powerful life force energy that gets tied up there without us even realizing it. Find out more and register for an upcoming workshop here.
Love & blessings, Amrita