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3 Steps for Befriending Emotional Triggers (Or How To Get Your Brain Back)

photo copy 2“If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher.” -Pema Chodron

In the last blog, we learned about what causes emotional triggers–or even worse–a full-blown amygdala highjacking. Sounds a bit like a terrorist attack–only it’s coming from inside your brain. Just knowing that everyone gets triggered (more or less) will elicit more compassion, both for yourself and for others.

It is uncomfortable and disconcerting when those gnarly buttons get pushed, and out comes some ugly, scary or otherwise unintended reaction–most often directed at or caused by someone you love very deeply. Try not to be so judgmental. One of the things I constantly say to my therapy clients is to be easy on themselves since we all come by our negative reactions and neuroses honestly.

Although most of us might choose never to get triggered, this is an unreachable target. Memory and emotion are connected in the brain. By the time you are reading this blog, countless experiences, both positive and negative have been programmed into your memory. These experiences, combined with your inborn temperament, make you the unique person that you are. So the goal should not be to eliminate your triggers but to learn how to work with them. The goal is to be able to choose how you respond in a given moment rather than simply react, and to be happier and more at peace in the present moment.

Here are some practices that will help you lessen your reactive responses. That being said, they don’t call it “spiritual practices” for nothing–none of us but the fully enlightened ever get to perfection–which is why daily practice is essential to cultivating more inner peace.file5991298749300

Step Number One: Practice paying attention to yourself. This is the practice of mindfulness.

Originally associated with Buddhist meditation, mindfulness has rapidly grown in popularity because it is an effective technique to overcome many psychological and physical conditions. The Buddha taught that people should make a day to day practice of mindfulness, practicing a calm awareness of one’s body, feelings and thoughts. The ability to observe oneself and to analyze one’s reactions helps to bring about greater wisdom, compassion, and freedom from compulsivity.

Being able to bring steady aware attention to oneself and others is a building block for all emotional intelligence. As Victor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space”. As we pay closer attention to our inner world, that space can be lengthened. This is how and where change begins.

Make this a habit. Use an alarm on your cell phone or watch and whenever it goes off, do a body scan. Are you tense or relaxed. Where do you hold your tension?  Next, move your attention to your emotions. What are you feeling? Notice the thoughts that come into your head. As you notice what is going on inside you, just give each sensation a name. (“Tightness in hands” “Fear” “Sugar craving” “envious thought”)

american anxietyStep Number Two: Befriend your triggers. Get to know everything about them. What pushes your buttons?

Just as Pavlov’s dog started to salivate when a bell was sounded (because the experimenter had paired the sound of the bell with yummy meat treats), our automatic reactions to certain things will remain unconscious unless we begin to bring attention and awareness to them. When emotionally charged memories get triggered, there is some stimulus or cue in the present. It could be a sound, a smell, a facial expression, a song–really just about anything can be a trigger.

Since our brain was created to help us survive, the majority of our reactions when triggered happen in our physical bodies. Start paying attention to changes in your body, and then ask yourself what you are feeling. Notice any physical symptoms like muscle tension, upset stomach, racing heartbeat, deep sighing or changes in your breathing.

An essential part of mindfulness is to observe your reactions non-judgmentally. Practice observing yourself with curiosity and kindness, imagining how a loving grandmother or an all-forgiving god or your beloved pet looks at you.

Step Number Three: When you are triggered, stop and breathe before you say or do anything.

The only way to stop an automatic response is to teach yourself to slow down your reaction time. Once you know that when you are triggered, you are no longer thinking or seeing clearly, you should know that it is best to keep your mouth shut until your rational brain is back on line. The best way to do this (after you have become familiar with the body and emotional sensation of being triggered) is to take some slow deep breaths. Remove yourself temporarily from the scene. You can walk away for a moment or you can close your eyes and focus on your breath.

If you are in a relationship, it is most effective to have an agreement ahead of time that one or both of you will take a breather or a time-out when either one of you is triggered.DSCN9840 You can have a signal that you agree upon and a commitment to coming back (rather than driving away in a huff and not communicating) or checking in an hour or so. Do not try to talk about things when one person is still triggered. It’s not worth it even if you are craving resolution.

It is also very helpful to run through this set of steps in your imagination. Bring to mind a memory of a time you got upset and triggered. See yourself stopping and taking time away to breathe. Allow yourself to feel and label your emotions and to see how the scene would have played out differently if you had not been triggered. The more you practice, the more readily you will be able to use this tool when you really need it.

Step Number Four: Take the time to listen to yourself–your body, your thoughts and feelings. Be kind to yourself whenever you can.

Even a few minutes each day–of quiet reflection, or just sitting and doing nothing, walking quietly in nature, or breathing deeply while releasing tension in your body–will little by little make a difference. The best teacher we can be to our kids and our loved ones is to be the teaching. Take your time. Just practice. Without judgment.

3 Steps for Befriending Emotional Triggers (Or How To Get Your Brain Back)

Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW

Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW. co-authored How's Your Family Really Doing? 10 Keys to a Happy, Loving Family with her psychologist husband, Don MacMannis, Ph.D. Together they have co-directed The Family Therapy Institute of Santa Barbara ( for over 30 years, providing psychotherapy to thousands of couples and families as well as training and consultation with other therapists, non-profits and schools. More blogs and information can be found at

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APA Reference
Manchester MacMannis, D. (2013). 3 Steps for Befriending Emotional Triggers (Or How To Get Your Brain Back). Psych Central. Retrieved on February 23, 2019, from


Last updated: 22 Jul 2013
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 22 Jul 2013
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