"Help! I feel triggered!"
Many of my clients come to my practice feeling confused by conflicting emotions often triggered by a relationship that they have in their lives. They are desperately trying to understand what is happening for them both with their own emotions and within the relationship.
Usually, clients say that they feel 'triggered' by something that their partner/mum/dad/friend is doing and they are trying to see who is at fault. In this article, we'll explore emotional triggers and how we might help ourselves to become better regulated.
"To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom."
What do we mean by 'trigger?'
A 'trigger' is an event or how we perceive and experience that event which leads to overwhelming emotions. These overwhelming emotions often result in unhelpful behaviours, thoughts and further strong emotions and reactions.
Let’s take the example of my recent client, 'Jo'. Jo first contacted me because her partner had begun to 'let her down.' This resulted in Jo withdrawing from the relationship, becoming extremely angry over seemingly small things and then judging herself for her anger. Jo had begun to comfort eat on her own which was increasingly turning into binge eating.
When we explored the initial experience of being let down by her partner, Jo told me that her father had let her down all of the time. Jo lived with her mother from a young age and though Jo was supposed to see her father every Saturday, Jo’s father would often never turn up to collect her or come up with excuses. Jo recalls sitting at the window, watching each car go by in the hope that one would stop and her father would arrive to collect her. Eventually, when Jo’s father met a woman whom he then moved in with, he stopped contacting Jo altogether.
Jo remembers feeling unimportant and disregarded. She remembers the deep hurt and aching to feel loved by her father. She also recalls feeling like she was not worthy of his love. It was these same emotions that were surfacing once again when Jo felt 'let down' by her current partner.
How do we heal from deep hurt?
I reminded Jo that her partner was not her father and that there was a deeply hurt part of herself that was asking to be seen, heard and healed. In many ways, Jo was bringing what had happened to her and her experience of those times into the present moment. Though this was not a conscious process, it was an important first step for Jo to recognise this.
Once Jo began to recognise when she felt this was, she reminded herself of this fact. Jo then became mindful of what was happening inside of her in these moments. I urged her to pause, take long slow breaths in and out and 'go inward.' I helped her by asking the questions:
- What is happening in your body?
- What emotions are present? Can you put a name to them?
- What do you need at this moment?
- What are these emotions telling you that you need?
Oftentimes, our emotions and like little messengers; they are trying to tell us something. If only we would listen and not push them away!
Signs that you need help with emotional regulation
- It may be that you find yourself becoming emotionally overwhelmed over what might seem the smallest of things.
- You feel like you are beginning to rely too much on alcohol or other coping strategies such as comfort eating to numb or distract.
- You find that you are beginning to isolate yourself and withdraw from your friends or your partner.
It’s important to understand that judging yourself for having these strong emotions is not helpful and only adds a layer of complexity. In many ways, by judging yourself for having ‘normal’ feelings, you are hurting twice. The first hurt is what happened to you and then you are hurting yourself once again by being unkind to yourself.
Begin by being kind to yourself. Know that any emotion is welcome and that emotions are messengers trying to tell you something. Imagine that emotion as a young child tugging on you saying, “Notice me, pay attention.” Sometimes that is enough, since the more we try to push that emotion away, the more it will demand our attention.
Finding a counsellor who you can speak to can help you to explore where you may be bringing the past into the present. Together, we can unravel what is happening for you and look at ways to help you to manage your emotions. We can explore various tools that you can use in difficult moments to help you to cope with strong feelings. Little by little, you can use what you learn in therapy to begin to heal the past hurt and live the life that you deserve.