We are all human. We all come from somewhere. Our pasts are a historical record of wonderful and painful moments that have happened to us. We all come wired with soundtracks from the past. And even the healthiest among us, are not immune from being triggered by other people.
Relationships can be a harmonious adventure or a disaster just waiting to happen. Two people sharing different perspectives, lifestyles, and experiences can be a breeding ground for emotional triggers. And it takes a lot of work and commitment to manage our reactions to the people we love, strangers we meet, and even ourselves. It takes practice, emotional intelligence, and a lot of self-awareness.
We are built for connection. To love and be loved. To feel seen and be heard. To feel supported and understood. We aim to find a partnership where we can feel safe, secure, and protected.
The human body has survival instincts that when threatened, engage in a fight, flight, or freeze response. This protects us when there is danger. It helps us manage stressful situations until the threat is gone and our body returns to its natural state. This instinct can often get in the way of our present world.
When we are triggered by our past, these instincts kick into high gear and we become emotionally flooded. Our limbic system is hijacked, and we are no longer present. Instead of hearing our wife ask us why the lawn hasn’t been mowed yet, we hear our dad telling our 7-year-old self that we are stupid, lazy, and worthless. And our well-meaning wife is looking at us in confusion. So how do we manage these moments in our relationships?
Mindfulness allows us to respond to something rather than react to it. It teaches us to slow down. It shows us the space between us and a stimulating event. It allows us the time to decide what action we should take at any given moment.
Meditation is a powerful tool in helping us cope with emotional triggers. Being still with ourselves and our thoughts, and understanding how to rein them in, can help us cope with triggers. We take things less personally. We ground ourselves easier and quicker. We focus on our breath when stressed. We manage our triggers better. And those of our partners.
Breathing allows the body to return to a normal state. Inhaling and exhaling long breaths help the body understand that a threat is gone and is no longer needed. Long, slow deliberate breaths through your nose and mouth can do wonders when you are emotionally hijacked by your limbic system. Just breathe.
4. Time Outs and Pausing
It is perfectly okay to take a time out when you are triggered by your partner in a conversation. Sometimes we just need a moment to gather ourselves. Communicate that you need some space and will return to the conversation when you are calm again. Use this time to calm down and reflect on what is happening to you. Go for a walk. Do the dishes. Pet the dog. And return to the conversation again. You must return.
We must know our triggers so we can identify them and their emotions. This will help us recognize and understand why we are being triggered in a conversation. Did our partner say something that triggered our inner critical voice? Are we now being overloaded and overtaken by these negative soundtracks? By knowing ourselves, and the issues from our past, we are better able to handle the present moment because we can differentiate it from the past.
Both individual and couples therapy are beneficial methods for understanding our triggers and how they play themselves out in our relationships. Individual therapy offers us a place to safely investigate our lives and develop coping skills to better handle ourselves in the world. Couples' counseling can offer us a safe space to process triggers and interactions and develop healthier lines of communication.
Talking with our partners is instrumental because it creates stability, comfort, safety, understanding, patience, reliability, support, and trust. When we openly discuss our triggers and listen to our partners, we facilitate a deeper understanding of each other. And this helps to create a healthier connection.
There are many skills we can use in our relationships to manage conflict. Find something that works for you. And practice, practice, practice. Focus on yourself, know your triggers, and develop new skills. Your lives will be better together because of it!
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