Perhaps you’ve experienced it. You’re going through your day just fine, and suddenly – wham! You’re hit with sudden panic or anger, seemingly out of nowhere. You feel sideswiped. Suddenly your world is tipping off balance, and you’ve lost control. Your heart is racing, your mind is gripped with alarming thoughts, your appetite is gone, and you don’t know how to shut this feeling off.
Although it may seem as if the emotional nightmare that descended came from out of the blue, it didn’t. You were triggered. Something as simple as a sound, image, smell, someone’s body language, or even one of your own thoughts, was interpreted by your brain as danger. You don’t even have to be consciously aware of a trigger for it to cause an instantaneous emotional and physical response.
Triggers are sensory experiences that remind us of a specific event in our past. Whenever you experience a strong emotion, your brain records that emotion and links it to a sensory experience. It then catalogues that information for future reference. Your brain is constantly scanning your environment for stimuli, and comparing the present sensory input against it’s catalogue of past experiences. As soon as it makes a positive match to a previous experience, your brain brings up the old emotions and images attached to that previous experience. This old information then colours and skews your present experience.
Not all triggers are bad. They can be a pleasant experience. Have you ever experienced a smell that brings you right back to a happy childhood memory? Or a piece of music that brings back a flood of images and emotions experienced long ago on a date with a special someone?
When Triggers Get in the Way of Living
Triggers can become disruptive and hijack your present moment so it’s not enjoyable. They can also serve to keep your nervous system in a state of high alert, making you jumpy, and edgy all the time, and just plain wear you out. If you are thrown right back into the memory of an unpleasant situation again and again by a certain smell, sight or other sensory reminder, you’re going to have to do everything you can to avoid that stimulus, or live in a constant state of fear that you could be triggered at any moment. That’s when it’s time to learn some coping skills to maintain calm in the face of a sudden emotional upheaval.
Perhaps you had a scary experience falling out of a boat when you were young, and since then you can’t even think about letting your kids go near water. Every time you do, you get nervous and panicky. Yet your kids really want to go swimming, and you want them to learn to swim so they have a good experience around water. Because of your past experience, seeing your children go near water now triggers panic in you that is unrelated to the present situation, and prevents you from giving them the joy of swimming. It’s time to re-train your brain, nervous system and body!
Skills for Emotional Resilience
Breath! Simply focusing on your breath, making it slow and deep for a period of a few minutes or more, can calm your nervous system down. Breathing like this sends a signal to your brain that the danger is past and all is well. It then halts the stress response. Your body needs time to clear the adrenaline from your system, so coming to a calm state takes time. Be patient, and trust your body will respond to your breathing with eventual calm. While you do the deep breathing, try to bring your focus to your heart area, or notice the objects, colours and sounds of your environment. This takes your focus off the racing thoughts that perpetuate the stress response.
EFT – The Emotional Freedom Technique is an energy psychology tool that is highly effective in calming our nervous system AND processing triggers so they don’t trigger us as much next time**.
Rescue Remedy – the best known of the Bach Flower Remedies. This can be very effective in restoring calm as well. It is available in a lot of grocery and drug stores in both lozenges and tincture form. There are other Bach Flower remedies that are more specific in their focus, and can help with specific symptoms of the stress response. In this case it can be helpful to seek the help of a Bach Flower therapist. Or, take a course to learn how to use the remedies yourself!
** When serious trauma is in your past, I recommend seeking professional help to process and heal those memories and experiences. Working with someone who knows how to eliminate triggers from your system can be a very freeing experience. Counsellors with specific training for this, Somatic Experiencing Practitioners and bio-feedback training are just some examples of possible avenues of integrating and healing the past. Pick a modality and practitioner that speaks to you.