How to understand emotional responses to past experiences
Let’s face it, we have all felt emotionally triggered at some point in our lives, triggers can even be one of the biggest contributors to our daily stress. What I’m talking about is when something in our environment evokes an emotion that overwhelms us, and has us lose our sense of balance for prolonged periods of time. Common examples are things like; not being invited to a party, making you feel rejected and left out; making a simple mistake in your accounts, causing you to feel like a failure; someone making a joke about your appearance, resulting in you feeling inadequate and left comparing yourself to others. Sound familiar?
We’ve all been through this, and have our own list of personal triggers and coping mechanisms, which may be very different from those around us. The issue with triggers is that they can occur at any time and have the capacity to completely destabilise us, opening up old wounds of the past, buried deep inside our minds. Another way of looking at this is that when we feel stable and in charge, our conscious mind is in control and we feel present to what is going on. However, when we are triggered our conscious mind loses its sense of control and is taken over by an old belief or feeling, which we have tried to suppress in the past. For instance, if you suddenly find out that you are not invited to an event that “everyone” is going to, it may remind you of being at school and being left out. This may trigger you to feel rejected and conclude that “I don’t belong.”.
Fast-forward back to the present day, where perhaps you don’t really even care about this event, but that old feeling of rejection (if you haven’t dealt with it), still comes up and you start to feel left out and like you don’t belong – which then, in turn, reinforces this belief even more. It’s as if your mind and body are being “hijacked” by your past. The only reason this has the ability to impact us so much is that these beliefs and conclusions are so deeply embedded in our subconscious mind (which is 6,000 times more powerful than our logical mind). The good news is that it is possible to heal this and overcome these triggers, as long as you are aware of what they are.
Here is a list of the most common environmental triggers and corresponding feelings which I have seen in my field of work. See if you can pick the top 3 triggers that you identify with most and the corresponding emotion that has the capacity to “hijack” you away from the present moment.
Things that trigger us (based on our perception):
- Someone telling you what to do or trying to control you.
- Someone ignoring you.
- Getting something “wrong”.
- Someone misunderstanding your intentions.
- Perceiving that you have no say over something.
- Someone accusing you.
- Someone invading your space.
- Someone laughing at you or making fun of you.
- Receiving verbal or physical threats.
- Someone leaving or rejecting you.
Triggered emotional responses:
- Feeling Rejected.
- Feeling like a failure.
- Feeling unsafe.
- Feeling inadequate.
- Feeling abandoned.
- Feeling incapable.
- Feeling unaccepted.
- Feeling like a “loser”.
- Feeling unwanted.
- Feeling trapped.
How are triggers created and what’s the solution?
We have understood that our triggers are events and situations which bring up old, suppressed and uncomfortable memories of the past. For most people, the default way of coping with this is to push those feelings deep inside and develop a defence mechanism of denial, rationalisation or running away from it. This doesn’t dissipate the feelings, rather, it pushes them deeper into our minds and we internalise this toxicity. A very useful exercise to “heal” your trigger is to identify the version of yourself who felt the original pain for the first time, e.g. it could be your 5-year-old self who felt abandoned when Mum started to work.
If you cannot trace back the first incident, it may be easier to find one where the pain was at its worst – when you felt most abandoned. Once you have identified this memory, get into a comfortable position for about 15 minutes, where you can do a simple closed-eye exercise in your mind. Imagine talking to your younger self and tell them that “The pain is over, you are safe now, you belong to me, and I accept you fully”. That painful part of your past is still stuck at the time and age when the event happened, so by doing this, you are mentally separating the past from who you are today, and giving that memory the acknowledgement and acceptance that was missing.
If you are in the grip of a trigger and don’t have time to do the exercises, the easiest way to snap out of it is to shift your state to being present in the moment. The more present you are, the less in the grip you are of the “hijack.”. Simple ways of being present are to be mindful of the now; notice your breath, centre yourself, and focus on what’s happening around you now.
It’s important to understand that we all have different things that trigger us, different emotional responses and different coping mechanisms. It would be very useful to not only understand our own triggers but also be conscious of what triggers our partners or our children. Being aware of this helps us to understand there is no point in trying to have a confrontation or discussion while someone is in the midst of their trigger situation. It helps us to know what buttons not to push for our loved ones, and be able to share techniques with them on how they can heal their own trigger when they are in a calmer space.
All images are courtesy of Getty.