Have you ever been triggered by your partner?
Maybe your spouse offered you some advice on how to do something around the house better and more efficiently. You took that as your partner being condescending so it triggered you to get defensive.
If you’ve ever felt this way; you aren’t alone!
Your partner may not have meant to elicit that kind of a response from you but you can’t help but feel the way you do.
So, how do you work past feeling triggered by the things your partner may say or do?
When it comes to relationships, there is a high likelihood that you will become triggered at some point by your partner and having the tools to work through these feelings are incredibly important.
I’m here to help you recognize what being triggered means, identify when you are being triggered and then share with you ways to manage and work through those triggers when they happen.
So, let’s start with where the term “triggered” originated!
It is associated with the early research of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that emerged after World War I. Although many people now use the term “triggered” in a more colloquial sense to mean that they feel suddenly upset, bothered, or irritated, the clinical nature of the term is related to a present stimulus that causes an emotional response that is rooted in a past traumatic experience.
With that being said, you may be curious as to how this applies to you, your partner, and others who did not perhaps fight in a war.
As more research has been conducted, clinicians have found that PTSD affects more people from a variety of traumatic settings beyond war.
Trauma therapists have adopted the terminology “big T” and “little t” trauma to help individuals differentiate between types of trauma, and there are even varying degrees of PTSD listed in the diagnostic and statistical manual, such as acute, chronic, and more.
I won’t get too deep into those clinical details here, but it is valuable history for you to know as we embark on your personal journey into understanding your own trauma history and how to manage and cope with triggers.
In some cases, there are significant relational traumas that occur in domestic violence situations and other types of abusive relationships. This is a serious and important subject that requires and deserves more than just one blog post to unpack.
If you are experiencing fear of your partner or receive threats and feel unsafe at home, please seek help through reaching out to local law enforcement, going to a hospital or shelter, and seeking individual therapy for your own emotional recovery.
Unfortunately, there are many people who come from traumatic relationship backgrounds, whether that trauma occurred in a previous romantic partnership or in their relationship with parents, a sibling, or another family member or friend.
All of these encompass what we call “big T” trauma and it is important to get professional, trauma-focused care to heal from such experiences..
You may be surprised to learn, however, that “little t” trauma in relationships is a given. It might be jarring to read that, but let me explain.
When it comes to “little t” trauma, this is the type of trauma that occurs in even the most high-functioning relationships. Things like your partner rolling their eyes at you, making a snarky comment, not complimenting a meal you cooked specifically for them, ignoring you when you walked in the room, criticizing your music preferences– these are all examples of more minor traumas (the “little t” variety) that occur in relationships.
I’ve heard it called “death by a thousand cuts;” it’s not that you’ve necessarily had one or two significantly traumatic encounters with your partner, but that there have been many smaller, more subtle emotional traumas that have compounded into bigger hurts.
Now also think beyond your present relationship into past ones, including during childhood.
Were there instances when your parents ignored you, even unintentionally?
Did your previous significant other make passive aggressive comments about your eating habits?
Did a former friend make demands of you that made you feel uncomfortable?
These are just a few examples of traumas in relationships that create an emotional and cognitive complex rooted in the activation of your stress response system which can be triggered in present relationships.
When the stress response cycle is triggered, it is important to learn to validate those feelings and allow the cycle to complete. Otherwise, we hold that energy inside, and as many know, chronic stress can lead to negative health outcomes in one’s future.
With this helpful background information in place, let’s get into the “how” of it;
how do you recognize when you’re triggered and what can you do when that happens?
There are 2 steps to help you with this.
The first step in learning to recognize your triggers is to cultivate mindfulness. This can be done in a number of ways, but it is basically intentional efforts one makes to consciously gain awareness of something in their lived experience.
This can be done through meditation, thought exercises, asking for accountability from a trusted person, and also through engaging with a trained therapist.
Now apply that mindfulness not only to your thoughts but also mindfulness of how you’re feeling. A helpful initial indicator for when you’re triggered is to notice instances in which you “all of the sudden” feel a certain type of way. I often tell clients that rarely do we feel something “out of nowhere,” because even if the feeling came on suddenly, it is likely one that came out of somewhere and could potentially be rooted in past trauma and pain.
The second step is to stay present in interactions and notice when something in the present sparks a memory, mental image, or old feeling from the past.
As with any new venture, gaining awareness of triggers takes practice, and it is important to name them and the feeling as this is imperative to the next step.
Now, that you have some ideas for how to gain awareness of triggers, what do you do from there?
Do you just sit in that feeling and become increasingly uncomfortable?
No, because that could be re-traumatizing which would be counterproductive to the goal of improving regulation. However, you also don’t want to avoid the feeling or seek external means of numbing or distracting yourself either.
At a time when you are in a comfortable and safe place, perhaps alone in your room or even parked in your car outside work, follow the below steps to help you get through those triggered feelings and better process them:
- Sit with the feeling you had when triggered, noticing its intensity and naming the feeling (frustration, fear, anger, sorrow, paranoia, hurt, ignored, distrust, etc.)
- Once you’re able to name the feeling, go back to the memory that was triggered and validate that that was truly how you were feeling at that time, even if in the reality of that past experience your feelings had been ignored, dismissed, or denied. Here you have the opportunity to re-relate to yourself and acknowledge that you see you and the real feelings you had at the time.
- From there, comfort yourself as you validate how you were feeling. Perhaps you wrap your arms around yourself, rock your torso back and forth, cuddle up with a blanket, nod in self-understanding, or merely sigh in the truth and reality of that feeling.
- Then allow the energy of that experience, the stress response cycle, to move through you and be completed. This can be done by shaking your hands, doing some jumping jacks, allowing yourself to cry, groaning or releasing a guttural yell (not at anyone, of course, but a therapeutic yell) in order to release that pent-up emotional energy.
- And finally, thank yourself for processing the trigger and its associated feelings, and give yourself lots of self-care, including staying hydrated, eating a healthy snack, and taking some time to relax.
Recognizing and overcoming feelings of being triggered is not easy to do.
Even the strongest relationships have moments of conflict and being triggered by your partner, family member, friend, etc is normal since we all have a past. What’s important is to learn how to better understand the things that trigger you, learn how to overcome the intense feelings that follow them and then utilize the steps above as a way to get a better handle on things.
If you struggle with recognizing your triggers or finding ways in which to overcome the feelings that are associated with these triggers, please contact Solid Foundations Therapy today! Visit our website at www.solidfoundationstherapy.com or give us a call at 630-633-8532 today!