What triggers you?
A few weeks ago, my ex arrived a tiny bit later than arranged for the handover of our kids.
I was ready; watching the clock, waiting to turn that uninterrupted, magnesium-laced spa bath, red wine and book into my new reality. Bring. It. On.
Then suddenly, just like that: I looked at my watch – he was late. I felt my body tense up. My frown line deepened. I was frustrated and angry, in an instant. I started shallow breathing as my heart raced.
But wait, there’s more! Enter stage right: the little voices that started clamouring for my attention to the point where I couldn’t hear anything else.
Bye-bye present mama, thinking logically and able to enjoy the gift of an additional few minutes with my kiddies.
And hello triggered mum! I was on autopilot. Destination: Blame.
I’d been there before. My only response on the odd occasion that my ex arrives late (and just for the record, I’ve been late on occasions, too!) is go into overdrive: he doesn’t value my time, he doesn’t appreciate me, he doesn’t respect me as the mother of his children, and I can’t believe he’s willingly to let the children down.
Do I really believe any of this is true? No, of course not. But that’s where my head goes when I’m triggered – to a random meaning I’ve attached to any instance when my ex is late.
These days, I’m very well aware that when I’m in a triggered state I’m unable to humanise the situation, think it through consciously, or have any empathy whatsoever. And isn’t that sad?
In the situation of my ex running a little late, not once did I stop to consider: was he safe? Did he get held up in peak hour traffic on the two-hour commute (a massive effort after a long day at work!) or, perhaps, a business meeting that ran over while he was trying to close a deal to provide for the kids?
My only response was to unleash a bucket load of blame on him, and reinforce to myself that I’m the victim.
The good news: I now know how to catch myself when I’m triggered (well, most of the time!) and quickly switch it off.
I’ve learned the steps you need to take to diffuse a trigger, and I’m going to share them with you.
What is a trigger?
An emotional trigger is when somebody (the ex or your children, perhaps) does something, and rather than responding to them consciously you react on autopilot.
As Jack Butler, founder of The Conscious Change Agent explains: “when you are triggered you go to a place in your past, where you felt less powerful. The observer in you tends to get shut down and your range of capacity diminishes. You get tunnel vision and you can only see one way to respond. Typically if you are triggered you are in a place where you have lost some consciousness.”
The more important thing to understand is that when you’re triggered, “a disproportionate amount of meaning from your past gets brought into the present moment. It causes you to overreact or to interpret a situation the way in which a younger version of your would have interpreted it.”
The attached meaning is in no way a true reflection of the situation in the present.
How would you know if you’re being triggered?
I’ve been there, and maybe you have too. Here’s what you’ll feel if you’ve been triggered:
Physically, you’re going to be breathing more rapidly
Your attention pattern is narrowed – you’ll develop a one-track mind
You’ll feel stressed (sometimes sick in your stomach if that’s where you hold your fear)
Say hello to the little voices doing all the talking
Waves of urgency to resolve the situation right there and then
It’s also important to know that there are situations where you may be counter-triggered. Being counter-triggered happens when someone else is in a triggered state and their reaction to you sets off a trigger in you.
Maybe your spouse or ex fires up about something that’s bothering them – and then you take the bait? But today – to better explain this concept, I’d like to talk about kids!
Children move from a state of calm to a state of rage (you can’t have that toy!) or distress (it’s lights out time now!) or ecstasy (yes you can have a friend over, we’ll go bowling and eat sugar!) faster than presents get unwrapped on Christmas Day.
Like most parents, there have been times when my little angels have responded badly to a boundary or request. The result: an emotionally triggered child. Awesome!
The dream would be to always act in a mature fashion and defuse the situation for your child, modelling good behaviour and giving them tools to self-regulate. But there are times, especially as a single parent, where it’s complicated.
When your child is emotionally triggered, has this then set off a trigger in you?
Perhaps you recognise a behaviour or unfavourable mannerism in them that reminds you of your ex? Or, your child’s meltdown triggers feelings of resentment towards your ex for the fact that you are now having to deal with this situation as a single parent?
I could go on, and on.
If so, you’ll probably find that you’ve react to your child in a very different way than you would have in any normal situation.
Before you know it, there are two (maybe more) people in the room, all emotionally triggered.
Talking logically at this point in time is not an option. Yelling and saying things you wished you hadn’t – that’s where we’re at.
So, how are you going to get things back to normal?
Here’s your 6-step TRIGGER DEFUSER:
RECOGNISE: Write down a list of all the things that trigger you. And I mean, everything!
TUNE IN: Beside each one, write down how you feel physically, emotionally and mentally when you’re being triggered.
CONNECT THE TWO: Make yourself very aware that when you start to feel those feelings that you’re most likely being triggered.
YOUR CALMING TOOL: What activity gives you a sense of peace and calm? What activity do you think could help you peel away those feelings and return you to a state of calm? Let’s call it your “go-to” activity (i.e. deep breaths, a 5 min walk, a quick yoga session, a cup of tea, a good book). Have kids? What are their calm-down activities? My son likes to listen to calming music, while my daughter likes to draw in her sketch pad.
CREATE A GAME PLAN: Now, piece it all together so that next time you start experiencing any of those feelings you can bring awareness to it, remove yourself from the situation, redirect your energy to your “go-to” activity, and return to a peaceful and calm state as fast as possible.
WHAT’S YOUR LINE?: It’s also a great idea to have a well-rehearsed line that you can comfortably rattle off to anyone that triggers you. It’s important that you can respectfully remove yourself from a situation without saying something that you wished you hadn’t. You will need to make the other person feel safe by stating an amount of time you need to disengage, and give them a commitment that you are not abandoning them but wish to revisit the issue respectfully when you are calm.
Want to know what my line is with my kids?
First, a big deep breath! “Honey, I love you and you know that we need to have a chat about what just happened. But, right now, I’m so cross I can’t do that respectfully. Please go sit on your bed, put your headphones on and listen to 3 songs. Mummy needs to have a cup of tea and find her happy place again. I’ll be back in five with a cuddle for our chat.”
Obviously, you may need to make this more age-appropriate for your children. But it works wonders–for all of us. I found it really helpful to role play this routine when everyone is in a state of calm so the children know the drill.
The best bit about this six-step trigger defuser is that you can teach it to your children (and model it to them every day – well, hopefully not!). Allowing them to self-regulate on their own goes a long way to helping them develop awesome coping skills as a teen and adult. These are skills you can’t buy.
What’s your “go-to” activity for calming down? Let us know in the comments below!
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You’re doing just fine. Take it one day at a time. And remember, be especially kind to yourself.
Founder | Hello Mojo