Imagine you’re watching an action-adventure movie.
You’re over an hour into the plot when everybody on screen suddenly grabs a gun. Each actor’s got at least two guns pointed away and two pointed at them.
Have you ever been to a meeting like this? The anxiety ramps up, and you start wondering if you can hide under the table (if you aren’t busy ending someone else’s argument).
The very worst of these experiences can mean feeling so triggered that it’s days before you feel like yourself again.
When you are triggered, there’s a ton of automatic stuff happening in your brain. You aren’t in control of it, but you can do a lot, both physically and mentally, to recover.
In the moment: Immediate use strategies to regain your balance
- Breathe. This is an ageless support for lowering your stress levels. Spiritual traditions all over the world and medical science agree on how effective this can be. Try box breathing for ten minutes–it’s like taking a Xanax without the negative side effects.
- Say to yourself, “It’s just my brain.” There’s so much going on in your brain that you can’t control, and yet all that automatic stuff impacts what you experience and what you do. Tell yourself “It’s just my brain”–this allows you to let go of self-recrimination for making a mistake.
- Move. Your body was wired to move when you are triggered, and if you don’t get a move on, there’s a bunch of chemicals that will sit in your muscles and blood and won’t go anywhere until they get used up. The only way to use them is to move. So walk, run, jog, do crunches or lift weights. It’s all good.
- Practice Self-Compassion. This just means tuning in to the fact that you are having a negative experience, recognizing that this kind of experience is part of being fully human, and choosing to treat yourself kindly instead of critically. I find it helpful to keep a list of compassionate phrases and sentences I can read to myself when I’m upset. I encourage you to form your own list, but feel free to adopt some of mine:
- You aren’t bad, broken, or intrinsically wrong. You are doing your best, just like anyone else.
- The past is the past. Let it go and move on.
- One single thing does not define you.
- So you pierced the toast! So what?
- All is not lost.
- One day at a time.
- Your present situation is not your final destination. Look how far you’ve come.
Medium-term strategies for feeling better
When you are triggered, your endocrine system activates the production of a chemical called cortisol. This chemical hits you a little slower than adrenaline, but it has long-term effects. For one thing, it causes you to be even more sensitive to further attack. (You know what that’s like. The feelings of having been attacked are still so fresh that if anyone even looks at you the wrong way, you’ll probably go off on them.)
Since the cortisol has made you more susceptible to being triggered, it also means you’re more likely to experience additional cortisol production. It’s important to intervene!
If you haven’t been able to shake it off yet the next day, start moving into some medium-term strategies:
- Talk to an empathetic listener. This can be anyone who has shown themselves to be able and willing to listen to you without blaming you for what you are experiencing. Simple human connection is a powerful healer, especially if you are feeling any shame around what happened.
- Refocus on your purpose. If you’ve ever written a purpose statement (or a ‘noble goal,’ or a personal mission statement), get that verbiage front and center for yourself and remind yourself of what’s actually important to you. This isn’t about giving yourself a guilt trip for straying from the path. It’s just about reminding yourself of who you really are.
- Practice gratitude. Be very intentional about taking time to notice things that are working in your life: People who are present for you, or disasters that haven’t happened. Start with “it could be worse” and move up from there.
- Practice yoga and do lots of gentle stretches. This isn’t about doing anything fancy, just caring for yourself physically in ways that help your blood to move without restriction.
Long-term strategies for feeling less triggered overall
If you feel triggered a lot, you might not even be able to tell when a new trigger has hit you or when you’re in “day 2” after a trigger. If that’s the case, do all of the above and start incorporating one or two of these strategies, as well:
- Learn and practice Nonviolent Communication. This skill set gives you alternatives for approaching your relationships so that when someone in your family or workplace is triggered, you don’t have to trigger yourself further or trigger them back. This is a powerful resource and takes training and intention — and it’s so worth it. (It’s the verbal form of putting your gun down.)
- Meditate. Mindfulness meditation is one of the most effective strategies for developing a relationship with your brain so you can actually sense what it’s doing and even redirect it to an extent. The more you meditate, the calmer you will be overall and the more you will manage your emotional experience. However, note that you can’t get the benefits of meditation from sitting just once or twice or occasionally. (Just like you can’t eat one salad and expect to lose 20 pounds on the spot.)
- Care for your body–especially by getting enough sleep. Being active physically, getting enough sleep, and eating properly won’t prevent triggers from firing, but they all contribute to your overall resilience. Plus, sleep deprivation has such a seriously detrimental impact that it will benefit you very soon if you just focus on getting enough Zs.
Bottom Line: If you feel distracted by how you’re feeling, it’s going to take a combination of thinking strategies and physical strategies to regain your equilibrium. Don’t expect to change overnight, but intentionally working to change the way you think about yourself, your circumstances, and the people around you will help you let go of the things that bother you.
But it isn’t all in your head. Caring for yourself physically is an important part of surviving and even thriving with the gift we have in our automatic fight-or-flight triggered nervous system. Breathe, sleep, and move. Your body is like a musical instrument, and you have just the one. The music you play with your life depends on how you care for that instrument.
What have you found to be a helpful strategy for regaining your footing after you’ve been triggered? Leave me a comment below!