The word “trigger” refers to anything that sets off the three brains to the point where you become aware of a thought, feeling or body sensation. In the exercise from the last post, you brought up a memory that “triggered” a feeling, thought or physical sensation. In other words, the memory evoked some experience for you.
Triggers can be external or internal. External triggers originate from our surroundings. An example of an external trigger is my mother’s criticism. As a result of her judging my outfit, let’s say, I am triggered to experience anger, sadness or shame. Since my mother is in the environment, this is an external trigger.
The weather can be a trigger. Some people are triggered to feel good on a sunny day or gloomy on a gloomy day.
Triggers can be subtle or intense. Most triggers originate from the environment.
Internal triggers happen inside of us. Illness is an internal trigger. Some people, like my grandmother, get depressed when they get the flu.
Feeling sick can trigger a wide range of emotional responses from the emotional brain. The range of responses to illness can be quite wide: sadness, shame, fear, guilt, anger and even joy and relief from not having to feel obligated to do anything but be taken care of. What emotions does illness trigger for you?
Negative thoughts also trigger emotions. When we think we are not as good as someone else, it triggers feelings. When we have proud thoughts about something we have done, that triggers joy, contentment, guilt and others.
Anything can trigger any emotion. Even one emotion can trigger another. For example, some people feel shame every time they get angry or sad. While emotions are universal across sex, race, culture and gender, triggers are individual.
The three brains and triggers
Here’s an example: My husband’s desire to travel to Paris triggers my fear of flying.
My thinking brain says “This is so great. I love Paris. I can’t wait to go.”
My emotional brain feels fear at the thought of flying. It generates new thoughts such as “I don’t want to die. Is it worth the risk?”
My body brain causes my body to get tense. My heart rate increases and my breathing stops for a moment.
Here’s another example.
David’s girlfriend, Jennifer, has two daughters who stay over every other weekend. It triggers many feelings, including fear of not getting enough attention and anger for his “suffering.”
David’s thinking brain says “oh no, the kids are coming this weekend. I think those kids are too coddled. They need to be more independent and better disciplined. Jennifer doesn’t care about me. Maybe I should end the relationship.“
David’s emotional brain triggers the sadness of feeling alone and anger directed to both Jennifer and her children. David has an impulse to disconnect from her and from his anger. He also feels guilty about his thoughts and feelings. These many feelings all mix together to cause anxiety, which is the emotion David is most consciously aware of.
David’s body brain trembles from anxiety. Anxiety also creates a knot in his stomach. His anger causes his muscles to contract to keep the anger down. His heart beats faster and he feels generally unsettled and agitated physically and mentally.
We all get triggered from time to time. It’s part of being human. How can we protect ourselves and encourage our well-being?
We can control the environments in which we choose to put ourselves. For example, if I am easily triggered into feeling shame about my body, I can hang out with people who make me feel better about my body or worse about my body. Sometimes avoiding things that trigger us is a good idea. However, sometimes we avoid situations that might be beneficial for us in the long run.
We can work effectively with our feelings when we are triggered. We can get to know our triggers well. We can learn where they came from and when, such as in childhood, adolescence or adulthood. For example, highway driving triggers me because my mother was terrified of driving and made me lie flat in the back seat when I was a little girl. Sometimes triggers are fresh and new, caused by our natural survival core emotions being set off in response to present danger or pleasure.
We can learn to move through our core feelings to feel relief, and we can learn to relate compassionately to our shame and guilt to transform those feelings. We can also learn to calm the anxiety in our body by grounding, breathing and other techniques. We can learn to challenge the thoughts our thinking brain makes in response to physical and emotional distress.
The art of life is the balance between being vulnerable enough to interact with the world and protecting ourselves from emotional triggers as best we can without overly restricting ourselves. I like the emotional work and challenge of understanding my triggers, and when possible, working to lessen them.