You may have heard people say, “that triggered me” when they’ve had a big emotional reaction. Some people may automatically know what it means to be triggered based on their personal experiences, while others may struggle to be aware of and understand if and when they’re becoming triggered. We want to help you define what exactly becoming triggered means and share some cues to be on the lookout for to know when a trigger is present. While we may not always know if and or when we can become triggered, we do know that there are ways to redirect our experience to regulate and self-soothe in these moments through grounding exercises. Knowing this we will also share ways to ground yourself when triggered with mental, physical, and vocal strategies.
So what exactly is a trigger? A trigger is a stimulus (smell, sound, sight), memories, experiences, or events that cause an escalated emotional reaction. Our brains have automatic thoughts that are constantly aware of stimuli that we may or may not be consciously aware of. Our brain is scanning to protect us. Triggers alert our brain to kick into protection mode, but triggers can be sneaky. It could be a subtle sound or smell that pulls at an old memory and your body and emotions react with a heightened emotional reaction.
Think about this example: You’re at dinner with friends and smell the cologne of a loved one who has passed away. The trigger is the smell of cologne that caused a flashback to instant memories of this person along with feelings of grief and sadness. The loss may not be happening at that exact moment but the smell can make it feel as if it is. Sadness could escalate and grief could feel as if it’s taking over. Tears are about to come bursting out and it may be hard to get back into the conversation at dinner with friends. It feels like that trigger took you to a different emotional place and time. There’s also the possibility that you could be at dinner and not even be consciously aware that you smelled the cologne yet you start feeling off and maybe have more intense emotions or physical sensations.
It’s not always easy to make sense of what’s happening in the moment(s) when emotions are escalating. And it isn’t the best time to try to make sense of what’s happening either. Thankfully our bodies can help inform us when triggers are present as they will respond with physical cues. These physical cues can help us know when it may be a good time to do some grounding exercises to self-soothe and regulate our bodies and emotions.
When we say “our bodies” in this instance we are referring to our Autonomic Nervous System which is defined in the National Library of Medicine as “a component of the peripheral nervous system that regulates involuntary physiologic (aka body) processes including heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, and sexual arousal.”
If you are noticing any of the following physical cues, a trigger(s) may be present:
- Increased heart rate
- Tightness of chest
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid breathing
- Stomach pain/discomfort
- Brain fog/inability to think clearly
- Sweating and/or increased body temperature
If you notice any of these physical cues your body is reacting to protect you. If your emotional reaction is heightened as well this is an ideal time to regulate your body by self-soothing with grounding exercises.
Grounding is a technique many clinicians use when working with clients experiencing intense bouts of stress or intrusive symptoms of post-traumatic stress – aka becoming triggered often. Grounding helps bring clients into a present state of awareness and can help reclaim control over their physical and emotional reactions. Grounding helps regulate the entire intense experience. When we think of grounding we can think of three different ways to ground: mental, physical and verbal.
Look to each example of the three different ways to ground yourself:
Try the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 go-to method
- Notice 5 things you can see around you
- Notice 4 things you can touch around you
- Notice 3 things you hear around you
- Notice 2 things you can smell around you
- Notice 1 thing you can taste
Slow your breathing down to get full inhales and exhales
- Breathe in to the count of 4
- Pause for 2
- Breathe out to the count of 6
Think and say grounding statements to redirect attention
- “You are a good person getting through a hard time.”
- “This feeling is temporary and will pass.”
- “I am here now. I am getting through this.”
These may be good tips to write down somewhere where you’ll have easy access. In the event you notice a trigger is present and you begin to emotionally react, you can try to interrupt the reaction by redirecting in the moment to one of these mental, physical or vocal strategies. These initial strategies help the body regulate to feel more at ease. If we bounce back to the dinner example we’ll share how you could apply the grounding techniques in a moment like that:
Once you’ve noticed that the sadness and grief are hitting you hard, you could pause and silently notice your breath. Focus on getting full inhales and exhales (inhale for 4, pause for 2, exhale for 6) while at the table to begin to take charge of regulating your body. As your breath is slowing down begin thinking through the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 method. The breath work and mental focus on your surroundings can help redirect you back into the current moment with friends. It may be that you also need to add in the vocal grounding technique by taking a quick trip to the bathroom or outside for some fresh air. Taking space and a little time to say your vocal grounding statements can further ground you and encourage you in the hard moment. You can permit yourself to take the time you need to feel reset.
Triggers can be big and small and sneaky and clear all at once. Not all triggers are quick or easy to manage so it’s important to first recognize you have options to redirect at the moment when they’re present. Our bodies can help us know – along with emotional reactions – if we have become triggered. When we become more aware of what these triggers are – or even just when we are triggered – then we can learn how to self-soothe to regulate and calm our bodies and our emotional experience. Gaining insight into what triggers you and why is part of the work that may come in the future. But in the meantime grounding is something you can try now. When the present moment is being taken hold by emotions and physical sensations, ground yourself with a mental, physical, or verbal approach so you can anchor your mind and body into the current moment.