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Getting to Know Your Three Brains: Part 4 Triggers

Several years ago, my partner, Jon, wanted to take a vacation to Paris. Here's how my three brains reacted:

My thinking brain said, “This is so great. I love Paris. I can’t wait to go.”

My emotional brain was triggered to fear at the thought of flying. It generated new thoughts such as “I don’t want to die. Is it worth the risk?”

My body brain caused my body to get tense. My heart raced, and my breathing stopped for a moment, which fueled my anxiety.

Despite the fact that I wanted to go to Paris, I found myself avoiding the whole idea because I was triggered.

To prevail over our challenges and move forward in the way we want, we need awareness and understanding of our triggers. A “trigger” refers to anything that sets off the three brains in a way that temporarily pulls us off balance. For example, we can all relate to being triggered to anger. Something happens and we erupt with no space between the anger and our reaction. It is not uncommon when we return back to our more regular state that we see things differently. We may even regret our reaction or feel guilty.

So, what is helpful to understand about triggers?

For one, triggers can come from the outside or the inside.

External triggers originate in our surroundings. My mother’s criticism is an example of an external trigger. As a result of her judging my outfit, let’s say, I got triggered to experience a “bad” feeling. Using the Change Triangle, my favorite self-help tool, I figured out that my “bad” feeling was a combination of anger, shame, and sadness. What emotions does criticism trigger in you?

Internal triggers originate within us. Illness is an internal trigger. Some people get depressed when they get the flu, even though they know they will get better. The range of emotional responses to illness can be quite wide: sadness, shame, fear, guilt, anger, and even joy and relief from having no obligation to do anything but receive care. What emotions does illness trigger for you?

Negative thoughts are also internal triggers. When we think we are not as good as someone else, for example, it triggers hard feelings and judgmental thoughts about others or ourselves. (So, it’s a good idea not to compare yourself to anyone else.)

Emotions can act as internal triggers, as well. A core emotion, like sadness, can trigger an inhibitory emotion, like shame. In our society children are often shamed for expressing emotions. For example, grownups have been known to say things to children like, "stop being a baby" or "suck it up up" or "don't cry" in response to seeing their child cry. Doing this binds one emotion, in this case sadness, to another, shame, making it very hard for that child to process sadness or grief as a child and as an adult. Sending a message to children that their emotions are not ok has ramifications for wellness; and parents do it unwittingly because they don't receive any education in emotions.

Triggers are unique for each of us. They are born from our life experiences and especially those experiences that hurt us.

An example of David's trigger and his three brains:

David’s girlfriend, Jennifer, had three children who stayed with her every other weekend. Jennifer's children spending the weekend was a trigger for David. Some people would be fine with this, but David was not.

As the weekend with her kids approached, David’s thinking brain said, “Oh no, the kids are coming this weekend. Those kids are spoiled. I’m not sure I want to deal with them. Maybe this relationship isn’t worth it.”

David’s emotional brain feared not getting enough attention and was angry at the inconvenience. David experienced Jennifer’s diverted attention as an abandonment, which triggered sadness and anger, although he was not aware of any of his core emotions.

David’s body brain caused him to feel unsettled, jittery, and knotted in his stomach.

David’s many emotions all mixed together to cause anxiety, the only (inhibitory) emotion of which David was consciously aware.

Through no fault of his own, David never learned about the three brains or about triggers. He had no tools to help himself. And he didn’t think to talk to Jennifer about his feelings, which also might have helped. He contemplated breaking up to deal with his unpleasant feelings—for that was the only action he could think of to alleviate his emotional discomfort—but he loved Jennifer and didn’t want to stop seeing her.

Breaking up in this case would be a way to avoid his complex feelings. This is called using a defense. Defenses are NOT a good way to deal with triggers and emotions in the long run because defenses cause problems to our mental health and our relationships.

Working Effectively with Our Triggers

When we are triggered, we can work effectively with our thinking brain, emotional brain, and body brain to feel better and come up with constructive solutions to life’s challenges. It helps to get curious about when our triggers originated, such as in childhood, adolescence or adulthood.

When my patients tell me about a recent reaction they had to some experience, I always ask, “Was this a new feeling for you or a familiar feeling you’ve had before?”

You can ask yourself that same question when you get triggered. If the feeling is familiar, I ask people to remember the first time they felt that way and what happened in their environment. That is the way we learn about the origin of our triggers. For example, many people are triggered by going to the dentist or doctor because somewhere in the past they had a bad experience. The brain tends to remember bad experiences to prevent them from happening again. You can work on changing your response to that memory by working with your three brains. The trigger will diminish.

David not only had to deal with step-siblings when he was a child, but he suffered emotional neglect as a result of the chaos in his family or origin. Becoming aware of the connection between the past and the present, he came to understand why the impending arrival of Jennifer’s kids triggered him.

As David got in touch with his feelings from the past and worked to give himself compassion for what he went through, his trigger began to diminish. When he noticed the reactions coming from his three brains, he worked with them. What helped most was validating and processing the underlying core emotions triggered: anger, sadness, and fear. He would say to himself, “I am angry and sad that Jennifer’s kids are coming this weekend.” Then he gave the little fearful boy inside him compassion for what he went through many years ago. Just validating his feelings and giving himself compassion helped turn down the intensity of his reactions.

Doing this kind of introspective work again and again, as well as sharing his feelings with Jennifer, and giving himself permission to better care for himself, reduced the trigger considerably. He began to take more of an interest in her children and soon had fun playing with them. His goal was to be a supportive partner and he worked hard on himself to make that goal possible.

We can all work on diminishing our triggers so we have a calmer and more peaceful existence. Overcoming the challenges and fears our triggers cause us is a huge confidence builder. So, work it, it’s worth it!


Click to review Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Further reading: What is the Change Triangle? and for a comprehensive education and workbook to help manage emotions, pick up a copy of It's Not Always Depression.

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