Have you ever walked into your parents’ house as a mature adult and suddenly turned into a rebellious teenager? Or suddenly burst into tears (unlike those around you) at a certain scene in a movie? Or found yourself wanting to smack your child even though you would never do so? Or begun yelling at your wife because of the look on her face?
When your emotional reaction seems to rise up unbidden like a sudden power surge, temporarily knocking out all power of reason, chances are that some part of your past has been evoked in the present moment. You have been “triggered” or we might say that “one of your buttons has been pushed.” Don’t worry. It happens to all of us–although to some people more than others. The more difficult your childhood–the more traumas, losses, and inadequate or abusive parenting you experienced–the more triggers you will have and the stronger your responses will be.
Our brains have been perfectly designed to enable us to survive. Our emotions are critical because they give us instant feedback about whether a person or environment is good or bad, safe or unsafe to approach or to avoid. The seat of our emotions is in the old part of the brain called the limbic system. A key structure in this area is the amygdala. This almond-sized structure is our emotional watchdog and can literally take control over our body in a heartbeat.
When we see or hear something that triggers strong fear, the amygdala reacts instantaneously, and we act before we are able to think. The pre-frontal cortex or reasoning part of our brain goes off-line so that we can protect ourselves from the perceived danger. Next time you step back on the curb to avoid being hit by a speeding car, you can thank your amygdala for taking charge of your reaction. Dan Goleman, in his best-seller Emotional Intelligence, aptly and creatively named this “an amygdala highjacking.“
When the amygdala takes over, there are three responses available in an instant: fight, flight, or freeze. Our nervous system goes on red alert. Our heartbeat and our breathing accelerate, and adrenaline rushes through our body. The only problem is that this automatic, life-saving response isn’t always accurate.
When the saber-toothed tiger attacked in our prehistoric history, we stood up to fight back, ran like hell, or froze like a rabbit. In modern times we still do the same thing. Only now, much to our chagrin, sometimes the response is to our husband or child rather than a tiger. We say or do things without thinking, and then feel terrible about it later. Sometimes we don’t have any recollection of what we said or did during an amygdala hijacking. Remember that the next time your husband adamantly denies saying something mean during a big fight. He may have no memory whatsoever of what she said and what he said (so please don’t fight about it later).
SInce getting triggered happens to everyone, it is crucial to understand how the process works so that we can forgive ourselves and our loved ones for overreacting. When triggered, a biological state of alert exaggerates our fear, making everything and everyone a possible threat to our very survival. Because of that, we can and will overreact to a look or the slightest comment. Our thinking is distorted. When we tell the story of what happened, it will be through the lens of fear rather than compassion or understanding–unless we understand that when someone is triggered, they are not deliberately trying to hurt you.
Events that remind us of an emotionally charged experience from the past trigger the same feelings associated with that experience without our conscious awareness. Although getting our buttons pushed can be unpleasant or terribly painful, I have learned to see this phenomenon as not only inevitable but as potentially helpful. The first step in building more emotional intelligence is to understand how the past impacts the present moment, because until we gain awareness of our unfinished business, we will continue to be slaves of our past.
One of the most common questions or outright complaints voiced at the beginning of psychotherapy is why we have to talk about the past. What’s done is done. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the refrain: “This has nothing to do with my childhood. Why do I have to talk about that again?”
Good therapy does not require that you spend years “on the couch” going over the minute details of your past. What it does entail is seeing when and how your past is still impinging on the present. The goal is to be able to choose how you respond in a given moment rather than simply react. The first step towards that goal is to learn as much as you can about your triggers and those of your loved ones.
If you want to build your emotional intelligence, make note in the days and weeks to come what pushes your buttons. Learn what it feels like in your body. Notice any physical symptoms like muscle tension, upset stomach, racing heartbeat, deep sighing or shallow breathing or emotional symptoms such as sudden anxiety, lack of concentration, frustration, sadness or fear. When you feel a surge of emotion, write down what you are experiencing and what triggered your response.
The next blog will give you some more practical tips on how to break the negative cycle of overreacting when triggered…
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Best of Our Blogs: July 23, 2013 | World of Psychology (July 23, 2013)
Last reviewed: 22 Jul 2013