How to Defuse a Trigger
To actively defuse a trigger (instead of just letting it wear itself out), you must stay aware during the process that you ARE triggered. You have to have a thread of awareness that stays with you throughout the triggered state, so you can give yourself directives on how to get calmed down again.
Recognize what you feel when you get triggered.
Think back to the last time someone did something that had you worried about what it meant. What was your first response? And your second?
Perhaps your heart starts to race, or you discomfort in your stomach, or you clench up. You might recognize emotions such as anger or fear. Perhaps mental spinning is your first sign, or you might go numb and have a far-away feeling. You might notice that you first felt dread and fear, and then the next thing you did was start rehearsing conversations with them in your head, imagining both your part and theirs.
The more you know your own responses, the easier it will be to take pro-active steps when your next trigger happens.
Use self-talk to hang onto the awareness that you are actually triggered, so your thoughts are suspect.
It’s important to stop the mind from starting to make up stories and spin around in blame and defensiveness. Instead, tell yourself:
I’m triggered. That’s OK. It happens to everyone. My mind isn’t going to be clear for a little bit so I’m not going to take the things it says too seriously. Instead, I’m going to do what I know will help when I’m triggered.
If you are with someone, you will also need to coach them so they don’t make it worse. Say something like this:
I notice I’m getting triggered. It’s OK, I just need a minute to calm down. What would help is if we could be quiet for a few minutes.
Ground in something neutral and factual.
This is a magical step that seems too easy to be actually helpful.
It works because it literally engages a different part of your brain. Instead of spinning in an emotional whirlpool or staying in a heightened fight-or-flight mode, you are forced to direct your attention to factual, neutral things that are outside of your own mental stories. It has an immediate grounding effect.
From easiest and most direct to more difficult:
- observing things around the room: “That lampshade is red.” “I’m wearing a blue shirt”. The key here is “what a camera would see”, not your opinions on that lampshade or shirt.
- observing your internal state: “My heart is racing.”
- observing your feelings: “I feel angry and hurt.”
- observing your needs: “I have a longing for comfort and quiet.”
Another trick is to notice, on a scale from 1 to 10, how upset you are. If you are in a relationship, it is helpful if both people can use this metric. Know what you need when you are at a 3, or a 5, or a 9.
Decide to do these steps whether you feel like it or not.
I can’t emphasize this enough. You may not feel like doing these when you are triggered. The problem is, feelings are not reliable when you are triggered or upset. They will direct you to protect yourself, not to be grounded and neutral. They may push you to attack or defend yourself, not try to see the situation from an objective perspective. They will lobby for drama, not something boring and blameless like being calm and rational.
So you have to make it a commitment:
I will do these steps whether I feel like it or not, because I know they work and will help me calm down.