By Barb Ward

In our last blog we talked about emotional triggers. You know that experience where your mood changes throughout the day? Perhaps you wake up with a feeling of anticipation that changes to happiness, discomfort, frustration, anxiety or even sadness. When you take a closer look at the circumstances that lead up to your mood changes, you can probably identify why you are having these feelings. Maybe it’s a meeting with your boss, a fun lunch with a friend, or a difficult phone call you need to make. And you know that it’s not always a specific event that affects your emotions. A memory, or experience can also unconsciously influence the way you feel, such as a song on the radio, a certain smell in the air, or a tone of voice that evokes a strong emotional response. These are your emotional triggers.

Everyone has them. These reactions to certain people, events or stimuli are unconscious or habitual. Neuroscience has shown that your brain has a natural tendency to follow neural pathways that already exist, so each time you experience a trigger and react, the neural pathway gets stronger and the habitual pattern becomes quicker and easier to repeat when similar scenarios arise again in the future. 

While this works well for the many things your body needs to do unconsciously and repetitively to keep you alive, it is not good news if you find yourself repeating patterns of behaviors that have a negative impact on your relationships with others. 

 

So, now that you know your brain is wired to reinforce behavior patterns, you can see why it takes conscious effort to break those patterns. The good news? The better you become at identifying your triggers, the more likely you are to notice patterns associated with both the types of situations that trigger you, and the ways you are likely to react, so you can change your brain’s pathways. 

For example, if you know that “needing to be right” is a trigger for you, you can begin to explore what happens internally in moments where that need is challenged. 

  • Do you feel threatened? 
  • What physical sensation happens in your body? 
  • What do your non-verbal cues communicate? 
  • How are you likely to respond? 
  • Do you double down on your stance? 
  • Do you close off communication with others?

By pausing to explore these questions, you create the opportunity to identify the trigger, deepen your awareness, become attuned to your reactions, and determine how it serves or does not serve your best interests. Once you are consciously aware of what is happening, you can take advantage of that moment between realization and reaction, and intentionally choose how you want to respond. 

 

So, once you’ve identified your triggers, you may think the rest is easy, “okay, now I know what situations to avoid.” Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. It’s not realistic to think you can simply avoid unpleasant situations. A better strategy is to arm yourself with tools to identify and manage your emotions so you can respond appropriately.

 

Here are 5 tips to help you:

1. Write it down. Whenever a triggering situation has made you behave in an undesirable manner, write it down. Include the people, the events, the situational details. Identifying and tracking your triggers gives you control over them. Being alert and ready for triggering events or people can help you make a conscious choice about how you want to respond to these situations. 

2. Seek the source. Triggers are often related to past experiences that resurface when faced with a person or situation that reminds you of that experience. Taking the time to understand the thoughts and feelings associated with that past experience allows you to identify responses that still work for you, or those that need to change. When you identify where the triggering source comes from within you, you release its power over you. 

3. Own your feelings. We all have emotional triggers. It’s important to know that it’s okay to feel these emotions. It is not a matter of good or bad, but really a matter of determining if your response is useful or detrimental to you. If it is detrimental, it must go. By taking ownership of your emotional triggers, you can begin to understand them and select those responses that work and change those that do not. 

4. Don’t jump to conclusions. When you are in the midst of a triggering event, it is easy to lose site of your objectivity. Take a moment to breathe and re-evaluate the situation so you don’t misinterpret information or jump to the wrong conclusions prematurely.

5. Take five. Sometimes it’s necessary to step away for a moment to regain your composure. Just a few minutes can help you regain your objectivity in the situation so you can handle it appropriately.

 

Changing patterns of behavior takes time, energy, and focus. To be successful, you must have two main ingredients, first, the awareness that your patterns of response are not serving you, and second, the desire to change. From there, you can discover what is triggering you, understand the trigger, and see the resulting pattern of response. Once you are consciously aware of what you’re doing, it is easier to navigate challenging situations for better results, stronger relationships and a happier life.