We’re back with another episode in our Conflicts series and we’re talking about triggers. A trigger is an intense, emotional, negative reaction to something, whether it’s words or actions. Triggers often stem from previous trauma or childhood experiences. Getting a handle on our triggers, recognizing them, and learning to set them aside is an important first step to avoiding and minimizing conflict with our loved ones.
We hope today’s episode sparks some fun insights for you and we invite you to dive deeper with our Episode Questions. Join us on Instagram or YouTube to continue the conversation and share your reflections.
Let’s dig deep, challenge paradigms, choose connection, and live joyfully!
1. Are you aware of your triggers? If not, look for times when you find yourself activated out of proportion with the situation. Knowing our triggers helps us be more intentional with our actions.
2. Can you think of a time when acting from a trigger impacted a conversation? What would it look like if you had a do over?
3. Have you noticed triggers in your partner?
4. What tools do you want to put in place with your partner to help each other navigate when one of you is feeling triggered?
ANNA: Hello and welcome to the Living Joyfully Podcast. We’re happy you’re here exploring relationships with us, who we are in them, out of them, and what that means for how we move through the world.
If you’re new to the podcast, we encourage you to go back and listen to the earlier episodes. We started with some foundational relationship ideas that are so helpful to have in your toolbox. If you’ve already been enjoying the podcast, we’d love it if you would subscribe and share. We really appreciate your support as it grows.
This week’s episode is part of our Conflicts series, and we’re going to be talking about triggers. It’s so helpful to understand ourselves and our triggers and hot buttons, noticing what comes up for us when conflict arises. Understanding how, in general, we deal with and feel about conflicts can help us be more intentional with our words and actions.
So, for some context, a trigger is an intense, emotional negative reaction to something, whether it’s words or actions. The clue that our reaction is in response to a trigger is that it’s often out of step with the actual situation in front of us, and it will also bring about some intense feelings in our body. That’s because triggers are actually about us, not at all about the situation in front of us. They often stem from previous trauma or childhood experiences, and they bring this confronting aspect and energy to the conflict for us that nobody else sees or feels.
PAM: Yes. I think that’s one of the most interesting aspects for me, that the intense reaction I’m feeling isn’t being reflected in the other people. Like, why aren’t they more upset about this? Why can’t they see what’s wrong with this situation? I’d get more upset, because it seemed like they didn’t care and I’d feel almost compelled to open their eyes to what was going on. So, eventually I began using that mismatch as a clue that my reaction might have more to do with me than the actual situation at that moment. But it can be hard not to get immediately carried away by that rush of emotions. Right?
ANNA: Exactly. Getting a handle on our triggers, recognizing them, and learning to set them aside is an important first step to avoiding and minimizing conflict with our loved ones. And to be clear, setting aside triggers doesn’t mean ignoring them. Rather, it means taking the time to explore and process them outside of the conflict, to make sure we’re truly reacting to the person and the situation in front of us.
And the first step to that is to slow down. Give yourself some space to bring your awareness to the moment in front of you and see if others are maybe not reacting as strongly as you are, or if your reaction seems to not fit the situation. If you notice that, you can take a pause and take steps to calm your nervous system.
So, somatic approaches are used to engage the relationship between mind, body, brain, and behavior. There are some great somatic tools out there that can help calm our nervous system, allowing us to act with intention again, a simple one being cold water on your wrist. So, excusing yourself to the bathroom for some quick cold water therapy can bring you back into the moment so that you can more intentionally face the situation in front of you. You can dig into whatever that trigger was bringing up later. Right now, you want to be present in the situation with your partner or child and not be confusing the situation with baggage from your past.
And so, I want to talk about the 90-Second Rule, which helps us understand some of the physiology that’s happening when we have any kind of reaction. So, the concept was introduced by Jill Bolte Taylor in her book, My Stroke of Insight. In it, she describes how whenever our brain circuitry is triggered, could be fear, joy, laughter, anger, the associated chemicals are released and it takes 90 seconds for them to flush out of the body. So, at that point, we have a choice. We can choose to rethink the thought that brought about that physiological response, thus triggering it again, which means we need to actively choose to stay in that place, a place that’s now in the past. To keep those feelings of fear, anger, or even laughter going, we have to keep buying back into that thought every 90 seconds.
And as you gain experience tuning into this process in your body, you’ll start to notice the pause and recognize when you buy back into the thought. It’s important to note though, that during the 90 seconds, you will most likely not be able to make a different choice. So, for example, once you’ve triggered an anger response, you need to let those chemicals course through you for the 90 seconds.
Then you’ll have a chance to bring yourself to the present moment and make a different choice.
And while you may not be able to choose to feel differently during the 90 seconds, you can stop yourself from reacting from that anger, especially when you know that intensity of that moment will pass. It’s so empowering to realize we have that control, that our anger doesn’t control us, that we have choices along the way to react differently.
And I actually had a really interesting example of this just two weeks ago. So, I was in a hotel room and the fire alarm went off. So, it’s like wake the dead fire alarm in a hotel. I was in a deep, deep sleep. My whole body, like I sit bolt upright, I’m super activated, my heart’s pounding. I’m like, what’s happening? There were fire trucks, the whole nine yards, but about 20 seconds in, I realized that the alarm still wasn’t going off. The fire trucks had passed by. There wasn’t really a threat, but my body was still on high alert. Heart banging, all the things. I tried deep breathing. I tried any tool I can think of, but it was only until about the 90 seconds passed, I felt my body calm down and I took a deep breath and I was able to go right back to sleep.
It was such a stark contrast and I think it was easier to notice in this situation, because I wasn’t feeling the need to pull myself back into that state of alarm, because I knew that it wasn’t that. I didn’t need to buy back into it. I think it’s harder when you’re still mad at that person or that situation in front of you, but it’s there. It happens. That pause is there and so, watch for it and it’s pretty cool and kind of wild.
PAM: Yeah. Yeah, that is such a great example. Yeah. I think it’s just so helpful to play with some tools, to see which ones can help us to just calm our nervous system down a little bit in the stress of the moment.
I mean, for me, a big one is deep breathing. So, a few deep breaths and not just like a deep breath, but concentrating on a slow out breath and envisioning the tension that I’m feeling washing out with my breath. Right? So, as you mentioned, often I’ll excuse myself to go to the bathroom for a minute or two to do that. As you said, we may not be able to make a different choice in those 90 seconds, but we can try not to react. We can try to give ourselves space to let anger, fear, whatever it is, course through us for that period of time.
And to highlight what you said, because I don’t think it can be said enough, it’s about releasing the intensity of the emotions that are brought out by the trigger so that we can focus on the situation or conversation at hand and later doing some work to dig deeper and learn more about the trigger and where it comes from. Because if we ignore the trigger, figuratively stuffing it down, rather than setting it aside to be explored later, chances are it’s going to keep triggering just as forcefully each time similar circumstances arise. If we get pretty good at stuffing it down and moving on, we can start to feel like a martyr, which often ends up disconnecting us even more from family and friends and our loving relationships. And if we find it harder and harder to do that over time, we’re kind of on our way to burnout if we’re not going to process some of this stuff, right?
ANNA: Oh my gosh. Exactly. Our triggers are pointing out areas that might need some healing or at the very least, some acknowledgement and attention. So, it isn’t about ignoring them, it’s just about choosing our reaction in the moment that best aligns with the person we want to be.
I think it might be helpful for us to just take a minute to walk through some common triggers, remembering that they are going to be super specific to each person, because it’s all about our past and the things that happened and how we process that. But it can give you an idea of the things to watch for and a big piece of that is also going to be that body feeling, so, watching for that.
But one of them is getting in trouble. So, this is a trigger that many share from our time in school. Sometimes it can be from our family of origin reinforcing that as well. So, if you’re in a situation where maybe someone’s questioning you or maybe you realize that you made a mistake, you can have this all-over body reaction and it can cloud your judgment about the next steps that you take.
But you can keep in mind that, at that point, you’re reaching from a place that potentially is decades past, where as a child you had very little control. In the situation in front of you, most likely, mistakes are viewed very differently and are not caused for such intense reactions. So, calming your nervous system so that you can clearly talk about what happened and ask some clarifying questions is going to serve you and the relationship much more than this oversized reaction that really won’t make any sense to the person in front of you.
PAM: Yes, exactly. It won’t make sense, as we talked about earlier. That can be very helpful too. A trigger that I’ve explored pretty often over the years is the fear of things going wrong. I thought I was being helpful in pointing out all the challenges that I envisioned that could come up with whatever the other person wanted to do or suggested. It’s where my brain quickly went and eventually, I rationalized it as a skill. Let me tell you all the ways this can go wrong, so that you can come up with plans B, C, and D, or just realize right now it’s too risky and move on to something else. See how much time I saved you?
But when I realized that my help actually created more conflict, I got curious and dug deeper. I found fear consistently being triggered underneath my professed help. I noticed that the fear was generating a kind of tunnel vision for me, in which pretty much all I could see were the things that could go wrong. And when I shared those things, others didn’t take them as me being helpful, but as me not trusting them to make reasonable choices or to navigate things if they took a new turn.
I came to see that when I let fear trigger my reactions, when I tried to instill my fear into my partner or my children, even under the guise of being helpful, I was hijacking their experiences and learning. So, no wonder it often led to conflict.
So, I’ve gotten much better at instead looking at all the fun and interesting things that could come from the thing they’re wanting to. At seeing their choices through their eyes, like we talked about way back in episode four, or even just getting curious and asking them what they’re excited about.
I also got better at asking if they wanted to hear any feedback about challenges I thought might pop up. So again, it’s not about stuffing that down, it’s not about never thinking about it. It’s like, okay, I’m going to set that aside for a bit and I’m going to look at this first, look at all the cool things and why they’re very excited about this.
So, what was really interesting to me was asking them if they wanted to hear that feedback and the conversations that came up around that were very eye-opening. I learned that, so often, they had already thought about that same challenge and had a plan in mind in case it happened. And what was super fascinating to me was that their thinking about that wasn’t driven by fear. It was just part of thinking about how things might unfold. They were just more clues to me that fear didn’t need to be part of the picture, part of the conversation.
ANNA: And fear is such a big one for so many of us. And it is interesting, I think, to tune into any kind of habituated responses like that, especially if we notice they’re causing ruptures or disconnections in our relationship, because I feel like, just like you found, just scratching beneath that surface will reveal some kind of trigger, some kind of fear, some kind of something that keeps bubbling up that we’ve kind of put a habit around that really isn’t about the moment and just keeping us from looking at it.
So, one of my triggers is around control. So, I don’t like to be controlled, and if I get a whiff of someone trying to control me, I’m going to start bucking. The challenge for me is that my reaction is usually not in proportion to what is actually. So, I do my best to notice it rising in my body. For me, it’s a very physical experience and I like to name it just for myself. So. I’m like, okay, you’re starting to feel controlled. Let’s take a closer look and see what’s actually happening here.
And so often, I mean, honestly, I’d say like 99% of the time, it’s all about that other person, and they really aren’t intending to control me or really even thinking all that much about me at all. And perhaps it’s they’re not feeling heard about something or supported about something. So, if I spend that time to really listen and understand where they’re coming from, then we can find a path through whatever the issue is.
But if I start bucking against this perceived control, then the conversation invariably goes sideways. And it’s just so often, again, it’s just this defensive reaction in me doesn’t leave space for any learning about what’s actually happening for that person in front of me.
PAM: Exactly. Because so often, we can quickly shift the conversation to be about the trigger instead of what’s going on in front of us. Like what? And they’re like, what the heck happened?
A bit of a twist on that for me is that agency is very important to me, meaning choosing what I do. So, what can happen often is I’m intending to do something soon, then someone, often my partner, asks me to do the thing. Well, suddenly, yes, that whole body rush. Suddenly it feels like I’ve lost my choice, my agency. And now I’ll be doing the thing to meet their request rather than doing it because I want to do it, even though I was already planning to do it. Resistance just immediately floods through me, and I need to work through that first, find my choice again, and then do the thing that I wanted to do all along.
What that also means is that I am careful with my asks of others so that they aren’t received as demands and leave space for a cheerful, “Yeah, I was already planning to do that this afternoon.”
ANNA: Yeah, I have definitely felt this one, too. And again, for that person asking, either they may just be processing out loud, they may be trying to check things off of our joint list. They’re not trying to take away my agency and it still feels like they are. So, recognizing that trigger just helps me not snap back at that and just like, okay, that’s about them. I’m planning to do it. It’s almost even hard to kind of explain why that triggered reaction so intense. Because it doesn’t make sense to the situation.
And that’s, again, your clue to say, okay, this is not about this person or this situation. This is about something that stems from long ago, most likely.
And so, I think another flip side of this is that it can be really helpful to recognize when someone you’re talking to is triggered. So, that will help you not take their actions personally. You can see that they’re bringing an energy from somewhere else into the conversation and at that point, you can help slow things down. That will give them permission to slow down as well. It’s never a time to push a point when you have somebody who’s triggered in front of you. It will not go well. Asking for a break for yourself can give them a moment to regroup. Sometimes there’s space for gentle questions, but often it’s just better to just slow things down and allow them to ground back into the moment.
We don’t want to meet that with defensiveness or I really think you’d see when you start looking, that’s where so many conflicts happen.
In our closest relationships, I think it can be helpful to talk about this beforehand and have a plan if one of you is triggered. You can each decide what would feel okay in the moment. Is it moving towards a break? Is it a code word? Is it a somatic tool? Having some tools handy will help you both navigate those moments, so that it doesn’t spiral into a deeper conflict. Because when we’re in our rational brains, we don’t want some trigger from our childhood to be impacting this relationship in front of us.
PAM: Yes. When we begin to recognize when we are feeling triggered, it does become easier to notice it happening with others. And vice versa, because maybe we notice it in others first, which then opens our eyes to recognizing when it’s happening to us. But either way, our world gets bigger and our compassion grows, I feel.
And I also found it really helpful to chat with others about triggering situations outside of the strain of conflict. So, as you mentioned, we can talk about ways to share observations that the person seems triggered without further triggering them or us. And that can definitely look different for different people.
How would you prefer someone to share that kind of information with you? And we can chat about different tools to play with to help release some of that intensity and bring us back into the moment with clearer eyes. Which tools work better for each person? How can we keep those tools close at hand and easy to access? That is another fun thing to play with. If it’s a spray, if it’s a smell, we can keep those things in our pocket. Put them in a basket in a main room, those kinds of things, because these are positive things, these are helpful tools. It’s not like, oh my gosh, I’m failing, so I need to go and do this thing. Right? Not that at all.
And we can also chat about different ways to approach conversations that have a better chance of just not triggering the other person’s trauma or bad memories or fears. We don’t want to trigger that so that it rushes to mind for them. So, it could be something simple as a change of phrase or Tone, as you mentioned, or energy. That can sometimes be all it takes not to trigger a trigger in the first place.
And we can talk about how each person likes to process things like challenges and triggers. So, are they or you more of an external processor wanting to talk about it as they or us peel back the layers? Or more of an internal processor wanting some quiet time and space to think things through on their own? Or is it more of a mix dependent on the circumstances?
And of course, all of these are not one and done conversations. We’ll learn more and tweak things along the way. We’ll try out a tool. It helps. It doesn’t help. Maybe it helps for a while and then it stops helping as much. But this deeper understanding of ourselves and our loved ones most definitely can help us navigate conflict and triggers with more grace and compassion.
ANNA: Oh my gosh. Absolutely. I mean, it’s a process, but with this greater understanding of ourselves, with this shared language that we’re talking about, we’ll be able to cultivate an environment where we can stay connected. We don’t take things personally and we can remain open and curious.
And I think, again, as we’ve been talking about, just bringing awareness changes what’s happening in the home, because we have this language, we have this understanding, so it’s not just running through the motions and kind of repeating the same fights, or repeating the same triggers or getting triggered every time something happens. So, I really love just these simple things that just bring new language and new awareness to the situations.
PAM: Yeah. I feel, for me, the biggest thing was it helped me not take things personally. Understanding the nuances of all these different situations and how all the different pieces of who we are play into the relationship and conflict and conversations and triggers and all those pieces help me understand that, oh, this isn’t all about me. And it’s not them doing something wrong. It’s just who we are. And that was so valuable to me in navigating relationships.
ANNA: 100%. Okay, so let’s talk about a few questions to consider this week. First, are you aware of your triggers? If not, look for themes when you find yourself activated, that seems a bit out of proportion with the situation. And be honest about that, because sometimes we’re like, no, it was that serious. But the feeling in your body, you’ll start to recognize it. Knowing our triggers really helps us be more intentional with our actions.
PAM: It’s feeling it in our body and like as you mentioned, it’s like, no, it’s not the trigger. If it happens multiple times. Like if it keeps happening over and over in similar situations like that, because the first 10 times, it’s like, no, it’s the thing. Yeah. Why does this thing keep happening?
ANNA: It’s not the thing! Oh my goodness. Okay. Number two. Can you think of a time when acting from a trigger impacted a conversation and what would it look like if you had a do-over? And I think that’ll be interesting as you kind of recognize like, oh yeah, that tone, that something, is a trigger for me that then we kind of have this escalation or this same conflict.
PAM: And I like the idea of thinking of it as a do-over, as in it helps us to more easily bring to mind choices in the moment. Because so often, when we’re triggered, we just see the one thing. We’re very focused on the one thing. So, we do our little bit of help to get us through those 90 seconds, through that first thing. And if we’ve thought about other possibilities, other ways we might choose to react, other kind of questions to ask in the situation versus declarations, if we’ve got that, it’s closer to top of mind. So, over time, we can get to them a little bit quicker so that we can change, make a different choice, in recognition that we have a choice. And then as we talked about over time, we can tweak that and play with it.
ANNA: Definitely. So, number three, have you noticed triggers in your partner? And so, this is interesting, because like you said, as we recognize it in ourselves, we start recognizing it in others, but it’s also that repetition that you’re talking about. So, it’s like, oh, every time I ask them about this thing, they kind of get snappy with me or whatever. Okay. Most likely, that’s not about your question or what’s happening. There’s a trigger that’s being set off that would be helpful to understand. So, look for those, again, repeating things or repeating energy even, like the same energy’s coming. What’s the common denominator?
PAM: Yes. I love that so much, because what we can do when we can start to recognize that repetitive reaction was seemingly over the top, because we can get stuck in, that is just over the top! I should be able to ask that question, so I just keep asking it again because their response is wrong.
ANNA: If I just keep asking, it’s going to get better.
PAM: They’ll figure it out. That might be a trigger. It’s almost a response that they aren’t able to control. That’s when I can start thinking, oh, I’m going to play around with my tone, the energy, the timing of the question, the wording of the question, like there’s so many ways that we can communicate something, that we can start to play with that and learn more. And then maybe in an off time have the conversation and ask them why are you feeling like that?
ANNA: We’re bringing more compassion to it. And again, these are the people that we love. This is who we want to be in these relationships, even if we get a little like, that’s over the top and too much. Okay, so question four, what tools do you want to put in place with your partner to help each other navigate when one of you is feeling triggered?
I really do think this is a cool conversation to have, especially if you notice some of these repeating fights or things happening, just like, “Hey, let’s figure out, how do we take a timeout? How do we do that so it doesn’t end up triggering that.” Because we have abandonment triggers and then somebody feels if somebody’s taking a break, then that can trigger something. But if we have some agreements ahead of time, if we have some plans in place, then we don’t have to take it personally. It doesn’t have to feel like that. And we can just give each other the space we need to be present and be intentional about what’s happening in front of us.
PAM: Yeah. I feel like with those conversations over time around it, it just helps lighten the weight too of the moment, to have somebody just recognize that we’re triggered, recognize and not escalate back to us even. You could just absorb it for us and just show compassion, as you were saying. That’s where we’re going.
ANNA: We want to cultivate that. For sure. Anyway, thank you so much for joining us this week and we look forward to next time. Take care!