Transforming Triggers (3 of 3).

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Practical steps for working through triggers                                                     Working and transforming your triggers brings emotional flexibility and freedom.  It helps you to respond appropriately and sensitively to situations rather than react in ways that might be limiting or hurtful to you and others.  It is worthwhile to put some time and energy into working with your triggers, because the payoffs are numerous.  Some of these benefits include: being more facilitative and helpful to your children; clearer communication with your significant other; it allows you to respond creatively to situations instead of reacting impulsively, you can catch yourself before a rupture appears that might affect a friendship adversely; and, it can allow you to work and respond more efficiently at your job.

Forward Steps to Freedom

  • Know your triggers.
  • Notice if you suddenly become quiet, or feel like disappearing, or perhaps you become argumentative, irritable or angry.  This includes any pronounced feeling that seems to come “out of the blue” or that doesn’t seem to match what is going on.  You will need to get into the habit of noticing.  It takes practice to be aware of what is going on inside.  The more you do this, the more skilled you will become – thus allowing your unconscious triggers to become conscious so you can effectively work with them, rather than having them work you.
  • Slow it down:  what’s happening in your body?  What sensations are you experiencing?  Tune in to any intense or subtle feelings.  Not only does this familiarize you with the sensations that can act as cues in the future, but it can also buy some time so the prefrontal cortex can be brought on board to help evaluate the situation.  You will eventually get to know what sensations and feelings are associated with which trigger.  In this way, even before you are aware you are being triggered, you can recognize the sensation or emotion that acts as a signal that there is a memory, or old threat, being activated.
  • See if you can maintain an observing awareness.  Try not to judge the feelings or sensations right away; just observe.  You may be too activated to accurately evaluate your response.  Be curious; if possible – open into a non-judgmental attitude.  Being able to witness your reactions  (instead of being taken over by them) is a valuable asset in working with triggers.
  • Take a time out if you find that you are reacting in a way that is hurtful or harmful to self or others.  See if you can simply take a ‘time out’ from what you are doing and put some space between you and the situation.
  • Once you are no longer feeling triggered, see if you can understand what happened and what got evoked.  Go easy with yourself, find a safe place to do this work: either with a therapist, a trusted, non-judgmental friend or perhaps through journalling or other process-oriented methods.
  • As we understand and work through our triggers we gain freedom.  Triggers hijack our ability to be flexible and thoughtful in our response to situations or people.  Repeating the above steps gives us more clarity and awareness of our emotional responses and enables us to take responsibility for our actions.  Gain freedom and empower yourself today by working with your triggers.  Your ability to experience life unencumbered by the conditioning of the past will allow you to see the world anew and celebrate life with a fresh perspective.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Transforming Triggers (Part 2 of 3) – Flight, Fight, or Freeze

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Neurobiological Underpinnings of Triggers (Part 2 of 3)                                           As we learned from last weeks blog, triggers can evoke powerful feelings that can lead us to behave in seemingly irrational ways.  When we become triggered, owing to a fear response, we do not always have access to the executive functions that are located primarily in the prefrontal cortex.  Instead, we are rerouted to the limbic area, which provides the important function of keeping us safe from being hurt.  This part of the brain is on the watch for threat, prioritizing safety over a more lengthy and complex evaluation of the stimulus in relation to the current context in which it appears.  This limbic response to external threat generally results in behavior that fits into one of the fight, flight or freeze categories.  The behavior that results from this instant (and often unconscious) appraisal could be silence, moving away, or shouting and bickering.  The external threat can be a psychological or a physical threat.  For example you could be afraid someone is going to hit you if their anger is escalating.  Or, if a loved one is remote and unresponsive, you might be afraid that the relationship is in jeopardy.  The prefrontal cortex is responsible for, among other things, comprehending complex information, planning, interpreting social signals and grasping consequences.  These functions become overridden in the service of safety and survival when the limbic centers take the helm owing to a threatening or evocative stimulus.

How triggers develop                                                                                                     Past difficult or traumatic experiences that were not comprehended either because we were at an age whereby we didn’t have the ability to take in the meaning and context of an event, or because there was no one around to help us make sense of what was happening, become lodged in our brain in a problematic way.  Because we were not able to “make sense” of this data, it does not get integrated into the larger functioning of the brain.  Additionally, when there was no one there to understand and help sooth our distress, this too will contribute to these emotional memories getting stored in a way that can be problematic later on.  When these events are not processed, these emotional “memories” hang around in little encapsulated neural nets in the brain that get pulled up when we experience a stimulus that reminds us of the initial trauma or past difficult situations.  Once we are triggered, the brain effectively reroutes us to the limbic system, which is wired for survival purposes.  We react before we even know what we are reacting to.  Interestingly, trauma or unprocessed memories from stressful events have no time stamp, so as we experience this visceral reaction, it feels as though we are responding to the current situation rather than to the echoes of a past event.

Can we control our reactions to triggers?                                                                        Yes and no.  It is important to note that we are unable to control something we are unaware of.  By their nature, triggers are often unconscious.  The good news is there are many cues that can alert us to the possibility that we are being triggered.  If we know how to perceive these cues, then we can utilize them as signals, thus bringing them into our conscious awareness, moving us one step closer to controlling our response.  Processing troubling or painful events with someone who cares about us, is an important way of minimizing the chance of a memory becoming traumatic.  It’s not the event itself that is the problem as much as the way it’s handled, and whether one has help and support in facing this difficulty.  How we deal with it is what’s most importantTune in next week to learn some practical steps towards how we can recognize and deal with out triggers effectively.

 

Transforming Triggers (Part 1 of 3)

Screen Shot 2012-10-18 at 9.11.54 PMHave you ever been happily going about your day, when all of a sudden you are unknowingly triggered by something and you quickly become enraged or saddened or anxious or hopeless or…                                    Emotional triggers can come in the form of individual people, noises, smells, images, sensations, dates, weather conditions, tone of voice, and any combination thereof.  While triggers come in many forms (too numerous to mention), it is our response that categorizes a certain stimulus as a trigger.

In this blog series I will focus on triggers that affect us in an adverse way.   In these cases our emotional reaction or behavioral response can appear unrelated, or mismatched in intensity, to the stimulus.  When we are triggered, we often erroneously believe that  there is only one way to respond to the situation.  We also may have no clue that we’ve even been triggered.

Why do we respond in this reactive way?                                                                        The reason for this strong response is the stimulus is evoking a memory (either consciously or unconsciously) of a past situation, trauma or event that threatened our safety or security in some way.  This memory can be perceived as a physical or a psychological threat; such as a tone of voice that reminds us of a parent’s harsh disciplining; or a lover whose far-away look reminds us of our mother who was unavailable owing to depression.  While the current situation or stimulus might appear benign, underneath we are having an intense reaction because it is touching on something sensitive from our history.

It can be hard to work with our triggers because we often don’t have a clue that we are responding in a triggered way.  It can feel like we are simply responding to the current event without any recognition that this is touching on a memory.  For example, Sarah becomes distressed because her boyfriend is not texting her back and he didn’t call last night like he usually does.  Sarah begins to panic and then becomes outraged at his lack of response.  She imagines the worst – that he is done with the relationship.  This thought grips her as a very real possibility, even while she is unaware that these are the exact same feeling she had when her father left her at the age of 12.  When the trigger leads her into these highly activated emotional states, e.g. panic and rage, she loses the ability to entertain a myriad of other possibilities.  If she remains in this activated state, other possibilities for his behavior can seem more and more remote.  The distress takes over, leaving her less able to access other considerations, such as he may have been exhausted the night before, or perhaps his text didn’t go through, or any number of other possibilities.  At the same time, there is no awareness that her fear is colored by her past experience of loss and abandonment.

When the trigger evokes a feeling or state of mind similar to a past memory, it often does not feel like a memory; rather it feels like we are simply responding to what is going on.  For example, a tall dark man smiles openly at a woman who has been raped in the past.  This man, who she’s never met, has certain features that remind her of her rapist.  She gets a sickening feeling inside and gives him a smirk, writing him off as a ‘player’.  She may not even consciously think of the rapist; she feels her response to him is a “gut reaction,” seeing him for who he really is.  Meanwhile this gentlemen thinks she is ‘stuck-up’ because he was being authentically warm towards her because she reminded him of his daughter in law who he cares for very much.  In this particular instance his appearance acts like a trigger, that unknowingly evokes a specific response in this woman.  You can see from this example how triggers can lead us to behave in misguided ways.

It can be helpful to understand some of the neurobiological underpinnings of triggers in order to make sense of what, at first glance, can look like an irrational responses.  There are powerful forces at work, which might not be evident at first glance.  Next week we will take a brief look at the neurobiology of being triggered.

The Compare Game

nature-photography-131How much do you compare yourself to others?  Have you ever noticed how this affects your state of mind?  It can be hard not to notice when someone else has the job you want, the hair you desire, or any number of other favorable traits or life circumstances.  When this happens, you might find yourself lost in rumination about how unfair this feels or how demoralizing it is.           Today’s blog will focus on what happens when the compare game results in us coming up short, perhaps leading to shame, or feeling deficient in some way.  Comparing ourselves negatively to others can bring about painful inner states such as poisonous envy, or perhaps a searing jealousy.  In these instances it can be helpful to reflect on how this feels in the body and impacts our self-esteem.  It’s sometimes hard to decenter from these feelings and see that we are creating a toxic state in our own bodies by simply thinking about something in a certain way.

How do we decenter from such thoughts and move ourselves out of these painful states?  How do we shift our thinking in a way that is supportive and affirmative, while still being honest with the realities we face?

Tips for avoiding the compare game and its destructive effects; see below for some simple steps.

  • Awareness.  Often comparisons are our dirty little secret, so they can be hard to admit to, even as we are doing them.  Turn a gentle observing awareness to what is happening.  Do not judge.  Notice how much space it takes up, what kind of mood it evokes, and how it makes you feel about yourself.  (This will need to happen repeatedly)
  • Acknowledge.  See if you can simply acknowledge what is happening inside. This may sound simple and not worth doing but it is an important step.  (We cannot actively change something that we don’t fully acknowledge.)
  •  Evaluate.  Does this comparison point out something that would be helpful to work on?  If so, how can I approach this positively without any shame or self-deprecating thoughts?  Focus on a ‘personal best’ rather than a comparison.
  • Opening up to another way.  See if you can recognize that the people or life-situations that you are comparing yourself to are states of being, or aspects of life, that are in continual shift.  (One person may be famous for 10 years and then enter into relative obscurity, beauty comes and goes, success has its seasons, a job, and a relationship are ever changing.)  Remain humble and at the same time affirm your strengths.  Focus on what you can do, rather than what you can’t do.  Always remember that the ultimate, groundless being that you truly are is not comparable to anything, and is much more than the sum of it’s parts.  If you can genuinely tap into this, then the compare game will ultimately become unnecessary.

 

Acceptance as a Form of Empowerment

IMG_0543Is much of your day taken up by preoccupations of some sort?  It can be helpful to distinguish between a preoccupation that results in productive or creative thinking that helps you to move through something as opposed to a preoccupation with something or someone that you are unhappy with and unable to change.  How much of life is passing you by  while you are consumed with the latter kinds of rumination?  How many sunsets or sunrises have been missed, lost in thought?  If you would like to turn this around, see if you can catch yourself throughout the day when you are ruminating in a non-productive way on a particular topic, a person or situation that is irritating you.  Once you notice this, follow these steps:

  • Ask yourself, “Do you have any power to change the situation in this moment?”
  •  If not, then shift your awareness out of your head and into your body.  How does your body feel on the inside?  Is it tense?  What sensations are there?  How are you carrying this problem or dilemma in your body?
  •  Can you acknowledge that this is so, just for right now.  Take your time with this and allow it to register fully in your head and in your body.  See if you can yield to this.  Let go of the future and the past, you only need to acknowledge that this is so, in this moment.
  • Now see if you can accept that this is so right now.  (If this is too hard, then see if you can be gentle with this place inside that is having such a hard time accepting.)
  •  Breathe into this place with compassion.  (Remember, you only need to accept that you are powerless right now.)  See if you can stay in this place of acceptance for several minutes.
  •  Remind yourself that the future hasn’t happened, you have no control over the past, all you have control over is how you are in this moment.  Allow yourself to deepen into this realization.
  •  Take a few deep breaths and look around, take in your surroundings, notice what is in this moment.  See if you can enter fully into the wonder of the Now.

If you can do this several times/day, you can begin to change the way your brain operates.  It takes a lot of psychic energy to battle something you are powerless over.  In this way, you are tying up valuable resources that can be used to enjoy sunsets, sunrises, and all the other precious moments that are passing you by.  Accepting what is (in this moment) frees up inner space and resources to approach situations with creativity and flexibility.  You are now moving with the Tao.  Great power lies here.

Taking Things Personally

Silhouette on mtnCan you recount a time when you’ve been preoccupied by feeling slighted, put down, or dismissed in some way?  Have you ever ruminated over something someone said to you; feeling as though it was said against you?  Maybe it has resulted in your feeling hurt, resentful or even outraged?   How big of a space is it occupying in your mind?  How does it feel in your body while ruminating on this topic?  Is this a pleasant feeling?

Do you find yourself entering into an inner monologue in your head; putting down the person who slighted you?  Are you beginning to make a case for why you are right and the other person is wrong?  If so, do you feel slightly energized by these thoughts, or perhaps pumped up by them?  Does it make you feel better, or more “right,” by putting this person down in your head, or even out loud to others?

This kind of anger or righteous response can serve 2 purposes.  When we feel our sense of self is fractured or hurt, anger can hold us together psychologically.  It can also lead to us feeling superior, which is usually preferable to feeling put down or inferior.  Anger can hold us together (in a perverse kind of way); it can shore up our fragile sense of self.

The difficulty with the above strategy is we need to put down others to feel good.  This is a cycle that has no end.  You are engaging in a talion response: “you make me feel bad, then I put you down”…and so it goes.  Additionally, we are stuck with inflammatory thoughts running amok in our heads, afflicting our bodies with tension and negative feelings.  This not only occupies space that we could be using for more creative, productive pursuits, but it is essentially polluting our inner landscape.

One of the reasons this kind of negative thinking takes root, is that there were likely many instances at younger ages where there was no-one to turn to for comfort when you felt slighted, no one who showed they care.  When this happens repeatedly, over a long period, hurt feelings can harden into resentments and anger.  The biological brain actually creates a superhighway that bypasses vulnerability and goes straight to anger.  If we can’t  be held or supported when we’ve felt slighted, at least our anger and righteousness can nurse our wound.

Is there another way?  How do we change this inner landscape to one that is more friendly, generous and life-giving?

The next time you find yourself telling someone off in an inner dialogue or putting someone else down because you’ve been put down – Stop – look for the hurting place inside.  Attend to this place, acknowledge it, find some solace that is healthy and life-affirming.  Remember times in the past when you might have slighted someone else, or perhaps put someone down.  Entertain the possibility that this person who put you down might be talking out of his/her own place of hurting and fragility that has hardened over into anger.  Can you see this behavior as having more to do with their hurting place than with you personally?  Efforts in this direction can free up real estate inside your brain for much more productive, creative, healthy and self-affirming ways of being and thinking.

Decide whether you want to spend time nursing your wounds with angry responses or would it be more helpful to offer support to that hurting place inside so you can move out of this destructive cycle into a place that gets you in touch with your real self-worth.