What does it mean to be ‘triggered’?

Triggering is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days - and not always accurately. In my latest #thursdaytherapy, I explain what it actually is and give you practical tips for dealing with it.

Watch the replay here:

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Or here’s the scannable version...

What is triggering?

A trigger is something in the present that evokes feelings or emotions to do with a past stressful or traumatic experience that your mind hasn’t had an opportunity to process.

When you are triggered, your limbic system (aka your emotional brain) is reactivated and brings something to your attention from the past that you haven’t resolved.

How can you tell if your reaction is just a normal response to an emotional slap OR you’re responding from past experience?

Not every strong emotional response we have is triggered.

For example, if you’re in a queue at the supermarket and somebody swears at you because they think you’ve pushed in front, or if your boss shouts at you, you’re likely to feel upset or angry.

When we are triggered, the emotional response is a VERY strong, maybe even disproportionate to the incident. You can sense it’s coming from somewhere more than just the present situation.

How emotional triggers show up

RELATIONSHIPS For example, everybody feels upset or hurt when a relationship ends. But for some people it can escalate to feeling betrayed, let-down, rejected, abandoned or blaming and criticising themself.

WORK Perhaps you have to do a presentation to a critical boss. That would make a lot of people feel insecure, but for some it could literally cause nightmares. Or maybe you have a colleague who is always taking credit for your achievements. Instead of finding a resolution, it sends you into a passive state where you can’t stand up for yourself.

LIFE SITUATIONS Illness, pregnancy, or even your child starting school and going back into that school environment can be a trigger for deeper emotions to come to the surface.

[Side note - there is something called dissociation when people have been traumatised. This is slightly different from triggering and I’ll talk about it in a separate blog. In this instance, triggering is about emotions, usually in response to people and relationships. I am not talking about flashbacks, dissociative states or reactivated memories here.]

Triggering as a healing tool

  • In therapy, we spend a lot of time examining these heightened emotional responses through the lense of the past. We look at it as a memory (as opposed to the current situation) by focussing on the feelings and exploring them in connection to the past.

  • As you progress through therapy, you get triggered less and less. If you had a particularly dysfunctional parent-child relationship or a difficult childhood, you will likely experience triggering throughout your life. It takes time to work through your those triggers and heal them. Eventually, the gaps in between triggerings become longer and you are able to come out of the reactive state much quicker.

  • Being triggered is a normal response to trauma and emotional wounding and is part of our mind’s natural mechanism for healing. It’s not a bad thing or a dysfunction. Analytical hypnotherapy is particularly good for trauma and emotional wounds because hypnosis puts us into a calm, relaxed state so we can observe and analyse, rather than be trapped in our emotional response.

4 ways to calm your emotional response

Usually, I’m not a fan of symptom management; I’m more interested in dealing with the root cause and origins of distress, and working with triggers.

But there are some simple things I recommend for calming down your emotional response that can help you start to find a way to process what’s really going on:

  1. BREATHE It may sound obvious, but three deep cleansing breaths can work wonders in moving uncomfortable, distressing feelings out of your body. Very often when we are triggered we feel like there is fear/anger/guilt/shame/anxiety stuck inside us. When we breathe through our nose, we are able to put our body back into that calm place, telling our nervous system that it’s OK; it’s safe.

  2. SELF-SOOTHE Uncomfortable feelings and emotions start in the body. So try holding yourself by literally giving yourself a big hug. Put one hand under your arm (people do this instinctively) and give yourself a little squeeze. Some people like to touch their tummy. This helps us to reconnect and feel the boundary of our body and come out of our minds.

  3. TALK TO SOMEONE WHO WILL REALLY LISTEN Find someone to talk to who is not going to try and fix it and make it better; somebody you really trust, who can witness what you are feeling and ask questions to gently start to show connections to the past.

  4. KNOW IT WILL PASS The one thing that we can guarantee is that we are always in flux; we are always changing. So, however horrible it is to feel triggered, even if it feels like it is going on for days, you will come out of the other side of it.

We don’t need to be scared of our strong emotional responses; we just need to learn how to process them.

If you want to learn more about how analytical hypnotherapy can help you work through your triggers, schedule a call here and we can talk through what’s triggering you.

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