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Making Sense of an Emotional Trigger

Updated: Jul 14, 2021

“I don’t know why I was suddenly so anxious, (the situation) wasn’t that bad”


This is a common observation I hear from my clients…a triggered emotion can be anything intensely experienced in an extremely quick amount of time, whether it’s anxiety, anger, fear, etc. My clients try to understand why they felt the way they did in the moment and when the solution isn’t available, sometimes self-judging thoughts creep in: “I shouldn’t have felt that way,” or, “What’s wrong with me?”


Nothing is “wrong” with them, or you:


Let’s describe the brain in the most fundamental terms (keep the following as your baseline for thinking about how and why you feel and think the way you do, whether it’s “positive” or “negative”):


Your brain’s ONLY function is to make sure you keep living. That’s it.


You have the spectrum of emotions you need for this purpose. Emotions such as shame, anger, fear, anticipation, and disgust protect you from perceived danger. Curiosity, love, joy, trust, even sadness...all serve to connect you with other human beings (these emotions developed when our ancestors realized survival was easier if we moved in groups).…what amazing creatures we are. You need all of your emotions, repeat, ALL of them in order to make your life on this planet rich with interactions, adventures, and experiences that you are entitled to…simply because you’re human.


Now, sometimes the brain’s wiring can be a bit “off.” Here’s an example: Your brain goes into anxious mode one morning while you’re making coffee, because your partner mentions your second cousin twice removed (who punched your arm when you were 6 so badly you had a bruise for a week and afterwards you were terrified of him/her/them for years). Today, even as an adult, every time this cousin is mentioned you feel a rush of fear and your stomach clenches.


When you get emotionally triggered, your limbic or “emotional brain” responds and fires a warning…you feel a flood of intense emotion that travels down to your body and together, your amazing mind + body puts you in prime fight, flight, or freeze mode. You might notice sometimes when you’re triggered you have shaky legs or arms…(this is the experience of your ancestors at work: what they learned about how to get out of danger was passed down to you and your reaction in this moment tells us your brain and body are doing exactly what they were trained to do). When you get triggered by the mention of second cousin twice removed, your brain wants you to get away from danger so it gives you excess energy to run away…kind of cool when you really stop to think about how your body takes care of you!


The experiences you had in your life recorded by your brain as a significant danger may have been “glued in” if cortisol and adrenaline rushed in at high levels when the original event occurred. These chemicals are absolutely necessary because they help your brain to get your body to react as quickly as possible. They work together to increase your heart rate, narrow your arteries, and force your blood to quickly pump through your body…hence, when there's a perceived threat today you have the excess energy you need to dodge the proverbial lion jumping out at you (thank you ancestors!).


Sometimes, that alarm wiring in your limbic brain is a bit "off" because it stored a memory when it had the perfect trifecta of: intensity of event + levels of cortisol/adrenaline + #of previous similar/associated experiences. This means, some situations make your brain feel as though you're experiencing the same dangerous event whether you really are or aren't: your emotional brain "sees" it as the same level of danger as the original event…but consider if we go back to your cousin…the present day reality is:


You’re not a child anymore, now you’re an adult and can protect yourself (in fact, your cousin is actually kind of cool as an adult and working as a volunteer to protect the planet)…your triggering tells us your “emotional brain” doesn’t currently “plug in” to the updated information…it operates from your 6 year old self.


What do you do about that???


You need to update your alarm system. This happens when your brain can emotionally hook into all the experiences that tell you (for example) that your cousin has sincerely apologized many times since you were 6, you have countless memories of protecting yourself by setting healthy boundaries with people, you have a black belt in kickboxing!….this reinforcement thinking has to be proactive, like you’re going to the mental gym and doing workouts.


Talk therapy is a great way to have support and guidance to help you learn tools customized for you (we don’t all respond the same way to coping strategies and interventions because our brains develop ways or styles of processing information unique to each of us).


EMDR is another option…I often tell people talk therapy is awesome: (when you find the right therapist, it can be a life-changing piece of your journey) it's like a faucet that allows the water out in a slow stream…EMDR is like turning that faucet on full-blast and clearing out the pipe. For more detailed information about EMDR, you can look at the link here: www.senjafosterlmft.com/emdr as well as explore: www.emdria.org.


Whichever approach feels right to you, resolving these triggers will “dial down” the intensity of the emotions that flood you—your feelings aren’t the enemy, your brain just needs updating with your most current information to use your emotions properly. With this recalibration, you can live your very best life.

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