Managing Emotional Triggers Through Mind-Body Therapies

Managing Emotional Triggers

I saw my hairstylist Peter the other day. Not only is he great at what he does but we always seem to find ourselves in thought provoking conversations.

This last visit was about the challenges of managing our emotional triggers. We are all faced with them. Some of us are triggered more than others but none of us are immune.

We are not our emotions but sometimes it feels that way doesn’t it?

What Exactly Are Emotional Triggers?

An emotional trigger is something that elicits a heightened, very strong emotional response that doesn’t usually match the situation at hand. It can feel confusing and overwhelming in the moment and take time to understand why and where it’s coming from.

Usually the heightened emotion is about a traumatic event or situation from our past. Trauma doesn’t necessarily always mean a big event. There can be many small traumas that can be just as impactful on our nervous system as a big traumatic event. 

Trauma Response

Traumas are when a person becomes so overwhelmed by something that they go into shutdown. That can manifest as a freeze, fight or flight response. These trauma responses and the big feelings that go along with them get stuck in our unconscious. They rear their heads later in life when we come across similar big emotions and situations.

Each one of us has our own threshold of overwhelm. What was traumatic for one person is not necessarily for another.

What Do Emotional Triggers Look Like?

The Angry Partner

For example, a husband says to his wife angrily ‘why are you always yelling at me about my messy clothes’? The wife in fact asks her husband in a nice tone to help pick up without ever raising her voice. However, what he hears is yelling and it triggers an angry response in him that doesn’t fit the situation. Perhaps this was a battle he had to contend with growing up.

The War Veteran

Another example would be war veterans who becomes agitated, angry, or extremely anxious by seemingly benign sounds or images. 

Life Challenges

Emotional triggers can also be about an emotionally difficult situation someone is going through. They may be in the midst of trying to work through and process a hardship but isn’t quite there yet. 

For example, a woman who is desperately trying to become pregnant encounters a woman at work who’s pregnant with her second child. Within seconds the woman who is trying to become pregnant is overwhelmed with a flood of difficult emotions. Her heart races, she starts to feel flushed, and wants to run from the conversation. She is triggered in this moment.

Emotional Triggers are Difficult to Overcome

Emotional Triggers are Difficult to Overcome

Emotional triggers catch us off guard. If we’re feeling extra vulnerable or sensitive that day, it can be really hard to manage our response. Peter and I discussed how we gain insight into our reactions when we’re calm and life is running smoothly.  In those moments we tell ourselves, ‘I’m going to do better next time and not react so strongly.’

But then, suddenly, we’re triggered again. And we feel all the tough emotions we’re not proud of – anger, resentment, hurt, shame. The instinctive urge to react, fight or flight takes over. And managing our emotional triggers seems like the most daunting and challenging task in the world.

We told ourselves we would respond differently next time but it feels impossible in those emotionally charged moments.

So then how do we stop this cycle of hyper reactivity?

How can we manage our triggers better so that we can build emotional resilience and healthier boundaries?

What I kept coming back to in my conversation with Peter is the body. Getting more in touch with our physical body to help manage our responses to emotional triggers better.

What do I mean by that?

Strengthen our Mind-Body Connection for Emotional Awareness

Cultivating and strengthening our mind-body connection can create more awareness and presence in emotionally charged situations. This can help us respond better when we are triggered. We can then gain more insight and understanding of what those triggers are and why.

Getting in Touch with Our Emotional Body

I’m one of the biggest proponents of talk therapy. I’m always advocating it not only for people who are highly triggered, but for anyone interested in greater self reflection. Therapy helps us gain insight and understanding of ourselves. However, we also need to get in touch with the emotions that are held in the physical body. Otherwise it can be challenging to truly shift our patterns and responses when we’re emotionally triggered.

Rewiring our Emotional Response to Triggers Through Mind-body Therapies

Balancing the Nervous System

One of the key components of mind-body therapies is they help regulate our nervous system. They put us into a more parasympathetic state (rest and digest) as opposed to a sympathetic state (fight or flight). So many of us are running around in a sympathetic state, even when we don’t think we are. Negative thought and belief patterns can also keep us in a sympathetic state.

That’s why mind-body therapies are so helpful for supporting our emotional and overall health.  Allowing ourselves to get into a parasympathetic state more often helps us move through life with greater calm and presence. It also helps us manage our emotional triggers better.

Acupuncture for Stress

Acupuncture for Stress and Emotional Regulation

Acupuncture is extremely helpful in regulating our emotional responses. It helps calm our nervous system and induces a deep relaxation state. It moves our stuck energy and rebalances holding patterns in the mind-body, thereby improving emotional health as well. 

Acupuncture Cultivates Awareness to Help Manage Emotional Triggers Better

I’ve seen numerous clients over the years for stress, irritability, anxiety and depression and acupuncture has helped them tremendously. It helps the client become more aware of held stress and emotional tension in the body.

Once we’re in touch with these areas of tension, we can start to recognize when they’re active during stressful situations.

Developing this felt sense in the body allows us to be more present as triggers occur. Over time, this will help us manage our emotional responses better.

Supporting Our Patterns of Imbalance Builds Emotional Resilience

Acupuncture and Chinese medicine looks at and identifies patterns of imbalance in the body. We all have imbalances to some degree and constitutional strengths and weaknesses. Clients often feel empowered once they understand their patterns of imbalance and are given ways to support their health. This helps build a healthier resilience, especially when it comes to managing our emotional triggers.

For example, I often find an imbalance in the liver qi in clients who are easily agitated, irritable and angry. Pointing this out and sharing ways they can better support that system themselves is helpful and eye opening for them.  

Managing Emotional Triggers Through Meditation

Managing our Response to Emotional Triggers Through Meditation

Taking steps to quiet and rewire the nervous system is a great starting point to better manage our emotional triggers.

But how do we do that?

Meditation Calms the Mind and Nervous System

One great place to start is by developing a meditation practice. It doesn’t have to be complicated or long to have an effect. Start by taking a few moments throughout the day to check in with your body. Observe where you’re holding stress. Then focus on your breath and releasing areas of held tension. These few simple steps practiced a few times a day can help quiet the mind and nervous system.

So many of us are constantly running, going, doing, juggling multiple tasks and responsibilities daily. Life often feels like a race for more time. All of the sudden it’s the end of another busy day and all we can do is fall into bed. However, much of the time our nervous system is still on alert, in a state of fight or flight.

Taking Even a Few Minutes a Day Can Help

I know this well because I’m one of those people. It feels like there’s not time to take a few minutes to center ourselves and breathe, but we can’t afford not to. There’s always going to be a to-do list. The more consistent we can be with a meditation practice, the calmer and less reactive our nervous system will be.

Meditation can help us emotionally regulate and manage our emotional triggers better. Even taking 5 minutes twice a day to stop and focus on the breath can make all the difference. 

A Meditation Practice Over Time

Like working a new muscle, with practice and diligence that muscle becomes stronger.

Similarly over time a meditation practice can help calm our fight or flight system. Our brain patterns from past traumas become rewired, strengthening our ability to respond less reactively in triggered moments.

We become calmer and find we’re managing difficult situations with greater ease. Our boundaries becomes stronger as typical triggers roll off more easily and we’re not as affected as we once were.

More compassionate and forgiving

When we’re less reactive, we’re able to respond more thoughtfully in those difficult moments. We may find we’re more compassionate for ourselves and others, more forgiving.

Our triggers are never going to go away, but we all have the ability to change how we respond to them. 

Recognizing Emotions are Energy

Eventually we can start to recognize that emotions are energy. And trust that they will transform when we allow them to move through us. When we hang on to the stories and beliefs associated with the emotion, they get stuck in our nervous system. This only leads to more reactivity in those difficult moments.

Better health overall

Meditation not only helps manage our emotional triggers better but it has a profound effect on our overall health. By supporting our nervous system, it helps in the prevention and maintenance of chronic disease through our mind-body connection.  

Breathwork for Managing Emotional Triggers

Breathwork for Managing Emotional Triggers

Negative Effects of Shallow Breathing

As I mentioned earlier, many if not most of us are operating at a faster pace with each passing day. We’re juggling, doing, going, constantly. Our minds are on overload. Many of us are navigating the day through our mental space, so much that we forget to breathe. We’re breathing but often only shallowly.

Over time, shallow breathing leads to poor oxygenation, fatigue, and constriction in our qi. This can negatively impact how we respond to stress and emotional triggers. When we’re in this sympathetic state (fight or flight) it’s difficult to respond calmly and thoughtfully to difficult situations.

However, tuning into our breath daily can dramatically shift us from a reactive state to a calmer one.

Breathwork Promotes a Parasympathetic State

Breathwork, when practiced regularly helps put our system into a more parasympathetic state. This helps us respond more thoughtfully and less reactively when emotionally triggered.

Breathwork has been shown to change our brain waves into a calmer frequency. This frequency allows for a more balanced emotional state and nervous system.

Easy Breathwork Practices

Two of my favorite and effective breath work techniques are box breathing and the 4-7-8. They are both simple and easy to integrate into a busy day. Box breathing entails breathing in for a count of 4, holding for a count of 4, breathing out for 4, then holding again for a count of 4. This cycle should be repeated 4 times.

The 4-7-8 technique is similar. It starts by breathing in for 4, holding for a count of 7, then breathing out for 8. Repeat this cycle 4 times as well.

Practicing either of these twice a day can make all the difference in how we manage our stress and difficult emotions.

Yoga for Emotional Resilience

Yoga for Emotional Resilience

Yoga is another wonderful mind-body practice that can help balance our emotional response to life’s stressors. By focusing on the asanas and breathing, yoga takes our focus out of our thinking mind and into our body.

It opens up our energetic channels and frees up areas of stagnation – physically, mentally and emotionally. By doing so, the practice induces a calmer state of being and relaxes our nervous system. That helps our capacity to navigate life and our emotional triggers with more ease.

Other Helpful Mind-Body practices for Managing Emotional Triggers

I’ve had numerous clients over the years tell me that they can’t get themselves to meditate or do yoga. Or that they have a hard time maintaining any of those practices. They just don’t resonate or work with their lifestyle.

Everyone is different and what works for one person doesn’t always work for another. 

If you find you’re one of these people, then what I usually recommend is another form of movement or exercise. Or a creative hobby such as painting or knitting. Some sort of activity where your body is involved in some way. 

Physical Activity Exercise

Physical Activity for Emotional Health

Activities where you have to pay attention to your movements but not to the point of overthinking are ideal. Walking and hiking are great and can be very meditative and calming. Plus you have the added benefit of being out in nature.

Dancing is also a great way to get into your body more.  Dancing elevates our spirit and emotional state. Physical movement increases our heart rate and releases natural endorphins that are beneficial for our emotional health and well being.

Creative Outlets are Healing

Creative Outlets are Healing 

Aside from physical activity, having a creative outlet is one of the best ways to rewire our reactive brain patterns. Even just 10 minutes a day can help quiet our nervous system. Painting, knitting, drawing, doing pottery, journaling can be incredibly healing in every way.

The act of creating and focusing on an activity through hand-eye coordination is calming and reduces stress levels. Practicing a creative activity even a few days a week can help make a difference in our emotional state. And also how we respond to emotional triggers.

Even if you feel you have no creative talent, doing a paint by numbers for 10 minutes can be transformative.

Or if you have access to a pottery studio, playing with clay can be very calming. Don’t worry about the outcome, just molding the clay in your hands is great therapy. And you may be surprised with the end result!

I encourage everyone to give some creative outlet a try!

For more tips on how to build emotional resilience, follow me on Instagram and Facebook!

If you’re interested in how finding out more how mind-body therapies can help support you, click on the link below to schedule a free consult:

Heidi Botnick O’Hare, L.Ac
Rumney Acupuncturist