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Wednesday, 06 November 2013 00:00

Trigger Happy

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One of the best things you can do for your relationships is to identify your triggers. A trigger is an unresolved issue from your past that continues to resurface throughout your life. Think of times in your relationships when you overreacted to a situation—where the reaction you had was way bigger than was warranted for the actual event. In this instance, there was likely a trigger involved.

Let me give you a recent example of one of my triggers to help explain the power of these unresolved issues. Last weekend I woke up to find my husband gone from the house. The previous evening we had talked about possibly going to a morning gym class. I woke up at 8:53 and the class was at 9am. I was in total disbelief that my husband would have gone without waking me up to see if I had wanted to go. I was seething. I flew out of bed and made it to the gym by 9:10am. There wasn't a lot of time to discuss the issue during the class but he could tell I had steam coming out of my ears.

After class, my husband truly had no idea why I was so upset. He said he had tried to wake me but I did not budge. So, he left. For him, it was as simple as that. For me, it was much more complicated. How hard did he really try? If he had really wanted to wake me, I'm pretty sure he could have. How could he abandon me? Ah... the trigger. Abandonment.

Hi, my name is Dina and I have abandonment issues. My parents divorced when I was three years old. Although both of my parents were active in my life, I suppose I still felt abandoned because I did not have the traditional family unit that all of my friends had. For years, I desperately wanted (secretly hoped) for my parents to get back together. When I was 12 years old, my sister went to go live with my dad. Perhaps this was another sense of abandonment? And when I was 15, my dad and stepmother, who had been a big part of my childhood, divorced. Abandoned again.

I don't think about being abandoned in my daily life today. After all, these events happened decades ago. I have a great relationship with my parents who have always been a significant part of my life and who I know love me very much. I have a "new" (10 years and counting) loving and nurturing stepmom in my life. And, I am married to a husband who I know will never abandon me. However, none of this seems to matter when I wake up one Sunday morning to an empty house and, just like that, I am a three year old child feeling abandoned again. My reaction to my husband going to the gym without me was really quite ridiculous. It's pretty easy for me to see this now. However, in the moment, it felt entirely valid and I was truly angry.

What is your trigger? Is it feeling abandoned? Deprived? Vulnerable? Someone with an abandonment trigger feels that people can’t be relied on to be around when they need them. They might react by avoiding close relationships, being clingy, or repeatedly accusing people close to them of being unavailable. They may find ways to drive normally reliable people off, thus making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Someone with a deprivation trigger can feel like things are never enough and so they turn off others with their constant demands. They may choose relationships with people who aren’t capable of giving care or support. Someone with a vulnerability trigger has an exaggerated fear that some catastrophe is about to strike. They may be overly conscientious to ensure a feeling of safety. I have only mentioned a few of the triggers here, but there are others. For more information on triggers, check out Tara Bennett-Goleman's Emotional Alchemy.

Emotions have power, but it is up to us whether that power is positive or negative. It is when we are not in touch with our emotions that we react. In this case, the emotions have the power and we have vanished. We are no longer present. In the moment, we can feel like we have no control over what we say or do. The trigger leads the way. In my case, my reaction toward my husband had nothing to do with him. However without this awareness (preferably before the reaction, but after is better than nothing), my relationship could certainly have been affected. By not owning up to our triggers, we bring our past baggage to our current relationships. This really isn't fair to our new relationships.

So, what can we do about our triggers? The best thing to do is to try to sit with the emotion as you are feeling it. Take a few breaths and really feel the emotion. Try to identify where in your body you are feeling the emotion. What is coming up for you? Why are you reacting so strongly? If I had given myself a moment before flying out of bed to really think about what I was feeling and why I was feeling it, I may have been able to understand that I was being triggered. I didn't do this. Instead, I reacted. Awareness is a great first step toward not being trigger happy. The more we can be aware of our triggers, the less likely they are to repeat over and over again throughout our lives—and the healthier our relationships can be.

Next time you are overreacting to a situation, try to take a moment and think about whether you are being triggered. Can you be aware of the emotion instead of letting it take hold of you?

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Green Exercise: Good for the Sole and Soul
Natural Awakenings, March 2011

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Active Kids, June 2012 (Page 23)