Use the ‘Stop, Drop, and Roll’ Technique To Deal When You’re Emotionally Triggered
A trigger is a strong feeling, sensation, or belief that arises in the present, but it's actually based on past experiences. So, using the above examples, if you've ever experienced an upset friend, cheating in a relationship, or a displeased boss, it can be easy to assume those scenarios are repeating, even if the evidence doesn't travel far beyond what's happening in your head. A threat, on the other hand, is more of a strong feeling, sensation, or belief that arises because there's an actual risk of danger or risk in the present moment.
By understanding how to respond to emotional triggers, we become better able to enhance our ability to find peace of mind amid worry.
You can thank your amygdala for some of this confusion. The amygdala is the part of the brain that stores memories so that the individual can recognize similar events in the future. Think of it as the part of the brain that asks “am I safe here?” While the amygdala's fight or flight response has helped humans evolve (if we couldn’t assess for danger, we might do things like walk into traffic without worrying about being hit), when it's triggered, it might also stop us from seeing the reality of the present situation. This can bring on undue stress that inhibits our ability to enjoy our lives and read interactions accurately.
When someone triggers us, it's a common inclination to cast blame or look for evidence that confirms the story in our head. It's much harder to accept that a given trigger may live inside our own head than be a reflection of reality. But by understanding how to respond to emotional triggers, we become better able to enhance our ability to find peace of mind amid worry.
Below, get clear on the foundational components of emotional triggers, then learn my "Stop, Drop, and Roll" method for responding.
3 realities to understand before learning how to respond to emotional triggers
1. The brain has evolved to worry
Our brain is meant to be negative in order to spot danger and save us from it. Worrying about danger leads people to take fewer risks, seek safety, and focus on doing things well.
Anxious feelings that are adaptive allow us to navigate the world in a smarter way. But when unresolved past anxieties creep into present situations, it can cause us unnecessary worry.
2. Remember, not all anxious feelings are created equally
Awareness of danger is a good thing, especially living in a world that doesn’t ensure the safety of all people equally. So don't assume every feeling that bubbles up is a trigger rather than a threat worth your response.
Whether or not there is an actual threat to you at this moment, know that your vigilance is valid and should not be dismissed. Actually honoring how your feelings helps you protect yourself.
3. Being triggered isn’t a problem
Triggers are a part of life, and they themselves are not the issue. The goal is not to live a life without the presence of triggers, but rather to identify how we want to engage with them. How we respond to emotional triggers in the present can either liberate us or relegate us to the less self-aware survival strategies upon which we previously relied. The good news is that I have a method to help with this.
The "Stop, Drop, and Roll" method for responding to emotional triggers
When you feel emotionally triggered, try the following three-step “Stop, Drop, and Roll” exercise to gauge how you might respond.
Step 1: Stop
“Amygdala hijack” can occur when strong emotions make it difficult or impossible to think logically. This may be what happens for you when you’re experiencing road rage, seeing red, or telling someone to “F**k off” in the heat of the moment. The part of your brain that can think straight is actually not accessible to you at this moment, as it is flooded by emotions.
So, don't act—STOP: S (stop), T (take a breath), O (observe your physical sensations, thoughts and feelings), P (proceed with more awareness).
Without access to our logical way of thinking, this process lets us know we are operating outside the window of tolerance, which is the emotional zone where one feels grounded and calm. If you notice you’re highly triggered, you may have a smaller window of tolerance. By “stopping,” we are helping the brain move from believing "I am in danger," to "I am feeling triggered, and this situation requires more investigation before I can confirm I am in danger.”
Step 2: Drop
When we stop and pause, we give ourselves the ability to become curious about our bodily sensations and the stories our brain is telling us. Feelings are real, but they are not fact. This state of “dropping” into the experience can be done in the presence of an emotional trigger, if that feels possible for you, or after when you have more space and time.
Some questions that might be helpful to reflect on in order to “drop” in are: What is letting me know that I am anxious? What messages is my body generating? What parts of my body are holding onto tension (given that tension reveals sites of emotional restriction)? What stories am I telling in my head? What happens in my body as I think of this story? Are there other possible stories I can ideate? What shifts in my body as I tell a new story?
Steph 3: Roll
Once we practice dropping into the emotions rather than restricting them, we widen our windows of tolerance, increase our ability to tolerate discomfort, and build our capacity for dual awareness—the ability to be aware of our outer world and inner world simultaneously.
“Rolling” with the sadness, anger, or hurt, gives us the gift of getting to ask these wounds what they need from us—for instance, we might consider how they want to be expressed or cared for. This might allow us to relate to them in a new and accepting way. Ultimately, getting to know ourselves through our triggers is what can help us learn how to respond to emotional triggers. This can, in turn, help them move out of the driver’s seat of our lives.
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