So it never fails, your ex drops your child off after visitation and does that thing, you know that thing… Maybe it’s a snide or rude comment under his or her breath. Maybe it’s a “nonpliment" (i.e., a backhanded insult). Or maybe it’s an openly hostile critique of your parenting. Let’s face it, it could be just about anything. Does the following sound familiar? “Did that b-*tard just breathe in my presence?”
Whatever it is, your blood boils. And, just like that, Bingo! You’re triggered.
Triggers are your body’s response to fear and mistrust and they are rooted in evolutionary biology. When you are triggered, the Amygdala, that part of the brain that registers fear, sends a signal directing you to either fight, take flight, freeze or appease the threat.
The Amygdala Hijack
The amygdala resides in one of the earliest developed parts of the human brain and (evolutionary speaking) it served a useful purpose: species survival. And though the likelihood of, let’s say, being eaten by a T-Rex is slim to none outside of a Steven Spielberg film, there is still much to be gained by listening to that voice emanating from that primitive, reptilian part of your brain. Because, when you are triggered, you are signaling that you feel threatened in some way. And it is generally a good idea to register that, at a minimum, the person who triggered you makes you feel unsafe. In that way, the trigger is highly informative in helping you identify people who are “unsafe” for you.
When we are in a state of distrust, the world feels threatening. The threat makes us go inward and retreat in an attempt to protect ourselves. When we go inward while under a state of duress (as in the case of an “amygdala hijack”), we close ourselves off to more than just the threat; we close ourselves to higher executive functioning in our brains. In others words, we don’t think so good! ;-)
Not only does Amygdala activation take a toll on the quality of our thoughts, it takes a toll physically on our bodies due to the experience of higher levels of cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol has been linked to weight gain and it can be very disruptive to our systems, taking sometimes as long as 26 hours to exit the body. So that’s a double whammy. You’re triggered and your waistline may pay the ultimate price for it, over and over again.
Getting Control Over Your Emotions
So, what’s a poor man or woman to do?
Better self-awareness can help you regain control over yourself and become more resistant (and resilient) in the face of potential triggers. Some questions to ask yourself include: Is the threat real or perceived? If it was real in the past, is it real in the present moment? And, if the threat is real in the present… What proactive steps can you take to mitigate it?
Below are a few simple exercises you can try to “get a grip” on your emotions:
• Notice how you react when threatened. Take a few weeks to journal every time you feel triggered by your ex. Record the cue (What was the behavior that prompted your anger?) Record your response (What did you feel, see, say?)
• Evaluate your reactions when threatened: When you are triggered by your ex, after you have some distance from the triggering event, ask yourself the following question: How much of me was manifest in that reaction? At the heart of this question is whether or not it is you or the other party who is in control of your reaction. Use a rating from 1 to 5 where 1 = totally under the spell of the other party and 5 = totally rocking your truth.
• Look for patterned behaviors: Try to identify patterns in both the way the other party triggers you and the way you respond. Where it makes sense, find ways to break the pattern loop. Look for alternative actions you can take to help you override your habitual responses to your ex.
When all else fails, pause and take a deep breath. Never underestimate the power of the pause. Becoming more aware of our responses and realizing we can override our emotions can help you pull the trigger on your emotional triggers.