By Jeremy Godwin
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple ideas that you can use to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing every day, based on quality research.
This is Episode 91 and this week I’m talking about triggers. In this episode I’ll cover what emotional triggers are, why understanding your triggers matters for your mental health, and how to manage your emotional triggers in a healthy way. So, let’s talk about mental health!
Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the full transcript.
Watch Episode 29 of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV — in this latest episode I’m talking about why you should stop worrying about the future so much (and how to do it!).
Watch it below or visit the channel on YouTube:
This podcast episode was originally released on 8 August, 2021.
Hello and welcome to Episode 91, and thanks so much for joining me!
This week is all about understanding and dealing with emotional triggers in a healthy way. The idea of being ‘triggered’ is one of those things that gets used and abused quite a lot, which actually takes away from genuine emotional triggers that can occur as a result of past trauma. I’m going to be very clear up-front and say that just because you don’t like something that someone says or does, that doesn’t mean you’re being triggered: that means that you’re having an emotional reaction and you’re looking for someone to blame, rather than looking within to find meaningful solutions. If that statement makes you feel angry or uncomfortable, then perhaps this is not the podcast for you and I’d suggest stopping this episode now! And I say that because genuine triggers are important to analyse and understand, as they can serve to offer clues about stuff from our past that we might need to work on in order to heal and grow. And the other reason I say that is because the only person responsible for what you do, say and feel is you, and we don’t do blame here on Let’s Talk About Mental Health! So today’s episode is going to be all about listening to those types of emotional triggers and understanding what they might be trying to tell you, so that you can then address the root cause and find greater peace of mind.
Before I begin with today’s content, two quick things to cover. First, have you subscribed to my free weekly newsletter? Every Thursday I send out a super-quick round-up of a few things that I’ve found inspiring and interesting during the week, and it’s designed for you to read the entire thing in two or three minutes maximum. Subscribe at the Let’s Talk About Mental Health website by heading to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/subscribe or you can just find it on the front page of the website.
And secondly, have you started watching my weekly show Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV over on YouTube yet? Because each Wednesday I put out a brand new video with content that is totally different to this podcast, and your support would be much appreciated as I grow that channel. Find the latest video linked in this episode’s description on whatever podcast service you’re currently listening to me on, or just head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au and you’ll find it on the front page.
So, with that covered, on with this week’s episode about triggers…
In 2001, a little group by the name of Destiny’s Child declared that,
“I'm a survivor, I'm gonna make it, I will survive, keep on survivin’” — Survivor, Destiny’s Child
And the reason why I did that spoken-word version of that song is that it was so big that even when Vanilla Ice covered it in 2005, which probably would have been the kiss of death for any other number, the original song just kept on surviving (and let’s be honest, you knew I was going to make that pun!).
So I’m beginning today with a spoken-word version of one of the biggest songs ever released by Beyoncé and her back-up singers because triggers are generally linked with past trauma, something that takes effort to work through and heal from — and, therefore, a whole bunch of survivin’.
I’ve said before that my partner works as a high school teacher, and it’s become a running discussion between the two of us about the types of things that some students will try to say they feel triggered by — for example, books about the Holocaust, which (to the best of my knowledge) none of the students at that school were actually involved in, making it a little bit difficult to be actually triggered by. Because a trigger isn’t just about not liking something or it making you feel a bit squirmy; genuine triggers are situations, events or interactions that consciously or subconsciously recall past traumatic events — something that needs to be worked through and addressed in order to find ways of mitigating future triggers. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here; let’s first talk about some definitions and discuss…
What are emotional triggers?
Emotional triggers are automatic responses to specific situations, events or interactions that consciously or subconsciously remind you of the past, especially where that’s related to traumatic experiences in your past. It usually does things like setting off your sympathetic nervous system and it can trigger the fight, flight or freeze response as a means of preparing you for perceived danger, resulting in a racing heart or that feeling of adrenaline coursing through your body.
Often our emotional triggers can be linked to your feelings about relationships with other people or stuff that has gone unresolved from your past; for example, I know someone who can be quite needy, manipulative and drama-focused, and although those are behaviours that I don’t particularly have time for in general, interacting with this person very often sets off strong feelings because the way that they behave reminds me a lot of my mother — and I’ve talked openly about the many issues that I’ve had to work through in terms of that woman, so you know… we won’t go there! My point is that, sometimes, people or events can remind us of things from our history that we are yet to fully heal from, and it can reopen old wounds and ignite past resentments.
Whatever creates them, emotional triggers almost always stir up strong emotions such as fear, anger, extreme discomfort and the like. Sometimes it can be about things stemming right back to childhood that stick with us for life; for example, when I was five I won a life-size clown doll at school (which was, I will point out here, not ‘life size’ — it was WAY bigger than I was!) and my parents had the bright idea to put it at the foot of my bed when I went to sleep that night… cut to me waking up in the middle of the night and thinking that there was a demonic clown at the end of my bed, and so I screamed the entire house down — then they tried putting it on top of the wardrobe instead, but it still terrified the hell out of me and eventually they finally got the thing out of my room… and so now I don’t like clowns or clown-shaped objects sitting on top of my wardrobe, which I think is pretty fair given the circumstances! But anyway…!
Because these types of traumatic events can stick with us for a long time, just trying to ignore them isn’t usually a particularly effective strategy; when you bottle things up inside or pretend that they don’t exist, they usually find a way to make their presence known regardless of what you might want.
Now before we go any further, let me be very clear here and say that that being annoyed by something or not liking something does not mean that it’s a trigger; it simply means that you don’t like whatever it is. For example, I am constantly bombarded with messages (and I mean constantly; it’s like multiple times a week) with people asking if I would consider them to be a guest on my podcast. Now for those of you who have listened to more than one episode of this show in the past: have I ever had a guest on? No! This isn’t that kind of show. There are lots of interview shows out there and the point of difference with this one is that each episode is a how-to session written and presented by me… but that doesn’t stop the requests coming, which usually tells me that whoever it is has never actually listened to a single episode of my show and are more interested in self-promotion. Now, it used to really piss me off (I mean, look, it still does — it happened twice this morning) but I don’t get as annoyed as I used to, because it is what it is. Now I just have a standard ‘thanks but no thanks’ response. So my point is instead of choosing to be ‘triggered’ by other people, I choose to recognise that it’s actually just an annoyance and then I deal with it accordingly by having a simple-yet-polite way of declining. It’s about understanding what you’re feeling and why, and then learning to manage it accordingly… because all you can control is yourself.
And that leads me nicely into the next part of this episode…
Why understanding emotional triggers matters for your mental health
And it matters because when we begin to understand traumatic events in our past, we can confront them and start to heal. When emotional triggers happen — like feeling uncomfortable when someone speaks or acts a certain way — it’s like a great big neon sign going off over your head that says, “Hey! It’s not about them — it’s about you!” and so if that happens, it’s an opportunity to dig deep and do the work to understand the root cause or causes.
Now, a word of caution before we go any further. For very serious trauma I would not be recommending that you go down the dig-deep-and-do-it-yourself path of self-analysis and healing work, because dealing with trauma conditions (including PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder) requires a highly-trained specialist. I would even go so far as to recommend not working with a generalist therapist or counsellor but instead finding a specialist who works specifically in this type of field; they are highly specialised skills and it requires a very particular type of person to manage it carefully — I, for one, chose not to do any units of study in that heavy trauma space because it made me very uncomfortable, and because they were ‘elective’ options I ‘elected’ not to do them! And so you probably would find other people would ‘elect’ not to do those as well. So I choose to refer any potential clients requiring support for complex or serious trauma to a specialist in the field. It’s just something to bear in mind, because I think the more serious types of trauma are best handled by someone who specialises in that field. But when we’re talking about more general emotional triggers, I am all for doing the work yourself in terms of seeking to understand what is happening and why so that you can address it.
Now, the main reason why understanding your emotional triggers is important for your mental health is that we can often find ourselves blaming the person or the situation for our feelings of discomfort if we don’t have a solid understanding of what is behind our reactions. Being able to step back and ask ourselves “what is really going on here?” is part of self awareness, which I talked about in Episode 62, and it allows us to know ourselves better in order to respond more thoughtfully.
So, how do you do that? Well, let’s get into the how-to part of this week’s episode and talk about…
How to manage emotional triggers in a healthy way
And I’m going to begin with tips for dealing with triggers in the moment, then we’ll explore some general everyday things that can be a form of preventative maintenance to help you if and when you need it (because, as I’ve said often on this show, prevention is better than cure). So, if you’re in the middle of feeling an emotional trigger, here are some things to focus on:
First, stop and breathe for at least 10 seconds — when something happens that causes an extreme emotion, your rational brain is rarely the first thing that takes control; usually, your fight, flight or freeze response activates for the first few seconds in response to a perceived threat as a means of keeping you from harm (and I’ve talked about this idea of a ‘hijacking’ that occurs in past episodes so I’ll be brief here). The main thing to be aware of is that any action you take in the first few seconds is being driven by your survival instinct and not by rational thought processes… which is really helpful when you’re being chased by lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) but not particularly helpful when you’re sitting in an office on a cloudy Thursday feeling some type of way about something that isn’t actually life-threatening. So by pausing and breathing slowly for at least 10 seconds, you’re allowing time for the emotional hijack to pass so that your logical mind can activate and look at the situation more thoughtfully. Try it the next time you’re arguing with your partner or a family member; it makes a huge difference and usually leads to far less mess than just reacting based on your emotions!
Next, recognise that a trigger is telling you it’s time for a break or a refocus — because it means that your usual coping mechanisms just aren’t working at the moment, due to whatever is going on, so the ‘business as usual’ approach isn’t going to work. Take a brief break or focus on something else to allow the reaction time to simmer down a little before you then consider the most rational course of action.
Next, look within — the thing is that if you feel triggered by someone or something, you can either react to that or you can stop and reflect on what is actually going on within. Because the reality is that nobody can actually trigger you; you are simply reacting on the basis of your emotions and, potentially, needs that are not being met… because nobody else can ‘make’ you do anything. You’re the one in control of what you do, say and feel and short of magically turning you into a puppet, nobody else can take control of your words and actions. Which leaves us with the uncomfortable reality that ‘triggers’ are signs that you need to go deep within to find out what’s happening and, more importantly, why it’s happening, so that you can then do the work to address whatever the root cause is. It’s that whole reacting versus responding thing that I talk about a lot in this podcast — your reactions are your responsibility, and nobody else’s. Which leads to my next point…
Label the reaction when it happens — fear is rarely just ‘fear’; it’s usually fear of something or associated with something, so being able to consciously label exactly what it is that you’re feeling is a way to help your logical brain to recognise what is happening so that you can decide on the most intelligent way to respond. Action without thought is a recipe for disaster. Next…
Identify why the specific reaction happened — if you can understand what is happening and, more importantly, why it’s happening, it helps you to step out of the emotion and into that rational-thinking headspace that I was talking about before, which helps to dampen the effect of the emotions. For example, I find I can become triggered when I’m driving at high speed on country roads and some idiot decides to tailgate me — as a side note, if I can see the hair on your ears, you’re driving way too close and you better back the hell up! Anyway, so I used to find myself becoming angry and frustrated when that happened, but when I took the time to dig into it a bit more it became clear to me that it was more of a fear response stemming to a near-miss I had quite a few years ago. By now reminding myself of where the feelings are coming from when they happen, I’m able to settle myself and that takes away the power that fear can have on you when you’re in that sort of heightened state. The point is that when you know where the feeling or reaction is coming from, you take away any power it might have over you — because you are the one in control, not these random emotions and thoughts that can often just bubble up out of nowhere. My next point is…
If you need a longer break, take a break — this is something I discussed back in Episode 88, about conflict, and I’m sharing it again here because sometimes we can get into a place where we’re so overwhelmed by our emotional response that even the ‘pause for 10 seconds’ thing isn’t enough time to let us calm down… so if that happens, step back and take a break from the situation before you revisit it later. If you’re dealing with another person, you might have to say something like, “I just need a little while to process this — I’ll come back to you in an hour or two” (which is especially helpful at work!). And note that I didn’t suggest asking for the time you need, but instead stating that you are taking it in an assertive way (and I talked about assertiveness back in Episode 45, so you might find that episode helpful). My next point is…
Choose to replace negative thoughts with positive ones — and this is something that I talked about last week in Episode 90, which was all about positivity; when negative thoughts happen you can either lean into them and let them take control (which will often lead to more negativity, because like attracts like) or you can choose to challenge them with positive thoughts instead — because what you focus on is what you get.
Alright, so now let’s talk about things that you can and should do on a regular basis, if not daily, to help prepare you for emotional triggers and manage them more proactively, starting with…
Work on your self awareness — I mentioned this earlier and it was the subject of Episode 62, and the thing with self awareness is that when you know yourself you are better able to manage yourself in a way that is in line with the type of person you want to be, rather than just letting those less-than-ideal emotions take over and turn you into a raging monster. In the words of the oracle at Delphi, know yourself. And speaking of (and this might seem like a funny transition but bear with me) my next point is…
Be prepared when dealing with family members that you find challenging — and what I mean here is that when you know yourself well, through cultivating greater self awareness, you may begin to realise that there are certain family members who you find triggering. If that’s the case, plan how you’re going to deal with that in advance and remember that you are fully in charge of your emotions, and nobody can ‘make’ you do or say anything. Check out Episode 19 for more on dealing with family challenges.
Next, work on your personal growth and managing your emotions — this stuff is the foundation of good mental health because while self awareness might be a great start, all that self-knowledge is useless if you don’t do something with it to move yourself towards being the best version of yourself possible! I explored growth back in Episode 37 and emotions in Episode 57, so check those out for more on the subject (you can find transcripts for all past episodes at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes if you don’t have time to listen to the audio or just need a quick reference). Next…
Work on improving your self talk — because the way you talk to yourself and how you treat yourself shapes your reality. If you are cruel, self-critical and bullying towards yourself, that’s going to have an enormous negative effect on your self esteem — whereas being kind and supportive towards yourself will have a positive effect. Check out the following episodes for more: Episode 9 about self talk, Episode 43 about self-esteem and Episode 78 about self-worth. So my next point is…
Cultivate mindfulness — and this is one of those tips that I give almost every episode, because there is a whole bunch of research in the field of positive psychology that indicates a wide range of benefits associated with learning how to be more mindful, including being able to cultivate a greater sense of calm and peace of mind. Check out Episode 42 for a deeper look at mindfulness. Next…
If you’re prone to anger, work through it — of all the emotions, anger is one that can create many problems if it’s not managed in a healthy way, and by that I mean seeking to understand its source and addressing it so that the anger doesn’t become the star of the show every single time you feel some type of way, as that often causes long-term damage to your relationships as well as your own self-esteem. I recommend checking out Episode 73 for a much deeper look at anger and how to manage it. Which leads to my next point…
Deal with toxic relationships proactively — because anything described as ‘toxic’ is not going to magically turn into ‘lovely and pleasant’ overnight (if at all). Either change the nature of the relationship or remove yourself from it entirely; you can absolutely give people an opportunity to change how they treat you and explain why you need things to change (without having to justify yourself), but it’s that old saying of “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” — only they can choose whether or not to respect your needs, and if they do not and they continue to treat you poorly, then you are left with very limited options (most of which point to removing yourself from the relationship or situation). I have left jobs in the past purely because of absolutely toxic individuals I was working with who I knew would very likely not move on, so it was either stay and put up with it or move on to greener pastures. The moral of the story is: if you do all of the work I’ve talked about today and find that the primary triggers are because you’re being treated like crap by someone, remove yourself from that relationship. Nobody has the right to treat you like rubbish and you absolutely should never, ever allow that to continue happening. Check out Episode 75 for more advice on dealing with toxic people. And so that leads to my final point before I begin to wrap up…
Get support — if you have tried lots of different things and are still struggling with your emotional triggers, work with a professional who can guide you and help you to see things that you may not have considered. I do this work for a living and I still work with a therapist myself to help me work through things that I need to, because nobody is perfect and actually going and seeking the support that is going to help you manage challenges more effectively is actually an incredibly brave and powerful thing to do, so get support if you need it because you don’t have to go through all of this stuff on your own (and nor should you!).
Summary and Close-Out
Because when it comes to triggers and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: When you feel an emotional trigger happening, you can either choose to just react or you can choose to take your time and reflect on whatever is going on so that you can respond in a much more thoughtful way. When you just react, it usually creates an absolute mess because we aren’t thinking clearly, whereas when you choose to take the time to do the work and be more thoughtful in your approach to things and how you respond, you begin to change the way you feel — which has a knock-on effect in terms of greater self awareness, self confidence and self esteem.
The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today?
Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by Helen Keller, and it is:
“Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.”Helen Keller
Alright… that’s nearly it for this week. Next week I’ll be talking about death. I’m actually a bit excited to talk about this one because it’s a topic we don’t talk about very often, and it can even be a bit taboo for some people, but the reality is that none of us gets out of this life alive and I really do believe that many of our problems stem from our inability to face up to that fact. Especially here in the West, we’ve gone so far out of our way to remove death from everyday life that it’s this weird concept we pretend doesn’t exist even though it looms over every single one of us. So how do you make your peace with the fact that our lives are finite and that we will inevitably die, and how does doing that help your mental health? Well that’s what I’m exploring next week! I’ll be talking about what death is, why understanding and accepting death is fundamental for good mental health, and how to make your peace with the idea of death. It’s a big topic and I know it’s not for the faint of heart, but I encourage you to take the leap and be ready to talk with me about this tough topic!
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday 15th of August. And on Wednesday, catch the latest episode Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV on YouTube or IGTV.
You’ll find all podcast episodes and videos at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au along with free transcripts, and if you join my mailing list you’ll have the transcript plus my weekly newsletter full of simple ideas for better mental health land in your inbox every Thursday, completely free. You’ll also find the link in the description of this episode on whatever podcast service you’re currently listening to me on.
Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
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