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Published on July 23, 2021

How to Face Emotional Triggers: A 5-Step Process

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How to Face Emotional Triggers: A 5-Step Process

Facing your emotional triggers can be excruciatingly uncomfortable. Depending on how aware you are in the moment of being triggered, it can feel like you’re once again Charlie Brown being denied the chance by Lucy to kick the football. “I can’t believe I fell for it again,” you might think.

However, being triggered or having your “buttons pushed” can actually be a wonderful opportunity for healing, growth, and gaining a deeper sense of who you are.

This article will cover what triggers are, what we stand to learn from the experience of facing our emotional triggers, how to shift your emotional response, and integrate what you learn for sustainable change. Five steps will be given for facing emotional triggers the next time it happens.

What Is an “Emotional Trigger?”

We get triggered when something is said or done that “triggers” an uncomfortable reaction.[1]

Let’s say someone receives a text from a friend breaking plans they had made. Our “hero” of this story had been looking forward to spending time with the friend. In an instant, the hero interprets the text message and the reason for the plan cancellation.

There are many “stories” that can be created to “explain” what’s happening, ranging from “something important must have come up for them at the last minute,” to “they don’t like me anymore.” Depending on the nature of this relationship, past experiences of this scenario’s hero, and how well this person can accept what happens without assigning judgment, a trigger may be possible.

For the sake of this article, let’s say that this person is triggered by the text. Certain thoughts are triggered (“my friend doesn’t like me as much as I like them”).[2] Pretty soon, some intense emotions come up like disappointment, anger, or maybe shame. Those feelings will come with physical sensations like a tightening of the chest or a dropping sensation in the belly.

When anyone has those thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations, it’s really uncomfortable!

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At this point, the hero of our story could spend the next several hours (days?) stuck in this thought-emotion-physical response loop—unless there is a shift!

One of the reasons we can land in a long-lasting trigger cycle is that we are actually resisting the experience! It’s understandable. Who wants to think and feel that for any amount of time? But when we can actually pause inside of the trigger and experience it fully, that’s the doorway to really understanding what’s really underneath it all.

It’s completely understandable that we have these button-pushing moments, but we’re always at choice when it comes to continuing our patterns or starting to question and eventually changing them.

Why We Get Triggered

The thing that triggers us isn’t nearly as important as looking at how our button was pushed in the first place. Believe it or not, the button is there for a reason! The trigger tries to protect us from going through a painful experience we’ve likely encountered earlier in our lives.

Triggers also alert us when a personal boundary has been crossed. We all have boundaries that consist of our beliefs, values, and ideas of how we want to be treated. It’s important to recognize that the person who pushed the button often has no idea the button was there, and they likely didn’t do it on purpose. (If they did do it on purpose, that’s a different article entirely!)

Reacting strongly in triggering situations is a lot like “shooting the messenger.” Instead of placing blame on the poor chap who inadvertently stepped on your toes, it’s time to push a different button—a pause button—and investigate what’s really happening.

5-Step Process to Facing Emotional Triggers

Remember, being triggered is a wonderful opportunity to uncover a wound from your past and tend to it. It can be a chance to move on from something else in your life that’s holding you back, and it can save your relationships.

So, here are some steps for dealing with moments when you face emotional triggers.

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Step 1: Notice the Trigger

As mentioned earlier, one of the first things we tend to do when triggered is to resist the trigger and try to make it go away as soon as possible. As they say, what we resist persists, and we end up causing ourselves to suffer longer and more intensely than if we just let the thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations arise.

This is painful but not permanent.

Step 2: Stay With Your Feelings

Try to name the emotions coming up for you. Without trying to change or stop them, allow your emotional response to grow as much as possible. Notice the location of these emotions in your body. Where does your body feel the tension? Where are you most uncomfortable?

You may find that after a minute or so, this sensation will ease on its own.

Step 3: Ask Yourself These Questions

Now that the emotional and physical response is less intense, it’s time to get to know and understand the trigger.

Some questions to ask include:

  • When, in my life, have I experienced something like this moment?
  • What do these feelings remind me of?
  • What thoughts come with these emotions?
  • When else have I had these thoughts?

Allow the memories to come. Remember our hero? Perhaps the trigger for them was related to a time when their best friend decided not to play with them anymore on the playground because the friend wanted to play basketball instead. That memory may not have been on the top of the hero’s mind. But with the space to acknowledge the current emotional/physical experience and by noticing the similarities, our hero can now face what happened in the past and do some healing work.

It’s very important in this step to acknowledge and validate any younger self. This can be done by saying things like:

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  • Of course, I felt that way back then!
  • It’s completely understandable that I would have felt ______________ and thought _________________.
  • And “no wonder I’m being triggered right now—I see the similarities!”

Step 4: Investigate the Boundary That Was Crossed

We all have boundaries. We need them. Boundaries are the limits and rules we develop for ourselves. They come from our values, beliefs, and preferences for how we want to be treated.

If you’re uncertain about boundaries in your life, this could lead to confusion over why or how you’re being triggered. One way to get to know your boundaries is to uncover your core values.

Boundaries can be damaged when they’re challenged, crossed, or disrespected. Imagine a personal boundary like an invisible wall. When a wall was disregarded or crossed in an old memory, a hole was put in your boundary. When we’re young, we might not have the tools yet to fix any holes put into our boundaries. Instead, we install an alarm system instead of fixing the hole.

Later, the alarm system lets us know when someone new gets too close to the hole or tries to get through. The alarm system—aka our trigger—tries to keep us safe. Regardless, the hole is still there. How long do you want to go in your life before fixing that hole? And how often do you want to let that alarm keep going off?

If you can see the hole and do the work to heal it, you probably won’t need the alarm anymore. Put another way, once you can locate the hole and understand how it got there, then you can turn off the alarm and start to fix the hole.

Step 5: Notice the Internal Shift

Once there’s an understanding that “now” isn’t “then” and vice versa, we can start to look at how we want to handle things this time.

Notice the shift that happens when there’s clarity around how the unhealed past is informing the yet-to-be-experienced present. The past is what helps us create interpretations and stories about triggering moments. But a deeper understanding of the past can also help us gain clarity around how the present is very different.

To notice this shift, you could try the following:

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  • Write down your observations and realizations in a journal.
  • Tell someone about your experience.
  • Draw/paint about it.
  • Talk to the person who triggered you (especially good if this isn’t your norm).
  • Don’t mention it to the person who triggered you (especially good if this isn’t your norm).

Let’s say that after going through all the five steps proposed above, the “hero” of our story decides to contemplate what is known about the friend. Our hero remembers the friend saying that their beloved pet was acting strangely. How likely was the sudden plan change related to that fact?

Then again, maybe our friend decides that it’s none of their business why the friend can’t hang out. They’ll get together when the time is right. The fifth step is about helping the mind/body/spirit recognize that some action was taken to repair the hole in the personal boundary.

Final Thoughts

There are times when people do push buttons on purpose because they know you and want to get you where it hurts. In this case, it might be easy to feel justified in lashing out. The question to ask yourself is, “what am I really looking to happen by lashing out and reacting?

Maybe you want that person to know how wrong they are for intentionally pushing your buttons. In this case, ask yourself, “how will lashing out at them help them understand that they are wrong?” Chances are, it won’t., and you will have wasted a lot of energy and made the hole in your boundary even bigger!

Reacting to people who intentionally push buttons actually gives them the power they’re craving. Instead, if you can stay present with yourself in those triggering moments and use the exercise I shared, it could be interesting to see how strengthening your personal boundaries could work for you.

In the case of someone intentionally pushing your buttons, the question becomes, “why would I want to be in a relationship with someone who does this?” And that is another topic for another time!

Tending to your own triggers, buttons, and where you get hooked, regardless of the other person’s intentions, is a practice of self-care and healing that you will hopefully give a try.

Featured photo credit: J’Waye Covington via unsplash.com

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Reference

More by this author

Tess Miller

Life transition coach who helps professionals who love what they do but aren't sure where it's going

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Last Updated on January 24, 2022

21 Best Tips On Making A Long Distance Relationship Work

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21 Best Tips On Making A Long Distance Relationship Work

Having texting and video conferencing at our fingertips, it appears that maintaining a long-distance relationship is easier than ever. Long-distance calls are no longer a luxury; the days when they needed to be rationed are long gone.

Long-distance couples do not have to depend on 3 p.m. postal delivery, waiting for news that is at best four days old.

Now we’re no longer even in the days of waiting for our loved ones to check their e-mail when they get home from work. Instant messaging keeps us hooked to each other even when we are out shopping, working, playing, watching a movie and doing much more.

Technology, however, cannot compensate for everything in a long-distance relationship, as anyone with a long-distance relationship will tell you.

Many long-distance relationships still seem emotionally difficult despite the lack of regular physical proximity.

People often think long-distance relationships will never work. It may be discouraged by your family, and some of your best friends may tell you not to take it too seriously in case you end up heartbroken.

Many things are not possible due to the extra distance – no one can promise it will be easy. Things could get complicated, and you might feel lonely and sad at times.

Still, many of us try them.

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However, the extra distance also makes the simplest things the sweetest. Being able to hold the other person’s hand, eating together at the same table, feeling each other’s touch, taking a walk together, smelling each other’s hair… these small wishes could suddenly mean so much more in a long-distance relationship.

Long-distance relationships may be tough, but they have their own surprises too.

Here’re 21 tips on how to make a long distance relationship work:

1. Avoid excessive communication.

It is unwise to be overly “sticky” and possessive. You two don’t really have to communicate 12 hours a day to keep the relationship going. Many couples think that they need to compensate for the distance by doing more. This is not true. And it might only make things worse. Soon you would get tired of “loving.”

Remember: Less is more. It is not about spamming — you are only going to exhaust yourselves. It’s really about teasing at the right moments and tugging at the right spots.

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2. See it as an opportunity.

“If you want to live together, you first need to learn how to live apart.” – Anonymous

View it as a learning journey for both of you. This is an opportunity for you to prove your love for one another. According to a Chinese proverb, “Real gold is not afraid of the test of fire.” Instead of thinking that this long-distance relationship is pulling you two apart, you should believe that through this experience, the both of you will be bound together even stronger.

As Emma says it to Will in season four of Glee,

“I would rather be here, far from you, but feeling really close, rather than close to you but feeling really far away.” – Emma, Glee Season 4

3. Set some ground rules to manage your expectations.

Both of you need to be clear with what you expect of each other during this long-distance relationship. Set some ground rules so that none of you will do things that will take the other party by surprise.

For instance, are you two exclusive? Is it all right for the other person to go on dates? What is your commitment level? It’s better to be open with each other about all these things.

4. Try to communicate regularly, and creatively.

Greet each other “good morning” and “good night” every day — this is a must. On top of that, try to update your partner on your life and its happenings, however mundane some of the things may seem.

To up the game, send each other pictures, audio clips, and short videos from time to time. By putting in this kind of effort, you make the other person feel loved and attended to.

5. Talk dirty with each other.

Sexual tension is undoubtedly one of the most important things between couples. In a way, sexual desire is like the glue that keeps both parties from drifting apart. Sexual need is not only biological but also emotional.

Keep the flames burning by sending each other teasing texts filled with sexual innuendos and provocative descriptions. Sexy puns work pretty well too.

6. Avoid “dangerous” situations.

If you already know that going to the club or going drinking with your group of friends late at night will displease your partner, then you should either 1. Not do it or 2. Tell your partner beforehand to reassure them.

You should not let this sort of thing slip by because it will only make your partner extra worried or suspicious – and of course, very upset because they will feel powerless or lack control over the situation.

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You can fall victim to your traps by going out with eye candy from work after work or dating someone from your past who has been flirting with you without realizing it. Before entering a dangerous situation, you need to recognize the dangers.

Listen to your heart, but don’t just rely on it. Make sure you also listen to your mind.

7. Do things together.

Play a game online together. Watch a documentary at the same time on YouTube or Vimeo. Share a song on Skype while another plays the guitar. Video-call each other and go for a walk together. Together, go online shopping – and buy each other gifts (see #13).

You really have to be creative and spontaneous about it.

8. Do similar things.

Recommend books, TV shows, movies, music, news and etc., to each other. When you read, watch and listen to the same things, you get to have more topics in common to talk about.

Even if you live apart, it’s nice to have some shared experiences.

9. Make visits to each other.

Every long-distance relationship is enriched by visits.

After all the waiting and yearning and abstinence, you finally get to meet each other to fulfil all the little things like kissing, holding hands, etc. These are typical for couples in long-distance relationships but more special and intimate for long-distance couples.

The atmosphere will be filled with fireworks, glitter bombs, confetti, rainbows, and butterflies.

10. Have a goal in mind.

Are we going to be apart for a long time?” “what about the future?” These are the questions you should ask yourselves.

In fact, a couple cannot stay in a long-distance relationship forever. Eventually, we all need to settle down.

So make a plan with each other. Set up a timeline, mark down the estimated times apart and times together, and draw an end goal.

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It is important that you two are on the same page and have the same goals. So that even if you are not living in the same space and the same timezone, both of you are still motivated to work together in the same direction towards a future that includes one another.

That’s right, you need some motivation to make a relationship last too. Find out more about what motivates you here.

11. Enjoy your alone time and your time with your friends and family.

You are alone, but you are not lonely unless you choose to feel like it. You don’t have to let your world revolve around your partner — you still have you, your friends, and your family. Take this time apart to do more with your friends and family. Go to the gym more often. Get a new hobby. Binge-watch shows. There are plenty of things for you to do that don’t involve your partner.

12. Stay honest with each other.

Talk about your feelings of fear, insecurity, jealousy, apathy, whatsoever. If you try to hide anything from your partner, that secret will sooner or later swallow you up from the inside out. Don’t try to deal with things all by yourself. Be open and honest with each other. Let your partner help you and give you the support you need. It’s better to look at the problem during its initial stage than to only disclose it when it’s all too late.

13. Know each other’s schedules.

It’s helpful to know when the other person is busy and free. So that you can drop a text or make a call at the right time. You wouldn’t want to disturb your partner when they are in the middle of class or halfway through a business meeting. Make sure you are aware of everyone’s small and big events in their lives, i.e., college midterms and exams, important business trips and meetings, job interviews, etc. Particularly if you live in different time zones, this becomes more important.

14. Keep track of each other’s social media activities.

Facebook and Instagram photos of each other. Send each other tweets. Tag each other on Facebook. Post stuff on each other’s wall. Let them know you care. Be cool with stalking each other.

15. Gift a personal object for the other person to hold on to.

Memories have power. No matter what it is–a pendant, a ring, a keychain, a collection of songs and videos, or a perfume bottle. Everyday items and things have meanings to us, whether we realize it or not. We all try to store memories in material things so that when our minds fail, we will still be able to look at or hold onto something that will help us recall our memories. This is why something so simple can mean so much to a person when others may see little or no value in it.

16. Get a good messaging app.

This is extremely important because texting is the most frequent and common way of communication the two of you have. You need a good messaging app on your phones that allows interactions beyond words and emoticons.

Personally, I use this messaging app called LINE. I find it highly effective because it has a huge reserve of playful and very funny “stickers” that are free for its users to use. You can also go to the app’s “Sticker Shop” to download (or gift!) extra stickers of different themes (e.g., Hello Kitty, Pokemon, Snoopy, MARVEL, etc.) at a low price. Occasionally, the app will give out free sticker sets for promotions. This messaging app is cute and easy to learn to use.

17. Snail-mail your gift.

Mail each other postcards and hand-written love letters. Send each other gifts across the globe from time to time. Flower deliveries on birthdays, anniversaries, and Valentine’s Day. Shop online and surprise each other with cool T-shirts, sexy underwear, and such.

18. Stay positive.

You need to constantly inject positive energy into the long-distance relationship to keep it alive. Yes, the waiting can be painful, and you can sometimes feel lonely, but you need to remind yourself that the fruits at the end will be sweet as heaven.

One good trick to staying positive is to be grateful all the time. Be thankful that you have someone to love — someone who also loves you back. Be thankful for the little things, like the hand-made letter that arrived safely in your mailbox the other day. Be thankful for each other’s health and safety.

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19. Keep each other updated on each other’s friends and family.

This will help you two to know each other’s culture and values. Knowing small habits of each other helps in developing an understanding and building mutual trust.

Talking about family and friends gives you more matters to talk about. The best thing to talk about is gossip and scandals.

20. Video-call whenever possible.

Because sometimes looking into each other’s eyes and hearing each other’s voices can make everything feel alright again.

A video call is though nothing like being together, but it’s the best thing and the most to do for coziness in a long-distance relationship.

21. Give each other pet names.

Because it’s cute. It keeps the lovey-dovey going. Having special names for each other reserved only for one another are heart-warming. Hearing that one word with love lifts our spirits up, and we feel assured all over again.

Chaos seems to fade away just by hearing that special word from someone special.

With the best wishes…

Love (or like) is a force that is beyond your control. Love just happens. The same goes for turning off those feelings, even when you get the perfect job halfway across the country.

Neither one of us expects to be long-distance in a relationship. But if you’re in a relationship like this, you’ll just have to make the most out of a difficult situation. These advice for long distance relationships will hopefully help you stay strong and cheerful when living apart from one another.

More Recommended Relationships Experts on Lifehack
  • Carol Morgan —  A communication professor, dating/relationship and success coach
  • Dr. Magdalena Battles — A Doctor of Psychology with specialties include children, family relationships, domestic violence, and sexual assault
  • Randy Skilton —  An educator in the areas of relationships and self-help

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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