by Cynthia M. Braden, MFT
"When my emotions get triggered about something... when I get upset, I don't know what to do with my emotions. I don't want to lash out. Help! What can I do when I'm upset about something?"
- R.M. Manhattan Beach
I wanted to answer this question from a reader because it is such a common problem.
We all get triggered. We have emotional responses to stimuli. It's a part of being human. Often we don't even know what's really going on, or why we have gotten so freaked out over something so trivial.
What has happened is that your fight or flight response has gotten triggered. The survival of you and your ego has gotten threatened.
Remember the ancient need for humans to run away from tigers, or defend against a neighboring tribe trying to kill you and take away your women and children?
As human beings have been evolving, we have needed the subconscious fight or flight response so we could be prepared to engage in physical activity (running away, fighting) to insure the continuation of our DNA. We are physiologically wired for this response to insure the continuation of our species.
Obviously this type of mechanism is no longer that adaptive as we are currently confronted with different types of threats to our safety and security. Instead of defending against tigers and sword-wielding natives, we do battle with identity theft and government regulations, car-mageddon, and insurance companies.
What we need now is a peace and relaxation hormone to be released when we're sitting in gridlock on a deadline still 5 miles away from our destination after leaving an hour early to make sure we arrive on time. Or dealing with a million different problems where extreme patience and perseverance are the responses needed for managing threats to safety and achieving the desired result in modern life.
Instead, the fight or flight hormone cocktail is released, our cognitive processes get hijacked by adrenaline, and we're struggling to manage our emotions, swerving in and out of traffic, arguing with back seat drivers, or soothing our anxiety by eating junk food, smoking, having an anxiety attack or pity party, or looking at porn on our i-phones while we're inching down the road.
It would seem more adaptive in our current environment, to have psysiological responses that promoted patience and persistence. For example... maybe an influx of a peace and relaxation hormone. Wouldn't that be better? Perhaps we are in the process of accomplishing this evolutionary adaptation at the present time.
Meanwhile, as we wait for that change to occur, here are some ideas to re-educate or
re-direct this fight or flight response into something more efficacious for modern life.
1. Slow down and notice that you are getting triggered. It's okay to notice that, and say to yourself...
I'm getting irritated right now ... I'm feeling anxious... I'm getting mad about what is going on here.
Be honest. It's okay to say you're angry if you are. It serves you better to tell the truth than be mad and kick the dog, so to speak... or develop heart problems and physical ailments when you try to suppress your emotional energy.
Allow yourself to acknowledge, I feel myself getting hijacked by adrenaline. I can feel myself ready to fight... my heart is racing or my gut is constricting. I understand that this is my body's unconscious way of responding to a perceived threat.
In your subconscious mind, this is no different than being chased by a tiger... your survival or the survival or your ego is threatened, and your body responds with a surge of physiological processes so you can start fighting or run away.
So, the first thing to do is:
Notice your response. The thing you're doing automatically without thinking...
Then ask yourself, what is this threat really about? What perception of a threat that I am dealing with here?
Next, know that you have a choice. That your conscious mind can and will can override these processes if you choose. You always have the power to choose. Don't believe the lie that you are a victim or helpless. It may take effort. It always takes a little time and effort to process an emotional response and learn new ways of reacting. Don't expect yourself to automatically get over something just because you want to.
Emotional injuries are a lot like physical injuries in that they take time to heal. Rest is a good idea if you have received an emotional or physical injury or other crisis situation.
Learn how to come into contact with how you are really feeling. Honor yourself and the other person by telling the truth about what's going on with you.
We have to risk being vulnerable and not making the other person wrong if we want to feel connected in our relationships.
Here are a few examples of re-scripting in common problem scenarios so that you honor yourself by telling the truth without making the other person feel attacked.
Instead of: You don't pay enough attention to me!
Try: I feel left out.
Instead of: Shut up!
I feel pressured and angry.
Instead of: Don't talk to me like that!
I feel judged. That doesn't feel good at all.
Instead of: How can you leave this here for me to do?!
I feel overwhelmed. I'm completely bummed out.
Instead of: You slept with that whore!
I feel humiliated and disgusted.
Here are more feeling states and sample phrases. If you can learn to recognize and tell the truth when you feel these things in your relationship, you will begin to feel more powerful and less angry and anxious.
Be honest about your needs and wants:
someone to listen to me
to feel that I matter to you
to know that you appreciate me
to feel adored
I like when I feel...
I don't like when I feel…
I like when…
I don't like when…
I hate when I feel…
Become a Better Listener
Use these phrases:
o Continue, please.
o I'm listening.
o Tell me more about that.
o I hear that you're saying __________________. Is that right?
o I'm confused.
o Can you help me understand what you're saying?
o I didn't know you felt that way.
(Instead of "You shouldn't feel that way… because telling someone what they shouldn't have a feeling that they do have... isn't going to work.)
o I'll think about what you said. (I don't like it, but I'll think about what you said.)
o Thank you for sharing that with me, I know it's not easy to talk about.
o I need a break now.
o We can talk more later.
I hope you enjoy experimenting with these tools, Consider it your lab where you experiment in your relationships. There are a lot of tools to work with, let me know if you need more help. Regular sessions of therapy will help you learn to implement these and other techniques.
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