Mind Your Triggers

As a medical student, I was often in the scary situation of doing something for the first time.  One day, the resident told me I would be doing a blood draw on the next patient.  We entered his room and explained this to him.  He took one look at me, and flatly refused.  I quickly left the room, near tears, and went back to the other students to rant and rave about this man who wouldn’t let me poke him with a needle.  Looking back on the incident, I think I overreacted, right?  This man was very ill and had a right to decide who would be drawing his blood.  But I felt like he was judging me, and had decided that I came up short.  This situation caused a strong reaction, not because of the incident itself, but because it hit one of my emotional triggers: being thought of as incompetent.

Emotional triggers are people or situations that create a strong emotional response within us.  When triggered, we might feel angry, defensive, resentful or afraid.  We may react strongly, in a way that feels almost beyond our control, and certainly out of proportion to what’s really happening.  Chances are, most of us have a trigger or two.  Common ones include being ignored or abandoned, being judged or dismissed, or being powerless.  It may become obvious over time that our reaction is always the same when our trigger is hit.  What isn’t always so obvious is that our responses can be controlled.  While I may always feel defensive when I think my competency is being questioned, I don’t have to respond in an angry or unprofessional way.

The key to managing triggers is awareness.  I need to know the potential dangers before they strike, or I can’t expect to change powerfully ingrained responses.  Meditation will absolutely increase self-awareness over time, so a regular sitting practice will help with responses to triggers.  A more direct approach utilizes a technique similar to thought records of cognitive behavioral therapy.  You will need a pen and something to write on.  Divide the sheet into three columns.  In the first column, write down situations that caused an intense emotional reaction.  In the second column, identify the emotions you experienced, and in the third column, write how you responded.  Try to come up with multiple scenarios from your life, and add any new situations that arise over the next week. Then, the investigation begins.  What do these situations have in common? Try to look at them objectively, and identify the trigger in each one.  You can explore the origins and reasons behind them through journaling, or with the support of a good therapist.

Once you have a handle on your triggers, the real work begins. Now we have to identify triggers in real time, and be conscious enough to alter our ingrained responses. This means being alert to emotions and recognizing when a strong one is occurring. Next, we have to slow down. Instead of reacting, take a deep breath and look inside at what’s happening. Could this be a trigger? If so, proceed with caution. Bring out your objective observer and respond only to what’s real, not the automatic conclusions of your triggered mind. Over time, the awareness gets stronger and we can quickly assess any situation- trigger, or real reason to flip out?

Being conscious of triggers not only increases self-awareness, it also helps prevent conflict and improves communication. As we get to know ourselves, we can truly be open to others. Imagine if I had been more self-aware as a 24 year old medical student.  I would have sensed the feeling of resentment and anger, and looked for signs of old patterns. Then, I could have taken a deep breath and responded to the real person in front of me. I could have explained my role in his treatment team and calmly asked about his concerns. Then I would have answer truthfully, not emotionally, and asked permission to draw his blood. Maybe the outcome would have been different?

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