Emotionally triggered by an ex? We have all been there. One moment you are enjoying peace of mind, and the next – a text, an email, a social post, an in-person meeting, or a phone call comes directly from or regarding an ex and suddenly you have a pit in your stomach. Your mind is racing. You become flooded with emotions. You don’t know how to react or respond. Do you fight, freeze, flee, or all of the above?
Everyone responds to emotional triggers in their own unique way. Some of us shut down and withdraw. Others get loud and angry. Some hold it all in until the emotional volcano erupts. And some respond to the emotional overload of triggers by sweating, shaking, and even getting physically ill.
So, what is an emotional trigger exactly? Crystal Raypole, editor of GoodTherapy, said for Healthline.com that, “An emotional trigger is anything – including memories, experiences, or events – that sparks an intense emotional reaction, regardless of your current mood.”
I remember being in the early days of going through divorce. It could have been the most beautiful day and something regarding my divorce or my ex would stir my emotions, sometimes even the smallest of things, and I would instantly feel like the rug was swept from under my feet. I deeply wanted and needed to understand what was going on mentally, emotionally, and physically within myself every time I was triggered so that I could take back control of my feelings and be in the present moment again. But, how?As I dove into healing and self-growth work post-divorce, I started to understand what my triggers were and how to heal them. Now, more than 10 years later, through therapy, reading book after book, coaching with experts, and eventually developing my own coaching practice focused on life transitions and trauma healing, I found that there is a way to triumph over triggers. I call the process the 3 R’s: Recognize, Release, and Realign.
Step 1: Recognize your feelings
What has helped me profoundly accept and manage the feelings that arise when triggered is recognizing and understanding why I am feeling the way that I am when a trigger occurs.
In an article for the “Harvard Business Review” titled, “Calming Your Brain During Conflict,” written by internationally recognized mediator and facilitator, Diane Musho Hamilton said, “Conflict wreaks havoc on our brains. We are groomed by evolution to protect ourselves whenever we sense a threat. In our modern context, we don’t fight like a badger with a coyote, or run away like a rabbit from a fox. But our basic impulse to protect ourselves is automatic and unconscious.”
When we are triggered, our neurological system kicks into overdrive by sending a cascade of stress hormones throughout our bodies, such as adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol.
“These hormones prepare your body to flee or flight by increasing your heart rate, elevating your blood pressure, and boosting your energy levels, among other things,” said social anxiety disorder expert Arlin Cuncic for Verywellmind.
Knowing that the cause of the panicky feelings, the urge to run away, the faster heartbeats, and gut-ache that comes with trigger reactions is really just the nervous systems way of being protective. It allows us to embrace working through the feelings, instead of trying to hide them, ignore, or fight them off.
Taking the recognition practice one step further, it is beneficial to put words to your feelings. I do this through this writing exercise or saying it out loud to myself in the moment:
- I was just triggered by _______ (what was the event or experience that triggered you)
- I am now feeling _______ (name all of the feelings you are having mentally, physically, and emotionally)
- I know this is my mind and body’s reaction to a past negative situation or experience(s), and that my senses are trying to protect me from being hurt. I am going to release this by doing ______ (your release strategy)
Step 2. Find a healthy way to release your emotions
When we are triggered, the emotions can feel overwhelming. Finding a healthy way to release what we are experiencing is essential to getting somatically re-centered.
In his book, “The Body Keep the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D., said, “Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on inside ourselves.”
When we meet ourselves at a place of compassion and allow ourselves to release what we are feeling because of a trigger, we are able to healthily get to the other side of the emotions.
Creating your own personal release strategy is helpful for when triggering moments arise. To do so, create a list of how you want to take care of yourself when you are triggered so that you are able to access, comfort, and release any stored emotions. Keep this list somewhere that is easily accessible so that you know where to turn to when triggered and upset occurs.
An example of my healthy emotional release strategy:
- Start with breathing exercises to regulate the nervous system. Practice deep inhales and exhales for 2 minutes or until I feel my senses calming.
- Journal my experience. Write out what I think triggered me, where I think it came from (the origin), what I am currently feeling, and how I want to meet myself with compassion in this moment.
- Movement. Take a long walk, get to yoga, or practice Tai-chi.
- Permission granted to cry
- Take a long bath or shower
- Meditate before bed with a guided sleep meditation on Insight Timer.
When you feel that you have released and worked through the emotions stirred by the trigger, it is time to realign with the present moment.
Step 3: Realign your mindset
After you have recognized your feelings and understand the role your nervous system plays in how you feel from a trigger, and once you have healthily released the emotions caused by it, it is time to triumph the trigger by setting any necessary new boundaries for yourself and mindfully and powerfully realigning with the present moment.
By answering a couple of self-reflective questions, you can not only become more self-aware of what is best for you in navigating future triggers, but you can also set healthy boundaries for yourself, which is an act of self-love.
Award winning coach, author, and speaker, Sahar Andrade, writes in Forbes.com about how to set healthy boundaries. She said, “It starts with self-awareness. If you do not like the way you feel or act, know that you have the power to change it. You are the master of your universe; you control 100 percent of your actions and reactions. Embrace the uneasiness of being uncomfortable at first. It all starts by saying no to what does not serve you, and by standing your ground with no guilt or shame.”
To REALIGN with the present moment and to help empower future trigger triumph, answer these 2 questions:
- In regard to this situation and emotional trigger, what new boundaries, if any, do I need to set for myself moving forward? Sometimes boundaries are physical or emotional in nature, sometimes they are more material and space oriented, and sometimes we just realize that we need to say no. Remember, boundaries are created for you to flourish within. You do not need permission from anyone but yourself to create and establish a healthy boundary.
- Now that I have processed this trigger and created the necessary new boundaries, how do I want to show up for this current moment? This is the moment that your power over the trigger is taken back! When you mindfully choose how you want to show up, in this exact moment, you are aligning with the NOW. If how you want to feel and how you want to be present seems intangible, give yourself more grace and space. I like to ask myself, “How am I feeling right now?” And “How do I want to feel?” If the answers are not aligned, I ask myself what is the first step that I can take to get me closer to how I want to feel, then I take another step, and another, until I am fully there and present with the NOW.
Mindful Note: Remember, if you have an ex (whether that is a spouse, partner, lover, friend, family member, colleague, or anyone from your past that stimulates a variety of strong emotions), that means that you are also an ex, and are most likely a source of emotional triggering for them as well. By establishing your own boundaries and also respecting theirs, you are setting the tone and building a foundation for a healthy dynamic for you both.