Aug 17 / Kelly LaPorta, LMFT

Understanding Our Triggers

Early in my marriage, I remember my husband opening our dishwasher and kindly pointing out that I had loaded the dishwasher *incorrectly* the previous night.

“What do you mean incorrectly? The dishes are all inside, look! There’s no “right” way to load dishwashers. You throw them in and press start!”

As he went on about forks and spoons needing to face 'upwards' and cups finding their place on the top shelf, I could feel the adrenaline coursing through me.

I was triggered.

But why? What about this seemingly harmless comment triggered such a physiological response? My heart raced, my chest tightened, and my face flushed.

I remembered what an old supervisor once told me:

If it’s hysterical – it’s historical. 

We all experience triggers from time to time, but when these triggers elicit intense reactions, it often means that we are having an “emotional flashback.” In other words, our brain and body are reminded of a painful memory from our past.

While my husband's benign comment was meant to be helpful, it transported me back to memories of feeling ‘controlled and criticized.’ I wasn’t responding to the present moment. My body was responding to previous unresolved events. 

Here’s the thing: When we don’t actively work to understand our triggers, we can become hijacked by them. We can feel unsettled, on edge, irritable, and unsatisfied in life and our relationships.   

A constructive critique might spur defensiveness instead of curiosity.  

A harmless joke might make us retreat in shame.

A partner glancing at their phone during a conversation might cause us to shut down, feeling unworthy.  

Minor occurrences can become enormous.  

So, how do we begin the process of working on our triggers? How do we transition from being overtaken by intense emotions to being proactive agents in our lives again?

I encourage you to start with these two practices: Awareness and Grounding. 

1 - Awareness

We gain power over our lives when we begin to make our unconscious more conscious. Start getting curious about the deeper feelings that are underlying those big triggers. Here are some common emotions that tend to be brewing beneath our BIG triggers: 

  • Feeling dismissed
  • Feeling ignored
  • Feeling insignificant
  • Feeling misunderstood
  • Feeling controlled
  • Feeling alone
  • Feeling vulnerable
  • Feeling violated
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Feeling unimportant 

Ask yourself if these emotions or experiences resonate with any significant episodes from your past. This process helps your brain separate past encounters from current ones.

2 - Orient To Your Surroundings

When actively triggered, pause. Take a few deep breaths. Look around. Unclench your jaw. Drop your shoulders. Notice what you see, hear, and smell in the moment. Say to yourself, “I am safe. I’m not in danger.”

This simple orienting practice will remind the more primitive parts of your brain that you are no longer in an emotionally or physically unsafe situation. It will help you find more calm in your body.

Wishing you luck in navigating those tricky-triggers this week.

Kelly LaPorta 
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