An exploration of money, mindset and a meaningful life

What Triggers You, Controls You

For people who have only met me recently, it may be surprising to learn that I used to be quite angry. Certain things used to trigger me, mostly into defensiveness and hurt masquerading as anger.

I used to think that my short temple was just part of who I was. I blamed it on my strong opinions and my feisty nature – not to mention other people. But, as I have learned over the years, so much of who we are is malleable. Not least, our responses to emotional triggers.

What is a Trigger?

An emotional trigger is some external event, such as seeing, hearing, feeling or smelling something, that prompts an emotional response inside you. The emotion may be a so-called negative emotion like anger, rage, irritation or defensiveness. But we can also be triggered into feeling any emotion, even positive emotions such as happiness, excitement or love.

The reason this happens is due to the way we code information into our brains. To reduce mental effort, the brain moves information from the conscious to the subconscious brain by building a neural pathway. Neural pathways are strengthened either by repetition or strong emotion. This is the same way everyday habits such as brushing your teeth are formed.

When the brain is presented with a “what to do” problem, it searches its database for a known pattern of response. Essentially the sequence of event (trigger), response (emotion) and consequence (behaviour) is an emotional habit. Your brain has formed many of them from your previous life experiences. For this reason, each person’s emotional triggers are as unique to them as their neural pathways. An event that would trigger me into feeling hurt, inadequate or angry may have no effect on you. It may even trigger a positive response in another person.

The Choice is Yours

Often, being triggered feels like you have no control. It feels like an inevitable cascade of emotions, behaviours… and consequences. I know because I have been there. The biggest problem with thinking that it’s beyond your control is that your automatic responses can, and will, be used against you. For those people who know how to push your buttons (your triggers) they will use it to destabilise you. They can even manipulate you and in some cases gaslight you or portray you as overly emotional and irrational.

I also know from personal experience that it’s possible to break that cycle and choose to respond, rather than react. In fact, doing so has had the biggest impact on my happiness and emotional freedom. It really is possible to create a circuit breaker that stops the seemingly inevitable trigger and response. But to choose, you need to believe that you can.

Curiosity & Compassion

Once you take responsibility for changing your habits, whether emotional or physical, you can then become aware of them. At first, you may only notice that you’ve been triggered after the fact. It may only be because you’re dealing with the consequences of insulting a friend, shouting at a colleague or being rude to wait staff (what is that floating in your soup?!) that you realise you were triggered.

The trick here is to approach the experience with curiosity, kindness and a growth mindset. You’re building new neural pathways here! That might look like “Oh, how interesting that I reacted that way. What was it about what he said that triggered me?” The most unproductive thing you can do is to judge yourself poorly or berate yourself. The more often you get curious and compassionately explore the trigger and response, the earlier you will be able to recognise the pattern. Eventually, you will be able to notice your response in real-time, which is where you can exercise your choice of how to respond.

The Opportunity in Your Triggers

There has been one mindset shift that has helped me in moving beyond the initial circuit breaker to finding a more permanent solution to my triggers. That is the reframe that my triggers are an opportunity. They are God, the universe or my inner self, shining a spotlight on the parts of me that most need healing.

That is why we shouldn’t ignore our triggers. We shouldn’t shy away from them or be ashamed of them. If we’re committed to our personal growth and to living a life of happiness and emotional freedom, then our triggers really are an opportunity.

Trigger Tools

One of the most important tools that I have used in my personal development journey and that is especially useful when addressing your triggers, is meditation. The most important skill that meditation has taught me is self-awareness. It has helped me to notice the subtle (and not-so-subtle) cues in my body. Being mindful and aware of your triggers and their responses is the first step in being able to bring in choice and change your response.

You might also find this graphic from Dominee from Blessing Manifesting useful when trying to identify how you felt when triggered.

Another important tool for me has been coaching. Often a coach will be able to help you see what you can’t see. Our subconscious, by its very nature, is outside of our awareness. So it can be invaluable to have someone reflect your emotions, your responses and your language back to you. This can help not only identify how you are feeling, but also uncover the memory, pattern or experience that may have caused the trigger to form.

It’s useful to acknowledge that we all have an inner child, who likely didn’t get the emotional support they needed. Understanding this can help you get access to a part of you that has an unfulfilled need. Listen to that inner voice, perhaps even journal on it, and ask her how she is feeling and what she most needs from you. Now is your opportunity to heal yourself by being the parent you didn’t have, but needed.

I realise that facing and exploring our triggers can be uncomfortable. It can be tempting to avoid or numb what comes up or to deflect or blame others. But I want to assure you that, like all personal development, it is worth doing the work. There is so much freedom on the other side.