How do you recognize you have been triggered and stop the spin, before you react in a way you’ll regret?
I’ve shared my own real-time process for working through the feelings that come up in the aftermath of a triggering situation.
But before any of that happens, there’s a prerequisite step: recognizing that something big is happening inside of you in the first place, and taking a time out.
Often, our (less-than-ideal) responses to stress are so habitual that they become automatic – like an unconscious reflex. It happens so fast that we don’t even realize there’s a complex cause-and-effect chain happening in our minds and bodies.
If you want to change your reflexive behavior, it’s crucial to first understand your unique causal chain intimately. Once you recognize the recurring steps in your reflexive response pattern, you have way better odds of catching it early and redirecting that into a more effective response of your own choosing.
Here’s an exercise I frequently do with my clients. I recommend taking notes as you work through this, and engaging the support of a trusted friend, therapist, or coach if it feels too intense.
Once you’ve gotten fluent in that particular chain/film reel, start noticing times it comes up in your everyday life. You may identify additional chains, and you can use this same process to map those.
Here’s an example I hear frequently:
Wow. See how quickly that escalated?
What we find is that, once a chain has been mapped in depth, we become aware of just how many places that sequence of thoughts/feelings/reactions plays out. The more practice we get noticing the pattern, the earlier and earlier we’ll be able to catch it.
In the example above, you might first catch yourself before you pick up the phone to call your partner. The next time around, you might catch it earlier – maybe when you notice your heart racing and shallow breathing. The next time after that, maybe you’re able to intercept it right at the beginning: watching the clock, or noticing the thought “are you kidding me?!” becomes your clue to pause and redirect.
Whenever you catch it – when you have that “Crap! I’m doing it again!” moment – your only task for now is to pause and take as many deep breaths as you need until it feels like the chain has been broken (or the film has been spliced) and the momentum of the reaction has subsided.
Once you have the necessary pause and distance from the immediate reaction, you get to choose how to move forward more effectively.
When you have a little more down time, you can begin to deprogram the underlying cause for the trigger by following the steps I outlined in my previous article. Continuing with the example above, you’d likely ultimately get down to themes of abandonment and attachment trauma, and then process and nurture those wounds.
Go gently and nonjudgmentally into this process. Your task is just to take field notes as if a neutral anthropologist was studying you. If at any point this exercise feels overwhelming, pause, take a break, and do whatever works for you to soothe your nervous system. When you decide to re-engage, consider bringing in a trusted support person to sit with you through the process.