Emotional Triggers and Healing the Brain
Published on February 26, 2018 by Dr. Caitlin Gordon
Here’s how it went for me today: argument with loved one > emotional triggers around feeling abandoned light up > I feel nauseous, dizzy, antsy, shaky, on the verge of tears all day > get off work and go to therapy (great timing, right?) > totally avoid talking about what I’m actually stressed about > feel like I wasted lots of money on therapy > decide to go to hot yoga and sweat it out > get overwhelmed by rushing to yoga and decide to get ice cream > walk into the grocery store and realize emotionally eating is not going to help > battle with myself while wandering the aisles > buy ice cream to take home anyway (organic/nondairy/low sugar in a small effort of self restraint)> drive home > take a bubble bath, practice guitar and sing very very loudly> barfy miserable feeling is now barely perceptible > write this long ass post all about it.
Feeling Emotionally Triggered
You know that kicked in the stomach feeling when you get into a conflict with someone you really love and it doesn’t end well? That’s one of the hardest emotions for me to deal with. These emotional triggers exist in everyone, and they can ruin relationships if not handled well.
I’ll be feeling rock-solid emotionally stable and have all my self-care tools to spring back from the ups and downs of daily life. I’m going along thinking I’ve really got my shit together in an unshakeable way…And then that kicked in the gut feeling shows up and humbles the hell out of me. When I feel deeply emotionally triggered, my *impulse* is “how can I eat/exercise/drink/Netflix or otherwise numb this away?!”. In other words, total and complete aversion to sitting with the feeling. The upside is with consistent meditation and acupuncture now I catch on that I’m having the aversion to being with the emotion (and these triggers happen way less frequently and less intensely). This creates a little space to think before acting.
Now comes the moment when we can make a choice that rewires the brain. This rewiring heals core wounds and big emotional triggers.
Creating a Feeling of Safety
It’s really hard to take good care of ourselves when we are super triggered and overwhelmed by intense feelings. I think it’s important to remember that what we need first is to feel safe. None of the above distraction mechanisms really address that. When we recognize that our core emotion is fear, we can choose to do something really nurturing and comforting. As soon as our nervous system calms down, rational thinking comes back online and we can actually check in with what we need to process. But step 1 is always “get safe”.
Things that help us feel safe so we can down-regulate from emotional triggers:
- Going home
- Talking to a friend, family member, healer, or therapist
- Taking a bath
- Curling up in bed/couch/chair and reading a favorite book/blog/poem/etc.
- Holding a comfort object like a crystal/talisman/good luck charm/etc.
- Self-talk (literally talking yourself down: “you’ve got this, this feeling will pass, it’s going to be okay”)
- Spending time with pets/animals
- Doing art or listening to music
- Touch, by a friend, family member, or even yourself. Touching your own body (hand on heart and stomach for example) produces oxytocin, a calming brain chemical.
Figure out what makes you feel safe and use it when that panicky overwhelm sets in.
Healing Emotional Triggers and Trauma Pathways in the Brain
When we recognize an emotional trigger, pause before reacting, and make a choice to do something that helps us feel safe, we disrupt the trauma pathway. The trauma pathway activates a sympathetic nervous system response. We get a rush of stress hormones like cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline. This surge of chemistry is what causes us to feel anxious, panicky, angry, sad, or overwhelmed. It causes physical symptoms like dizziness, heart racing, chest or throat tightness, queasy stomach, shakiness, headache, and more.
By creating a feeling of safety, we reroute our brain chemistry. Now, we have forged a very faint, but real new pathway from the emotional trigger. As we do this repeatedly, we reinforce this pathway, like driving over the same dirt road will cause deeper grooves. Eventually, this pathway is the more natural response than the trauma or stress response. When we are faced with the same emotional trigger, we will no longer experience the emotional reactivity. This is how we take advantage of brain neuroplasticity, and anyone can do it.
Get the help of an expert
There are many emotional, spiritual, and physiological reasons why you may be feeling triggered and emotionally reactive. A holistic approach that looks at all the possible factors and addresses each is the best approach. As someone who has struggled with trauma and anxiety, I understand the toll it takes on our health, relationships, and self-esteem. I can help you identify the sources and the solutions that will help you feel grounded, energized, relaxed, and resourced. I will also help you find the right people for your emotional support team, like therapists, support groups, retreats, courses, etc. Schedule below.
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