Emotional triggers are everywhere. They can be internal – for example, a relationship breakup might trigger feelings you’re unlovable, which stem from a tricky parental relationship. Or they can be external: being cut up on the road might bring out trauma from a past traffic accident.
And for some of us they come in the form of anniversaries. The day your father passed away for instance, when a casual comment from a friend inadvertently sets off feelings of loss or regret. Or those hard-to-avoid annual events such as Christmas or Mother’s Day, which can evoke tricky emotions for many reasons. Grief if a mother has passed away, loneliness if you don’t have a family to buy presents for, sadness if you want kids but don’t have them...
Increasing awareness of this emotional impact has led many brands, including Rituals, to invite consumers to opt out of communications about moments like Mother’s Day that they may not want to be reminded of. But it’s difficult to live a trigger-free life, and as Navit Schechter, CBT therapist and founder of Conscious & Calm says, the fall-out can be profound.
“When triggered, our fight or flight response kicks in which can cause things like anxiety, depression, sadness, anger, stress, overwhelm. You might feel shaky, have a racing heart, be unable to think rationally or make decisions.”
Yet it’s still possible to cultivate a greater sense of peace around challenging moments, by reflecting on your emotions and creating compassion for your reactions. Here's how:
Give yourself a resilience boost
“If you know it’s coming up to a triggering time – for instance, Valentine's Day –prioritise your mental health, personal wellbeing, and self-care,” urges Navit. “Then, if triggering things happen, you’ll have the resources to dig deep and manage.”
This means doing things that reduce your stress levels, like exercising regularly (yes, walking counts), getting enough sleep, reducing your tech time, practicing mindfulness, to name a handful.
Sure, that might sound obvious, but don’t underestimate the power of these simple habits to get you in a better headspace, which in turn helps create a greater sense of peace.
And on the triggering day itself? “Arrange to do something that nurtures you and brings you joy,” Navita recommends.
Reflect on all your emotions
In a world where we’re told to ‘keep calm and carry on’, it’s no wonder we bury our emotions. Only for them to eventually erupt.
So it’s crucial to allow ourselves time for reflection on both our positive and negative feelings. Denying the tricky ones leads to more pain in the long run.
“Suppressing challenging emotions means that you’re dealing with the trauma from the trigger, and the pain from the lack of support you’re giving yourself,” Navita explains.
“And, if you don’t let these feelings out, it may also manifest in the body via ill health, stress or tension.”
Need more proof? Scientists have found that acceptance of negative emotions strengthens mental health, thus meaning you’re better able to cope with stressful feelings or situations.
Practice self-compassion. Constantly
Self-compassion is the single most important thing for coping with challenging feelings.
“Acknowledge how you’re feeling and work out how to nurture yourself through it,” advises Navita.
Obviously, what works is going to be very individual. But here’s some examples: Allow yourself to have a good cry. Comfort your body – whether that’s eating something nourishing, having a lie down, doing gentle yoga. Talk to yourself with compassion – think of the kind, loving things you’d say to a close friend and say them to yourself. Journal your feelings. Phone a close friend. Seek professional help to process past traumas.
Navita also suggests doing ‘self check-ins’ throughout the day.
“Set an alarm a few times a day and stop for a few minutes. Connect with how you are feeling right now. If you notice you’re anxious or stressed, work out what small things you can do then and there that’ll calm you.”
When we’re anxious, we take shallow breaths, so Navita recommends doing this breathing exercise daily for a couple of minutes, especially when triggered.
“Sit comfortably, and take a deep, slow breath through the nose for a count of four, making sure to let it fill your belly. Release the breath through pursed lips for a count of six. As you’re exhaling, relax the shoulders and the muscles in your face.”
This lengthened breath signals to the brain that we don’t need to be in fight or flight mode, so helps us relax.
Finally, Navita wants us to remember this: “We can't change the past, but we can change our reaction to triggers. It’s not inevitable that you’ll always feel upset and overwhelmed by these moments.”