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3 Steps to Identify Your Triggers and Stop Your Negative Emotional Spiral

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

Was published March 8, 2021 on the Psychology Today Blog page

3 Steps to Identify Your Triggers and Stop Your Negative Emotional Spiral

Do you sometimes find yourself heading down a negative path of depression, self-doubt, anger, or blame? Learn how to identify your triggers and hit the pause button.

It happens to all of us: you’re going about your day, everything seems fine, and then something happens, or someone says something, and you get triggered. It’s as if you switch gears. Maybe you start to feel hurt or angry or depressed, or just a whole bunch of negative feelings. You might start to think that your best friend or partner doesn’t care about you, that life feels worthless or you feel worthless; maybe you start thinking that nothing ever works out. You might feel tense all over, or get a sinking feeling in your stomach. Each of us has our own familiar pattern, but all of us experience this big negative ball of jumbled feelings, thoughts, and physical reactions—and it feels just awful. So how do you get out of it? There is no easy answer, but in the coming blogs I will show you some ways out of the jumble. Today I want to show you three steps you can use to identify your triggers and start getting out of your negative cycle. You can also read more in the second edition of my book CBT Made Simple.

You can think of a trigger as a sticky ball, about the size of a baseball, on the top of a mountain. The ball represents what happened initially that started your emotional reaction. The ball starts to roll down the mountain, going faster and faster down a well-worn path. As it rolls downward, it gets bigger and bigger, picking up negative thoughts and feelings until it is massive. What started as the size of a baseball is now huge, with all kinds of hurtful memories and negative thoughts and feelings stuck to it. All you are aware of is this large ball of negative feelings. Your emotional reaction is so strong that you can’t problem solve, and problems feel so big that there is no use in trying. Your first goal is to see the initial ball without all the negative memories, thoughts, and feelings it picked up along the way. Once you clearly see what started your emotional reaction, you can begin to figure out what to do next.

Let’s look at the three steps to help you identify your triggers and learn how to stop yourself from ending up in a huge jumble of negative thoughts and feelings.

Step 1: Identify when you’ve been triggered. When we are triggered, our reaction is so strong and happens so quickly and automatically that we never stop to question the negative path that got us here.

I want you to meet Ida, a client of mine. She is a young women in her early thirties, the kind of person with sparkly eyes and a wicked sense of humor. She has a close group of friends and lives with the love of her life, her dog Catch. At times a friend does something or says something, and she gets triggered. She starts to feel very alone, that no one likes her and that she has no friends. Sometimes she remembers other times that a friend did something hurtful. When this happens, she gets depressed and often cancels her plans and curls up in bed alone. Even her body feels out of sorts. She can also get really irritated with her friends and send angry texts.

For Ida, the first step to stopping this negative pattern is to recognize when she has been triggered.

Think back to the last time you were really upset. What were your feelings? Your thoughts? How did your body feel? Learn to recognize your pattern.

Step 2: Identify the facts. Once you recognize you’ve been triggered, take a deep breath and ask yourself “what happened to trigger me?” You want to look at the facts of the situation. This is often hard to do.

Let’s go back to Ida. Ida was in a therapy session, crying. She looked up at me and said, “I can’t count on my best friend, I feel like I’ve been betrayed, none of my friends want to hang out with me.” I asked Ida if anything had happened.

Ida was able to identify when she started to feel this way. Earlier in the day, she was scrolling on Instagram and saw a photo of her best friend hanging out with some other friends. Ida was surprised and hurt that her friends got together without her. She jumped to the conclusion that she had not been invited and that they didn’t want to see her—many of us have had similar reactions. So how does she cope?

Step 3: Face the situation with compassion. Once you have identified what happened to trigger you, you need to take a breath and hit the pause button. Then, take a hard look at the situation and find some compassion for yourself. For Ida, it was hard to see her friends getting together without her.

Try saying to yourself, “This happened, and it’s hard. No wonder I am upset.” Give yourself some time to figure out how you want to handle the situation. Take some more deep breaths. Ask yourself what a really kind, compassionate friend would tell you. Notice if you are using all-or-nothing thinking; for example, words like “all” or “never” or “none” are extreme, and life is often more subtle. Also ask yourself whether you jumped to conclusion – often these quick conclusions are too extreme.

Take Home From Today.

  1. Recognize when you have been triggered – learn your own pattern

  2. Take a breath, pause and ask yourself “what are the facts of the situation”

  3. Examine what happened with compassion and kindness for yourself. Check if you jumped to conclusions.

You can find out more about identifying your triggers and how to change your negative patterns in CBT Made Simple.

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