Caution: This article contains a trigger warning and a spoiler alert.
Trigger warning: Your unconscious emotional triggers and emotional reactivity can harm your psychological and physical health.
Spoiler alert: The happy ending is that addressing your reactivity is within your control, and with practice and perhaps some professional help, you can calm your system, make different choices on how to respond, and take your finger off the switch that will cause an emotional nuclear meltdown.
What is emotional reactivity?
As we walk through life, we encounter people, places, and things that dredge up old wounds and trauma and their attendant feelings of anger, shame, and hurt. The re-emergence of these feelings is a misplaced act of self-preservation in the face of a perceived threat that is no longer present.
When old emotional reactions are triggered in the absence of our awareness, we feel under siege. We raise our defenses against this imagined threat and prepare for a fight. This leads to an interaction or response that has negative ramifications for our health and our interpersonal relationships.
We can lash out with judgment, criticism, and blame, or we shut down and engage in self-judgment and suppress negative feelings.
Distorted lens on the world
We can identify emotional triggers when our feelings and reactions are out of proportion with an event or situation. These reactions seem beyond our ability to rein in. Yet, they are within our control because they come from inside us – not from external circumstances.
Sara Cousins, a Lakeville-based therapist, describes, “With emotional reactivity, the response is not about what’s currently in front of us. It’s about how we process what’s happening in light of our own experiences. It causes us to confuse what is currently happening with those past encounters.”
As Cousins explains it, “Emotional reactivity is not about the other person or the circumstances facing us. We think we are responding to an external event, but we are reacting to the thoughts, feelings, and memories left over from past traumas and injuries. It’s an inside job. On a fundamental level, it has little to do with external circumstances,” she continues, “Holding on to past traumas, memories, and feelings is a wonderful survival skill. We hold on to the past so we can recognize danger. The problem is that we can be too good at it. We then get triggered by the slightest provocation even when the danger isn’t extreme.”
The ability to self-regulate our emotional lives is a skill that’s within reach. Cousins asserts, “We all can stay present and regulate ourselves. We can strive to stay with the person we’re in conversation with and stay with the situation in which we find ourselves. It’s about connecting first with ourselves through awareness and acceptance, then with the person or event in front of us in the present.” Practicing these skills improves our confidence and autonomy, along with our relationships and our emotional and physical health.
Putting the finger on the trigger
The first step is self-awareness of our triggers and connecting those triggers to past life experiences that give birth to them. Many times, it’s a traumatic experience that rightly sent us into fight or flight. However, it’s often the case that long after the trauma has stopped, we still carry the gut-punch responses around with us. So if that original trauma evoked feelings of fear, shame, guilt, and lack of control, then events or conversations that stir up those feelings can send us right back there – to that unconscious survival mode that emanates from deep inside our brain.
It’s this “lizard brain” that kept us safe from saber tooth tigers early in our evolution and one that creates physiological responses such as a quickening heartbeat, butterflies, shallow breathing, and the release of stress hormones.
In our modern lives, we have many of what Dr. Rangan Chatterjee, author of The Stress Solution, calls Micro Stress Doses (MSD). MSDs elicit in us these same fight or flight responses repeatedly each day – even when our life is not in danger.
These physiological responses, aptly suited to surviving an occasional attack by the tiger, are known as acute stressors, meaning they come and go over a short duration. When we evaded the tiger, and the threat was no longer present, we went back to what Chatterjee calls a “thrive state.”
In contemporary life, we’re bombarded with a constant stream of MSDs, and we’re overwhelming our system with those fight or flight responses that just don’t let up.
The body talks – you need to listen
These are chronic stressors, and they can make dealing with our emotional triggers even more difficult. Constant emotional reactivity in the mind can lead to high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, autoimmune disorders, anxiety and depression, and chronic inflammation in the body.
Mind-body duality is so yesterday. We know better now, or we’re remembering what ancient and indigenous peoples knew all along. The mind and body are intimately connected. An inflamed mind connects to an inflamed body.
It can also lead us to impulsive, addictive, or self-destructive behavior in a misguided effort to soothe our injured selves. The work of Dr. Gabor Maté points to the roots of addiction stemming from childhood trauma and emotional loss. The inability to regulate difficult emotions and reactions to situations leads to addiction, which he defines as a repetitive behavior that gives temporary relief or pleasure and has negative consequences.
For Maté, addiction is born of a person’s desire to be happy in the face of unfilled needs and attempts to solve a problem. These circumstances often arise early in life, potentially before individuals have the tools and language to cope with the experience. Lyrics from Hamilton, with one small addition, help frame what Maté is talking about:
There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering too terrible to name
You hold your (inner) child as tight as you can
And push away the unimaginable
The moments when you’re in so deep
It feels easier to just swim down
To grapple with addiction means giving a voice to the past trauma so that the person can heal and have an opportunity to loosen the grip of addiction.
The answer lies within
If emotional reactivity stems from unconscious responses to trigger events, then coming out of a reactive state lies in increased awareness of triggers and the reasons why specific conversations or situations evoke a reaction.
In Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “The healthy alternative to being caught up in any of our self-destructive patterns is to stop reacting to stress and to start responding to it.”
Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) uses mindfulness and meditation as a tool to overcome physical and psychological pain. According to Kabat-Zinn, “…the cultivation of greater mindfulness also gives us new ways of working with what we find threatening, and of learning how to respond intelligently to such perceived threats rather than react automatically and trigger potentially unhealthy consequences.”
Cousins advocates that mindfulness can forge the awareness needed to create a conscious response, which calls for self-kindness, non-judgment, and curiosity. “Mindfulness and meditation are not about relaxation. They’re about making the world a better place. If you know your mind and can view yourself with self-compassion and sit with your pain, then you can extend that to compassion for others – and that makes the world a better place. By being non-reactive through self-awareness and non-judgment, you make better relationships with others – and yourself.”
The space between
A first step toward this awareness is the act of breathing. Focusing on our breath defuses fight or flight response and anchors you to the present moment. Ruminating in the past and going down the rabbit hole of the future is impossible when immersed in the present moment – the only moment we have control over.
Armed with greater awareness of our emotional triggers and their causes, we can begin to choose a different response. The space between the provocation and response is the seat of freedom from those triggers and our emotional reactivity.
Creating distance in space and time between you and the trigger is also helpful. The physical space fosters space within your mind. The passage of time allows reactivity to recede. Next time you feel triggered, take a walk, go to another room, back away from the conversation, roll the chair away from the keyboard, or put the phone back in your pocket before you send a retaliatory text.
“This is a practice,” Cousins emphasizes. “There are no shoulds. It’s a lifelong challenge for everyone. The process allows us to be inside ourselves in a loving way, to be in relation – not reaction – to others. We can get it right today and get it wrong tomorrow. That’s okay.”