Holidays. The news. Family. Work. Virtually anything can be a trigger.
Even the way someone says something can trigger our anger, hearing someone’s happy news can make us jealous, or a particular song may send us tumbling into sadness over that breakup.
It doesn’t matter how often you meditate or how long you can hold a headstand, we are all triggered at some point — it’s part of our survival mechanism.
Here’s how it works: Within our brains, there’s an area called the amygdala that is responsible for detecting threats and making sure we do one of three things — fight, flight, or freeze. This was a necessity back in our hunter-gatherer days when our very lives depended on avoiding man-eating predators.
Fortunately, such physical threats are rare today, but our amygdala is still on the job. It warns us about the second most dangerous threat to our survival: our status within the social hierarchy. In our hunter-gatherer days, being further up the hierarchy meant more food. Being lower down on the social ladder might mean we starved to death.
In today’s world, the status threat unfolds more like this: if somebody upsets us for any number of reasons, that upset can register in the brain as a threat, unconsciously engaging the fight, flight, or freeze response.
A fight response might mean we retaliate with a verbal attack in order to reassert our status. But if the perceived attack is, for example, from our boss, fighting back might be detrimental or even cause us to be fired. So our unconscious brain might instead choose a freeze or flight response — we disengage, bear a grudge, or harbor resentment, often ruminating for days about what we’d like to have said.
Given everything that’s at stake — at home and at work — it’s easy to see why we should become more familiar with our own triggers, and learn to respond to them more skillfully. So how do we do that?
Start by noticing when we’re being triggered, says psychotherapist and LifeWork faculty member David Waters. “We know we’re reacting to a trigger whenever we find ourselves experiencing surprising or hard-to-explain emotions in response to everyday moments — like the beep of a car horn, or the expression on someone’s face as they serve us wine in a restaurant.”
All of these triggers are unconsciously reminding us of an incident, difficult memory, or trauma from our past. “Perhaps that sound of the car horn was in the background when we almost got run over crossing the street as a seven-year-old child. That waiter had the same look on his face as our least favorite teacher whenever he or she reprimanded us. Perhaps it was the way our father shouted, ‘Who do you think you are?!’ when he was angry. We each have our own unique emotional triggers,” David says.
That’s because our brains are wired to create powerful associations between things that hurt us and whatever happened to be occurring when we got hurt. Every time that thing happens again, we have the same behavioral response to it.
So, if you’ve been hit by a car in the past, hearing the slightest sound of traffic may send you running for shelter, even though you know rationally that the odds of it happening again are incredibly low. Sensory experiences, like feeling a raindrop, hearing a sound, or noticing a smell associated with a particular cause, can elicit an emotional reaction even before a person realizes why he or she is upset. And because our responses to triggers usually occur at this subconscious level, we often find ourselves repeating the same behaviors over and over again.
It’s only when we can see our triggers for what they are — overreactions to a perceived threat — that we can learn to respond in ways that are more life affirming, useful, and healthy for us, says David. One way to do this is by calmly thinking through our responses before acting out and perhaps saying or doing things we regret.
Mindfulness can help
About twelve years ago, a number of Buddhist teachers began to share a new mindfulness tool that offers support for working with the intense and difficult emotions we experience when we’re being triggered. Called RAIN (an acronym for the four steps of the process), it can be used in almost any place or situation.
Best-selling author of Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach has taught RAIN to thousands of students, clients, and mental health professionals, and has made it a core practice in her own life.
Here are the four steps:
- R – Recognize what is happening
- A – Allow life to be just as it is
- I – Investigate inner experience with kindness
- N – Non-identification.
Practicing RAIN can help us begin to undo the habitual ways in which we react to our moment-to-moment experience. It doesn’t matter whether we resist “what is” by lashing out in anger, by having a cigarette, or by getting immersed in obsessive thinking. Your attempt to control what’s around you actually cuts you off from your own heart, Tara says.
Recognize what is happening
Recognition is seeing what is true in your inner life. It starts the minute you focus your attention on whatever thoughts, emotions, feelings, or sensations are arising right here and now. As your attention settles and opens, you will discover that some parts of your experience are easier to connect with than others. You can awaken recognition simply by asking yourself: “What is happening inside me right now?”
Allow life to be just as it is
Allowing means “letting be” the thoughts, emotions, feelings, or sensations you discover. You may feel a natural sense of aversion, of wishing that unpleasant feelings would go away, but as you become more willing to be present with “what is,” a different quality of attention will emerge. Allowing is intrinsic to healing, and realizing this can give rise to a conscious intention to “let be.”
Investigate with kindness
At times, simply working through the first two steps of RAIN is enough to provide relief and to reconnect you with presence. In other cases, however, it is not enough. For instance, if you are in the thick of a divorce, about to lose a job, or dealing with a life threatening illness, you may be easily overwhelmed by intense feelings. Because these feelings are triggered over and over again — you get a phone call from your soon-to-be ex, your bank statement comes, you wake up to pain in the morning — your reactions can become very entrenched. In such situations, you may need to further awaken and strengthen mindful awareness with the I of RAIN.
Investigation means calling on your natural interest — the desire to know the truth — and directing a more focused attention to your present experience. Simply pausing to ask, “What is happening inside me?” might initiate recognition, but with investigation you engage in a more active and pointed type of inquiry. You might ask yourself: “What most wants attention?” “How am I experiencing this in my body?” or “What am I believing?”
The lucid, open, and kind presence evoked in the R, A, and I of RAIN leads to the N: the freedom of non-identification, and the realization of what Tara Brach calls natural awareness. This means that your sense of who you are is not fused with or defined by any limited set of emotions, sensations, or stories. The first three steps of RAIN require some intentional activity. In contrast, the N of RAIN expresses the result: a liberating realization of your “natural awareness.” We simply rest in natural awareness.
The solution: gratitude & mindfulness
LifeWork faculty member Sara Schley shares how she deals with triggers in her daily life.
When I notice, I’m being triggered, if I have the presence of mind to notice, I seek to cultivate the habit of going to gratitude. So for example, the other morning, I noticed that I was on edge. The way my husband looked at me made me want to kick something. And the extra dishes in the sink — usually no problem — generated a stream of expletives.
I sensed my neck was tight, my throat was dry, my muscles were ready to pounce.
I realized it was time for a gratitude break, so I found a private place to get quiet.
I started with centering, grounding, and breathing. Then I engaged in a gratitude practice that I pass along to you:
Out loud I say, “Thank you” to Source or Spirit or whatever you call that energy beyond the tangible that is the source of goodness and generosity in your life. I aim for the people and things that are annoying me.
“Thank you for my husband and all the goodness he brings to my life. Our meeting was a miracle and every day is a gift.”
You may think that sounds Hallmark-like, but the more flowery the language the better, I find.
As for the dishes, “Thank you for the abundance of food that we have. For the garden. For the local organic scene. For all the good nourishment that is at our fingertips in this food oasis we call home.”
Regarding the teens who made the mess, “Thank you for these amazing children. Thank you for their health, safety, feistiness, and spirit.”
You get the point.
The idea for me is to lean into gratitude with fervor. And it works. Try it next time, if even against your will, and watch the emotional triggers melt away, along with the physical symptoms of fury that you were holding so tenaciously in your body. Notice how, voilà, you are free.
Get started yourself
Of course, it’s not always this easy. In real life, our triggers are never going to disappear entirely, and neither is that one colleague, or the thing your partner says that sets you off. The key is to become aware of what they are, why they are, and then take some action. And even then, what you do is not always going to work perfectly, but at least it’s a start, a way to stand up a little taller, shift the balance of power, and create the possibility for connection, starting within.