Have you ever been totally fine one minute and then suddenly you’re wondering why you’re crying over a piece of toast, sobbing after passing a certain spot along the route, or losing your sh!# the second a particular song comes on the radio (oh wait…it’s 2020…let me revise)- when a certain song comes through Bluetooth?
Maybe you’re like me and find yourself crying over an oil change…okay I’ll explain that in a minute.
Either way, I’m talking about those times you’re minding your own business and suddenly feel it in your throat- that creepy, crawling tightening sensation that means the waterworks about to commence.
We get reminded of things all the time! Sometimes the reminders are nostalgic and leave us warm and fuzzy. Then there are times when you’re going about your day and next thing you know BAM- you’re crying. Maybe you’re not crying but you’re definitely feeling somethin’ and you have no clue why.
“What the heck is wrong with me…why in the world am I crying?…. I need to keep it together…”.
If you’ve felt this way before, take heart (because you most definitely have one). Nothing is wrong with you, friend. There’s a good chance you have experienced an emotional trigger.
Whether consciously aware or not, we all have emotional triggers. No matter the size, they can be tough to spot because they have a tendency to sneak up, blindside you, and leave you riddled with BIG emotions.
If this has ever happened to you, and I’ll bet it has, you are not crazy. In fact, you are just trying to communicate with, well, you.
By developing an awareness of and learning to spot emotional triggers, you can establish a beautiful sense of deep self-understanding and let these triggers help you grow and heal, instead of leaving you confused, inexplicably sad, even anxious as you wonder why in the world you feel this way.
AN EMOTIONAL OIL CHANGE…LITERALLY
This morning I took my car for an oil change. I expected quality customer service and to leave with a happy vehicle. What I did not expect to leave with was a pile of thoughts and feelings.
There I was, sitting in the waiting area of our favorite local tire shop when I noticed it. Peering at me over the top of my book was a colorful children’s toy. Imagine my surprise when I suddenly felt tears welling up in my throat as my heart started racing.
Seriously? A kid’s toy is about to make me feel #allthethings right now? Da-faq* is wrong with me?
You see, this toy and I have a history.
I used to bring my son here before he could even walk. That season was one filled not just with crippling mental health but also a fair share of mechanical troubles. We spent hours and hours in this car shop. My son played with this very activity box (as I nervously sat and prayed he wouldn’t pick up any gross germs). But germs and all, my son loved this toy box.
This wooden plaything had a purpose. Some kind soul set it there to provide a distraction for small children and relief for their parents (who probably hated having to bring their littles to a waiting area in the first place- and all the parents say AMEN).
I was one of those parents…kind of…
Unlike the other parental units watching their little(s) play on the ground, I sat propped up on a boppy pillow. I was between perineum-repair surgeries (yes that’s a thing…more on that another time) and sitting in those chairs was miserable. Between my discomfort and leaky boobs, it was difficult to focus on my son. I was too busy fighting off an anxiety attack and praying my name would be called so we could leave this waiting area, which seemed to shrink more and more with every breath.
My anxiety was through the roof and the sound of kids tweaking and spinning the pieces of the activity box about drove me insane. I hated that season of life. I hated that harmless, colorful toy.
This morning, I sat in one of those very same chairs of the same tire shop in front of that same toy. This time was different; I wasn’t in physical pain and I was much more content with myself and this season of life.
I gave that colorful box a good, long look, and I thanked it as I held back tears. It’s amazing how deeply something as simple as a children’s toy can trigger so many emotions and memories.
Just before the tears started flowing, my name was called and I checked out. Trying not to think about how much the crew silently judged the copious amounts of chocolate wrappers stuffed in the driver’s side door, I kept my composure and walked to the car. The moment my fanny hit the seat, tears fell from my eyes and I allowed myself to feel my emotions all the way back to the house.
Back at home, I walked in, shot my husband the I-need-a-minute-look, and cried in the bedroom. Being back in those same chairs, looking at that same toy, triggered me emotionally. And that was okay.
I needed to give myself space to feel it without judgment.
WHAT IS AN EMOTIONAL TRIGGER?
Chances are you’ve probably heard phrases like “getting triggered” or “that triggered me”. The word “trigger” itself is like a dang trigger, in the sense that it’s become a buzzword.
So what is a trigger and why does it happen?
You’ve probably experienced one yourself without even realizing it. Let’s say you’re in the middle of a conversation and someone says or does something and suddenly you’re all kinds of crazy- maybe crying, withdrawing, angry, etc. Or maybe you’re sitting in a tire shop and see a children’s toy on the ground and have to take deep breaths and hold your ish together so you don’t start crying randomly in the waiting area (holla).
A trigger is something, someone, or someplace that initiates a memory, flashback, or stark reminder of a past event; one that often relates to a degree of trauma experienced by the individual. Triggers can be powerful-. They can emotionally send you back to the time, place of the event. They evoke real emotional sensitivity and feelings even if you didn’t think any were there to be had. Emotional triggers can be related to a myriad of things- places, words, people, situations- whatever provokes an intense, deep, or excessive emotional reaction within us.
It’s hard to say how exactly triggers are formed (#science). For instance, in many cases involving trauma, the brain will prioritize its responses and engage in a fight or flight response to the perceived threat. When this happens, short-term memory formation is neglected and the brain might “misfile” information. The next time the person encounters stimuli that’s similar to the traumatic event, they associate the emotional triggers with the exact trauma. Triggers often involve the senses, only adding to their power. Because sensory information (sights, sounds, smells) plays a big role in memory, the more sensory information stored, the easier a memory is to recall (and the stronger the emotional response is to the trigger).
Regardless of what, who, or where specifically triggers you, it’s important to note that triggers are unique and very personal.
What triggers one person might not trigger another. They can be hiding in plain sight or hidden in all the right places, just waiting to be spotted.
Take, for example, that toy in the waiting area.
I’m sure there are a load of moms that look at that toy with a pleasant emotional response, recalling times when their own Littles licked the germ-filled wooden pegs with drooly joy.
Personally, that bright toy sent me back to memories of a very dark, depressing season of my life within ten seconds of looking at it. I had to recognize what and why it triggered these emotions and forced me to catch my breath. That season was and is one I am SO thankful to be out of, but one that I’ll never forget. Now, I am grateful to be able to release myself from any negative hold that even a wooden toy can have over my feelings. It sure crept up on me and I didn’t exactly expect it, but that’s the nature of emotional triggers.
EMOTIONAL TRIGGERS OFTEN MEAN MORE THAN FEELING EMOTIONS
When we get emotionally triggered, it’s not uncommon to experience physical reactions. I experienced the following physical reactions as I started paying attention to emotional triggers in my life:
– Increased heart rate
– Feeling like you can’t breathe or like your throat feels tight
– Being inexplicably overwhelmed, emotional, or sensitive
– Feeling snappy or short
– Trembling or shaking
– Feeling unsettled
– Crying suddenly without realizing why it’s happening
Physical reactions are then followed by (often) intense emotional responses (i.e. anger, terror, fear, crying, hiding, etc..).
Three years ago, a LOT triggered me emotionally.
Take, for instance, my sweet son. Instead of being able to focus on feeling grateful for the good that came from the day he was born, my heart grieved what I felt I lost about myself that season. There were many days where just being with him was difficult and I couldn’t quite figure out why- it was more than just the wear and tear of motherhood. I was experiencing emotional triggers in different ways and I didn’t know it. Not to mention the heavy shame I felt for not being able to “just focus on loving my baby”.
Whenever I met another mama that shared her birth story or, even worse, asked about mine, my throat tightened and I felt like the air was stolen from my chest. I sometimes managed to get through it, but within hours you’d find me hyperventilating on the kitchen floor. I felt broken and confused and angry. The worst part was that I didn’t know why.
As I navigated through anxiety and PTSD and learned about emotional triggers, I began to spot my own. It was freeing to be able to understand and address them on a deeper level.
The more I spotted and addressed emotional triggers, the more control I felt and the better I could walk myself off the edge of anxiety attacks.
Have you ever been completely fine one minute, then not-so-fine the next?
Has someone ever said something that “pushed your button” and you lashed out?
Have you ever lost someone in a tragic car accident and felt sorrow any time you drove past the spot along the road where they took their last breath?
Have you been through a traumatic event and find yourself having flashbacks if you see, hear, or even smell something that reminds you of it?
Have you ever been walking in the grocery store and saw your ex? Before you know it, you have a pit in your stomach and the produce section is all a blur?
If so, congratulations. You know what it feels like to have been emotionally triggered.
NEGATIVE EMOTIONAL TRIGGERS (THEY’RE NOT SO BAD AFTER ALL)
It’s common for the term “trigger” to be used in reference to extreme cases of trauma, such as with survivors of abuse, neglect, war, natural disasters, etc. Without dismissing the level of trauma experienced in such circumstances, there is a multitude of situations that could result in being emotionally triggered that are not considered Big T trauma.
Society is quick to reserve words like “trauma” and “triggers” for more extreme cases.
But trauma and emotional triggers have less to do with what happened to cause the response and more to do with who it happened to and how it was perceived.
What exactly and how much something triggers an individual comes down to who was involved and how they were influenced by something or someone in that circumstance at that time.
More often than not, emotional triggers get a bad rap. If you have them, something’s wrong. You’re too emotional or too sensitive.
This couldn’t be further from the truth!
Your body and brain are trying to tell you something that’s stuck in your heart. It needs to be felt, acknowledge, and processed so it can help you heal and move forward.
You are being triggered for a reason. It might take some effort to figure out why or to find the root, but when you do, you’ll feel enlightened and lighter all at once.
Emotional triggers are your heart’s way of waving a little white flag and screaming, “HEY YOU. I NEED SOME ATTENTION. THIS THING REALLY AFFECTED YOU AND WE SHOULD TALK ABOUT IT. IT’S WORTH CHECKING OUT….”
Whether it’s an old wound in need of mending, a person in your life that your body and soul recognizes as someone once dearly loved and lost, or dismissed heartache, recognizing and listening to your emotional triggers is crucial to self-development and your inner healing process.
Triggers tell us more about our story. They’re like unturned stones just begging to be flipped. They help us discover hidden hurts and disappointments, uncover buried pain, and unmet or wounded places of our hearts.
We need to stop avoiding the discomfort of being emotionally triggered. If identified and addressed, our triggers can lead to some of our deepest healing.
POSITIVE EMOTIONAL TRIGGERS
While negative emotional triggers usually get all the attention, because nobody likes feeling unsafe or unsettled (and often negative triggers make us feel exactly that), it’s worth mentioning that there absolutely are positive emotional triggers.
Positive emotional triggers remind or jog memories that leave you feeling secure, nostalgic, happy, and overall able to joyfully connect at the moment.
You experience a positive emotional trigger when you hear a song and it reminds you of good times. Or if you eat butter pecan ice cream and it reminds you of your grandfather, who loves butter pecan ice cream.
There’s a jar of seashells in my son’s room. When I see it, it makes me smile. As a little girl, I collected shells on the beach with my grandmother. When I look at the jar and take a moment to run my fingers over the ridges, I feel like I’m back in that moment with her on the beach all those years ago. It makes me happy and sometimes makes me tear up. But it’s good. These shells evoke a positive emotional response in me.
WHY HAVEN’T I HEARD ABOUT EMOTIONAL TRIGGERS BEFORE? THEY SEEM KINDA IMPORTANT.
Triggers happen to everyone. They’re common and can be pretty dang useful when it comes to learning more about oneself, healing from past traumas, and moving forward through greater healing and deeper understanding.
So why am I just now hearing about this? I thought it was just me!
Emotional triggers aren’t often discussed because…
We aren’t aware of them in the first place.
It’s hard to talk about something we know nothing about. Learning more about emotional triggers and how they affect us. If we are willing to ask ourselves the hard questions like “why is this triggering me in the first place?”, we open ourself us to not just self-awareness of what is causing this, but also to a deeper understanding of who we are. Once we are aware of emotional triggers, we can recognize them as opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth.
Fear & shame.
The fear of what others might think about us when we talk about our emotional triggers holds us back from opening up. Talking about “getting triggered” might make others think we’re silly, dramatic- or worse- weak, ashamed, and incapable of keeping our *ish together. Honestly, this fear reminds me an awful lot like why we don’t talk about things like mental health in the first place (you can read more about that here).
They’re “not important” and we need to “just get over it”.
The reality is that we can’t change the past- what we did or what was done to us. We can, however, change our current reality!
By being aware and processing emotional triggers, particularly negative ones, we can release the bonds that the past has over us in a healthy way that does not dismiss our emotions.
Emotional triggers are important and can lead to SO much personal growth if we allow them to.
3 TIPS TO HELP YOU SPOT AND ADDRESS NEGATIVE EMOTIONAL TRIGGERS
Identifying your emotional triggers helps you not only understand yourself on a deeper level, but it breaks the manipulative power that the emotion, past event, person, or even the self-belief has over you. When you start to spot your emotional triggers, you consciously take back control and reclaim who you are, without dismissing what happened to you to cause this response in the first place.
Here are three tips to help you spot and address an emotional trigger next time
1. SLOW DOWN
Let’s be real, you’re not going to have time to be self-aware if you aren’t willing to take the time for it. Slow down, take a breath, and give yourself space to feel where you’re at. You deserve that time. Don’t dismiss yourself.
2. Pay attention to reactions and responses. Our bodies are our best advocates.
Are you experiencing any physical reactions?
Whether it was something said to you or done to you that left you feeling a little on edge, notice some of the physical reactions you may be experiencing:
Are you clenching your jaw or tightening your muscles?
Does your breathing accelerate?
Is your heart racing?
Does your throat feel constricted and tight?
Are you holding your breath?
What emotional response(s) are you experiencing?
What emotions do you feel at this moment?
Are you crying or full of rage or do you feel fear in your body?
Do you feel unsettled, unstable, like you’re about to lose it?
How does this circumstance, reminder, event, person, etc. make me feel?
3. If you feel like you may be getting emotionally triggered, pause and listen. Ask yourself these questions:
What do you believe about yourself at this moment?
What’s the root of this belief? Get deep.
It’s okay to feel. Acknowledge this.
Now show yourself some love. Ask yourself:
What do you want to believe about yourself at this moment?
Now, repeat what you want to believe about yourself three times. Do it aloud if you can.
EXAMPLES OF THIS IN ACTION
Here are two examples of these tips in action.
– EVENT (USING MY PERSONAL OIL CHANGE EXPERIENCE): While sitting in the waiting area, I saw the children’s toy and suddenly felt like I was going to bust out in tears.
Slow down: Instead of diving further into my book in an effort to distract myself, I listened to my body and mind and allowed them to connect with my heart. Why was this toy making me feel this way?
Physical reaction: I felt my throat tighten like I was going to cry.
Emotional reaction: I felt sad and also anxious.
What you believe about yourself at this moment: My self-doubt had a field day with this- I was in such a dark place then…that was so long ago…why am I still reacting this way to something so trivial? I’ll never be fully healed…
The root of this belief: I am incapable of healing and will always be triggered badly.
What do you want to believe about yourself at this moment: I am in my healing process and feeling my feelings is okay! Triggers don’t run my life!
When I got home, you better believe I cried this to myself in my bedroom while looking in the mirror. It works!
-HYPOTHETICAL EVENT: A friend of yours got engaged and announced it on social media. You’re happy for her but you’re still upset and envious.
Slow down: Instead of hitting the like button and scrolling on, take a minute to sit with your feelings without dismissing yourself. Breathe.
Physical reaction: Like there’s a pit in your stomach.
Emotional reaction: Envious, maybe even sad, regardless of being happy for your friend.
What you believe about yourself at this moment: You’ll never find someone and forever will be alone.
The root of this belief: I am not worthy of love. I don’t truly don’t feel I deserve it.
What do you want to believe about yourself at this moment: I am worthy of love and I will find it!
Repeat that last one THREE TIMES OUTLOUD.
It’s important to remember that when you spot an emotional trigger, don’t judge it. Don’t judge yourself, past or present.
Let your conscious know it’s okay if your subconscious is trying to speak up. Listen.
DON’T FORGET THE GOOD STUFF!
It’s also beneficial to identify positive, joy-giving emotional triggers in your life to encourage more positivity, gratitude, and mindfulness of the good-feelings (we all want more of those, right?). Find something that makes you happy or reminds you of a joyful time. You want to pick something, someone, or someplace that sparks joy and a fond memory to re-visit.
Ask yourself these questions:
What emotions do you feel when you think of or experience this thing?
Do you like feeling this way?
How does it feel in your physical body?
What do you believe about yourself at that moment?
Remember, your emotional triggers are just that- yours.
You’re not crazy, weak, or incapable or weird (I mean…are we, not all a little bit weird anyway?). You are developing more self-awareness and giving yourself time to recognize areas that need some love.
Once you start spotting the emotional triggers in your life, you will start feeling less overwhelmed by the emotions and more empowered to heal through them. Our pain can serve us.
The next time you start crying for no reason or lash out unexpectedly, it’s not because you’re losing it. It’s more likely because deep down you feel at a loss and it’s causing you to #feelallthefeelings.
Before leaving the tire shop, I grabbed a photo of the toy. I wanted to share it with you 🙂
Da-faq*: A bonafide Maddie translation of “what the _____”.