Triggered? Now What? Be Better This Time.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

*You come to the gym not knowing the workout. You’re in a relatively good mood and the cute guy who joined last week is in class.  While you’re stretching, you read the white board and see that the skill you’ve been struggling with for literally years is part of the workout.  Your stomach turns.  While you know you need to keep plugging away at this skill and you’re open to working on your weaknesses, you also know that sometimes you just want to come to the gym and feel good—not address any long-term deficits or mobility issues or areas of weakness.  Today, apparently, won’t be one of those days.  You end up distracted and unable to focus on the strength training, which you love.

*You head out to the mall to run some errands during the small window of time you have for yourself while your kids are at school.  You are racing from store to store, checking things off your list.  You decide to give yourself a minute to try on some cute tops in the women’s department.  While you’re browsing the aisles in your workout clothes, you see out of the corner of your eye a woman with whom you used to work.  She is dressed to the nines with clean and bouncy hair.  You’re not up for chit-chatting and have limited time, so you head into the fitting room with a few items in tow, only to be confronted by the two-way mirror.  You notice back fat that you haven’t noticed before, and you hate the way the shirts look on you.  You start feeling the blood rise to your face, you toss the other items on the bench, and you head out of the store the back way, hoping to not bump into anyone else you know.

*You’re in a business meeting pitching an ad idea to a coveted company.  You’ve prepared a great presentation and are feeling sharp.  Two minutes into your presentation, your boss jumps in with his two cents and ends up taking over where you left off.  You’re pissed as all get out but have to take it in stride, so as not to risk losing the account (not to mention your job).   You’re then forced to be polite and forget what went before when your boss asks you to attend a working lunch at a restaurant.   You end up making a snide comment that you feel might “mark” you for life in the company’s book.

*You’re scheduled to have dinner with a good friend and are looking forward to catching up and having some time for yourself.  You’ve  showered, arranged for your husband to be home early from work to cover the kids, and you’re about to get in the car.  You receive a text saying your friend has to cancel because she’s not feeling well.  You text back “No problem,” take a minute to catch your breath, and head back into the house, only to snap at your five-year-old five minutes later, for no real reason.

*You’re playing in an adult league basketball game, doing well and enjoying the sweat.  The referee calls two fouls on you in the first five minutes.  You’re not playing any more aggressively than you normally do.  Third foul is called and a warning given.  You end up losing your cool and telling the ref he sucks.  You get kicked out of the game.

We all have triggers.  Sometimes, they’re more obvious than others.  They can come in the form of actions of other people, random things we face in our daily lives, our own shortcomings, or even the weather.  There’s no getting around the fact that we all have buttons—parts of ourselves that, when pushed, lead to a slippery slope of emotional charge that often ends in bad behavior or a negative state of mind.  There is little we can do to protect ourselves from the wide world of triggers. Rather, our goal should be to explore and try to understand what makes us vulnerable to the unique triggers in our lives.

Triggers and buttons develop over time, based on an accumulation of psychological history that we may not fully comprehend.  We may not, for example, realize that the reason we are so crushed by our friend canceling a dinner date actually dates back to our father’s habit of no-showing for our gymnastics meets when we were ten and excited about the new leotards and our back-handspring tricks.  We may or may not recognize that our anger on the basketball court has much to do with self-doubt and a lack of confidence at our job.  Our struggle with the skill at the gym may be linked to the times in high school when our demanding soccer coach humiliated us for not being able to juggle more than five consecutive strikes.  The scenarios go on and on.

The thing about triggers is that they are typically seen and felt as being beyond our control—things the world hands to us that have more to do with fate than any act of will on our part.  As much as that can fire us up and make us feel victimized, it’s actually an easy out.  It demands little of us and encourages us to fall back on longstanding patterns and reactions, regardless of their inefficacy and negative impact.  Call them defense mechanisms if you like.  The thing is, we are the ones who suffer.  We get triggered, we react negatively, and we don’t do the kind of investigating that will result in a different, more measured response the next time around.

So next time you’re triggered by the world, take a deep breath, snap a mental picture of the moment, and take a minute to jot down or email to yourself a quick note to remind you of the incident.  It could be something like: “Double under stress at the gym,” or “ Feeling unattractive at the mall.”  Commit to not responding outwardly or emotionally in the moment.  Instead, make time for yourself later that day (we’re all busy, but ten minutes is possible if you care enough) and think about what it is that got you riled.  Maybe it’s no mystery—your mom always looked fabulous and you were her chubby daughter who seemed to embarrass her.  So your job is to try to acknowledge that you’re an adult now and it’s time to stop giving so much power to that history.  Jot down five things about yourself that you like and one thing you’d like to change.  Then get to work on it.

You need to take back some control over the external events and behaviors that affect you in negative ways.  While you can’t change the way people treat you or the random run-ins you have in the world, you can certainly do some self-reflection to determine why your buttons are pushed—and then modify your reactions and responses.

The truth is that some of our hottest buttons and most sensitive trigger points are so easily activated that they almost engage on their own—it’s as if we go through life expecting hurts and anticipating insults from our past.  This kind of anticipatory agitation almost guarantees full-blown activation at the smallest indication of insult.  If you feel like you’re walking around ready to be triggered, you probably have some soul-searching and emotional work to do.  But it’s work that’s well worth the effort—far more rewarding than mastering double unders or muscle-ups in the grand scheme of life, and way more impactful in positive ways on our loved ones!

Life is short.  Gain control of your psychological self and minimize your trigger receptivity.  The world is more friendly and relationships are more harmonious when we live with a little more enlightenment and a little less reactivity and guardedness.

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