Trigger happy

How to deal with your emotional triggers

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photo by Chirobocea Nicu

I get a knot in the pit of my stomach come mid-November. It stays there, gnawing at me like rat chewing through a 2 by 4 until the first of January. It reminds of the family I once had, and lost. It robs me of my sleep at night, and my peace of mind by day. All I want to do is take a deep breath, close my eyes, and stay that way, until Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s are all behind me. The holidays are one big, emotional trigger for me.

Last year I asked my friend Elizabeth to go to Paris with me. She said she couldn’t, even though she has flying privileges and can go anywhere for free. You see, her ex-husband was a pilot who ran off with a flight attendant. Pilot uniforms, flight attendants, even watching a casual conversation between a pilot and a stewardess – they all trigger her.

Lisa, a hair salon owner, got a call from a co-worker’s husband. He complained about the lighting at the shop by talking down to her and telling her what she should do, all the while championing his wife. Two triggers. The first, the way he spoke to her reminded her of the way her ex used to patronize her. Second, it also brought back memories of her ex’s inability to stand up for her. She felt so low that night, she bawled.

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?

captureTriggers are those situations in life that bring back a memory of something painful or traumatic. And they’re very personal. The movie “The Other Woman” starring Cameron Diaz triggers a couple of my friends whose spouses had affairs. But it did not trigger me or my friend Linda, whose husband had multiple liaisons before leaving her.

While I’m no expert on triggers and how to overcome them, here are a few things I’ve learned to do that have helped.

1. Acknowledge the trigger. Triggers are like ticking bombs, waiting for an opportune time to ignite an emotional explosion. If a sight, sound, smell, or scenario makes you sad, angry, or scared – maybe even irrationally so – it’s probably a trigger.

Start by getting your emotions under control, and then asking yourself, “Why does this freak me out?” or “Why does this piss me off!”

That introspection is crucial, because once you go there, you start to gain a little control over the trigger. We are only as powerless as we allow ourselves to be.

2. Address the trigger. Next, recognize that while your emotions are powerful things that you should not dismiss lightly, your mind is even more powerful. Again, set those emotions aside – the hurt, the rage, the sorrow – and allow your head to take over. Ask yourself, “What can I do about this trigger so it no longer has control over me?”

3. Tackle the trigger. Last year I was invited to a fundraising banquet by a local organization that helps women who are battling addictions. A worthy cause, no doubt, and one that I could get behind. But the event was to take place at the last church we attended as a family; the church where my ex worked part-time running sound for services and events; the church where the pastor made me feel like my ex’s affair was my fault; the church where my ex would sneak off to text and talk to his affair partner while I sat alone during the service. Talk about triggers.

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A piece of jewelry I won at a silent auction is now a symbol of empowerment for me.

As the night of the dinner drew near, I let my head take over and told my emotions, “You have no power over me. I am going to that event and I’m going to take back what was stripped from me.” And so I went. And I hugged old friends, made new friends, applauded the cause, listened to the testimonies of women whose lives were so much more battered than mine, bid on a fun piece of jewelry during the silent auction (and won!), and left there feeling empowered.

I don’t know if the “acknowledge, address, tackle” approach can work for every trigger. But I know it’s helped me work through many. I think it all comes down to recognizing that you have options. You can let a trigger drown you with a tsunami of emotions or you can take control over it. It’s your choice.

Martha Beck, the Oprah magazine life coach who has a PhD from Harvard, suggests viewing the memory of the original trauma as just that, a memory. It’s no longer present in the here and now.

Today, “you can stand up for yourself; express your preferences; get help from friends, counselors, the police. As you notice your ability to act on your own behalf in the present moment, the terrible helplessness and self-abandonment common to all trauma slowly yields to a sense of personal empowerment,” she writes in this article from the May 2014 issue.

Let’s make 2017 a year to face our triggers; a year to rebuild our lives with new, rich experiences anchored in the present, not the past; and a year to empty our emotionally loaded guns, one bullet at a time.

Happy New Year Divas!

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2 comments

  1. Ana, you addressed every aspect of an emotional trigger. Once they can be identified, they can be dealt with and even better controlled. Sometimes we don’t know what’s happening to us. In this blog you’ve helped to brake it down. Breaking down the experience into small pieces to be swept away. You are a gifted writer. Thank you.

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