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Dealing with Emotional Triggers to Anxiety and/or Trauma

Every day I see people getting emotionally triggered by something.  A “trigger” is something that releases negative emotions such as anxiety, fear, sadness, hurt or intrusive thoughts of a past event/trauma.  For the Veteran, the sound of a car backfiring or loud boom of fireworks might bring them back to combat.  For the sexual trauma survivor certain smells, or a certain time of day or time of year, or type of touch can trigger painful memories.   An old song playing can remind us of the painful breakup that broke our heart and we can feel rejected and dejected all over again.  Triggers are essentially sights, smells, sounds, events, places, & people that get linked to something negative.  Our brain associates these things and when the trigger occurs we can feel the feeling we felt before and have reactions that are based on these past experiences.  A woman coming to my office sees a man in the parking lot that looks a lot like someone who raped her.  The hair coloring, build, and mannerisms look the same and given she was already feeling anxious and stressed, her nervous system was a bit sensitive.  Suddenly she feels overwhelmed with anxiety and panic with racing thoughts that she might be harmed, even though at 11am this man could clearly not be the deceased man who raped her 20 years before.   Triggers can set us in an emotional time warp.  Even though we may know where we are and who we are, it can set an overwhelming emotional reaction that feels out of control.   You could be in a meeting presenting to a group of people and the reaction of someone triggers a feeling of rage, or helplessness.  You might overreact to criticism or to some conflict and the current situation may trigger feelings you had as a child dealing with a critical, extremely demanding or abusive parent.  Whatever your triggers are, it is important to identify them and understand their roots.  This helps us to better manage our emotions and have the kind of reactions we want to have.  When we overreact or underreact to situations, the triggers and the past unresolved hurts are controlling us.  If we can understand them, talk about them, and deal with our emotions through therapy or a healing relationship we can overcome our past traumas and be free to live in our present.   We are also better prepared to deal with future situations that could trigger us because we can figure out new ways of dealing with these situations.