These days, the word “trigger” generally holds a negative connotation. We associate it with anger, fear, disgust, and a variety of other emotions that can result from our triggers. But we can also learn a lot about ourselves and how our brains work from our triggers by shifting our perspective to what is sometimes known as the “other side” or “silver lining” in DBT practices.
In many ways, a trigger is a warning bell, alerting your mind and body to a possible threat. This is similar to how anxiety creeps up. In these situations, it can be hard to take the time to pause, breathe, and think about what exactly is causing the emotion that is currently overcoming the body. However, with practice, we can not only begin to understand why certain emotions are triggered in certain situations, but extend that understanding to future situations to better navigate our own brains and turn triggers into treasures.
How Can a Trigger be a Treasure?
Imagine someone at your work says something that triggers you. You’re not sure what it is about the situation that draws such strong emotions to the surface, but the threat detection system in your brain, powered by the amygdala, is telling you to be on guard. There are two responses to this trigger. On one side, your coworker said or did something to upset you, and that’s justification for putting a target on their back for the release of those emotions. On the other side, your coworkers probably didn’t mean to trigger you and their comments likely don’t hold much weight in the scope of your life. Additionally, this experience gives you the opportunity to learn something about yourself, equipping you with new tools to take with you into future situations that might result in a trigger.
Breaking Down Your Triggers
In order to find these treasures and a deeper understanding of your own brain, it may take time and effort after the initial trigger to effectively break down what caused your mind and body to respond. Sometimes it can even take a few sessions with a DBT skills specialist to mine the mental gold that helps us better understand ourselves. But you can start on your own by practicing these simple steps.
Pause and take a breath. As emotions well up, negative thoughts become a slippery slope into more intense feelings. However, interrupting your amygdala with an intentional mental shift and a few deep breaths can effectively bring control back to your frontal cortex, which puts rational thought back on the table in the heat of the moment.
Identify where the trigger lives in the body. We carry our emotions in our bodies, namely our heads, chests, and limbs. In fact, a group of Finnish scientists even mapped how human emotions manifest in the body. While fear and sadness may trigger a response in the head and chest, anger is sometimes felt in the hands, and disgust is tied to the face and stomach. When you are triggered, take a moment to turn your thoughts to your body and where your emotions are manifesting. Focus on this part of your body and extend empathy to the fact that your brain and body are simply trying to tell you something important.
Reflect on why your brain may be sending signals. It may take time to fully understand why you feel triggered, but with regular practice, this active, conscious approach begins to get easier, faster, and more impactful. Give yourself grace for being human! Only then will you begin to see the treasure and understand why your brain is sending you signals.
Make your goal to become your own treasure hunter, striving for sincere curiosity about your own brain signals and the external threats you may be perceiving unconsciously. Learn more about how DBT skills can help you find true treasures in your triggers by getting in touch!