What is something that “triggers” you?

I put that in quotation marks because I don’t mean in the clinical sense of a PTSD trigger – I am talking about the colloquial way we often use this word to simply mean something brings up a strong negative emotion in us.

When you experience a strong emotional response to something, it’s natural to want to blame the thing and get away from it.

Your brain thinks there’s a threat outside of you, so it tells you to protect yourself from whatever “triggered” the response.

It sounds like a good idea, right?

Avoid the pain, apportion the blame.

So what’s the problem?

When you avoid something or someone because you’re having a strong emotional response, you are avoiding working through the problem and missing out on the opportunity to learn about yourself in the process. 

I recently had a “triggering” experience in my life.

I sent someone a text with a question in it and didn’t get a response.

And you know what?

My brain lost its sh*t.

I experienced intense anxiety and an overwhelming desire to change the circumstance by texting a follow-up. 

My brain was convinced that this person was not acting as they should and it was my duty to call them out on it or prod them to answer me.

But I didn’t.

Because I know that whenever I want to act my way out of anxiety, there is work for me to do.

I decided I didn’t want my emotional state to depend on whether or not the person responded to my text or what their response said.

I wanted my emotional state to be based on my own thoughts and feelings.

I wanted to use this as an opportunity to work on my own unmanaged mind.

So what did I do instead?

I went for a walk.

I paid attention to my thoughts.

I did some thought work.

I dug into the issues that this “triggered” feeling raised for me.

If that sounds like a calm, relaxing afternoon, don’t get me wrong: It was deeply unpleasant.

Nobody likes to sit with feelings of anxiety or dread.

But I’m so glad it happened because, in the end, I was able to get to the place where I know I would be fine whether or not I ever got an answer. 

And I learned so much from that day.

About myself, about my thought process.

About how my desire to know the future caused me distress and anxiety.

The experience even inspired two podcast episodes!

And when I later resolved the issue (which, it turns out, had resulted from a simple technical error), I got to see how my brain had completely created a story that was not at all based in reality.

All this because I was willing to get curious with myself instead of assuming my thoughts were true. Instead of trying to act my way out of my discomfort.

Instead of reaching OUT to change my circumstance, I reached IN to learn more about what was going on with me.

I want you to think about something in your life you find “triggering.”

Now I want you to think about what action you’ve taken historically to avoid it.

Have you tried to remove yourself from the situation? Change the person who “triggered” your feeling or try to make them behave differently? Avoid your feelings altogether?

Notice how you are trying to control the circumstance in order to change your feelings.

Notice also how doing this bypasses an amazing learning opportunity.

To explore the unconscious thoughts you have about your circumstances.

To explore the unconscious thoughts you are having about yourself.

About your worthiness, about your resiliency.

About the power you have.

About what should be, and why. 

Think of all you could learn about yourself if, instead of avoiding it, you got curious about the things that triggered you.

What would your life look like if you didn’t feel the need to take action to avoid discomfort and negative emotion?

What if – instead of rushing to take action and change your circumstance, you sat on your hands (sometimes literally!) and committed to learning something from the experience?

What if you accepted that sometimes life is like a deep tissue massage – that in order to unwind a trigger point in your body, you have to be willing to experience the discomfort of pressure? That in order for you to release the pressure of your old thoughts, you may have to welcome some pain into your life?

The next time you feel triggered, think of it as a deep tissue massage for your brain.

Get curious. Lean in. See what you can learn.