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Triggered Emotions

We’re talking about how those hidden emotions from the past often wind up in the present at most inappropriate times. This one is called Triggered Emotions and it’s the fifth part of this series.

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We’re working our way through our series, called Taking a Look at Our Emotions. So far, we’ve talked about how emotions are created in the brain, how they act as motivators, how we tend to hide negative emotions from ourselves – we spent two presentations on that one. If you’ve missed any of these presentations, you can find them on our Website, liferesource.org . Now we’re talking about how those hidden emotions from the past often wind up in the present at most inappropriate times. This one is called Triggered Emotions and it’s the fifth part of this series.

I’ll give you an example of a triggered emotion. A former client called me recently. I hadn’t talked to her in several years. She told me that she’d made a lot of progress, but lately, she was experiencing a lot of anxiety in her new job. It was centered around her boss. She felt fearful of him, but he wasn’t doing anything to make her fearful. Being wise to the ways of emotions from her past therapy, and being a very bright person, she said, “I think he triggers feelings I had about that guy who abused me when I was little.”

Have you ever had an experience like that – where you felt a strong emotion, but didn’t have a good reason for it in the present? If you don’t think you ever have, then you’re not aware of it, because we all have this experience. This is just the way our brain works. Or, if you think your over-the-top emotions are justified in the present, then you need to become suspicious of that and think again.

There are other situations that often trigger old feelings. One of them is our kids. Kids tend to trigger our kid stuff. A man told me once that his kids were driving him crazy with their messy rooms, lack of hygiene and dirty clothes. He was embarrassed to tell me that he got so upset with them that he shoved his teenage daughter violently one day. In his childhood he experienced a lot of chaos, deprivation and inconsistency. His family moved a lot. It was often insufficient money to take care of the basic needs of life. His parents, who were meth addicts, were neglectful of his needs. The rage he felt about his childhood was spilling over into his adult life toward his children, whom he saw as blessed and yet, ungrateful. Once he resolved his childhood anger, he was able to install a set of logical consequences that helped his children become responsible and appreciative.

Another experience that triggers our past quite frequently is our relationship with our mate. I had a client once who complained a great deal about her husband because he never listened to her. She had a lot of disrespect and frustration built up against him. In the process of therapy, however, she realized that these feelings toward her husband were the same as the feelings she had toward her father, who, she said, never listened to her. Her frustration with her husband – which was justified – was amplified out of proportion – not justified. Once she processed her anger toward her father, it was much easier to deal effectively and tactfully with her husband’s failure to attend.

A third area where we have triggering issues quite frequently is with authority figures. The example we looked at, at the beginning, with the woman whose boss caused her anxiety, is an example of an authority trigger.

A fourth area we can think about is rejection. I was talking to another therapist one day, and we both discovered that, often when we communicate indirectly with other people – you know, voicemail, email, text, letter, etc. – if we don’t get an immediate response from people we don’t know well, we sometimes wonder if we said something wrong. In comparing notes, we both laughed when we realized that 95% of the time we don’t get a rapid response because the other person is busy – just a little paranoia there, creeping in from the past. Past insecurity is being triggered by benign current events.

Fifth area we can think about is disrespect and injustice. I was talking to a property manager once, who told me about a tenant at the apartments he managed. During the hottest part of the summer one year, his air conditioner failed, so he called the property manager, who immediately called his HVAC guy, who told him he was completely overwhelmed by all the calls, because the current heat wave was taking a toll on the older HVAC units around town. When he reported to the tenant that it would be a while before his unit was repaired, the tenant accused him of being a racist. That’s when we started the discussion about triggered emotion. Paranoia is always the result of triggering. Now legitimate fear of something happening is not paranoia. So we have to make the differentiation there.

A sixth area we could consider, and is very common, is frustration, boredom or loneliness. Ever find your eating or drinking out of control? You might be masking triggered feelings from the past.

The mechanism that causes triggered emotion – let’s think about that for a bit. Triggering usually happens when we have repressed old feelings from the past. Those old repressed feelings are what come up. We’ve talked already about how emotions from the past are triggered, so I’m just going to touch on that and then bring out one point that we haven’t given as much weight to yet as it deserves.

In every situation, our brain is always trying to predict what will happen next. One of the things that it does to accomplish this task is a search of our memory banks for similar experiences that might lead to insight. When such a search yields a hit on memory – or memories – the emotions, body sensations, and sometimes memories and insights, come from the past into the present. If someone offers you a warm chocolate chip cookie at a hotel desk, the hope is that it will unconsciously bring up warm feelings of home from your past as you check in and feel good about the hotel you’re staying in.

But what determines what comes up? Well, if the memory was recent, it may feel like you’re recalling an event from the recent past. You may get a picture and a conversation. When you get a letter and see that it came from the IRS, your mind may go back to your last nightmare audit, or it may go back to your initial reading of George Orwell’s 1984, or it might go back to your father’s stern accusations when you were a child, or, in my case, it might go back to the time the manager of our local IRS office made the auditor drive a check to my door because he had made so many blunders when he audited me (Now, I’m not saying, by the way, that every time I see a letter from the IRS, I think they’re going to give me money, but I did have a positive experience.), or – and here’s the part I want to elaborate on today – it might go to a time before you can remember. That’s called discreet memory – to a time before you can think that you’re remembering something.

That kind of memory was put there so early that it doesn’t have a sense of recall because you didn’t have a sense of time when it was created. There’s no story, because you had no logic or language – just body sensations and emotions. And, while it is a memory from the past, and it does relate in some way to what’s going on in the present, it’s not recognized as a memory, but just experienced as a body sensation and an emotion. So that would be when we become outraged and our shoulders tense up when our child doesn’t pick up his toys. Most of the rage and tension that we’re feeling in the present is actually a memory of what it was like to live in a house at two years of age, because our father, for example, was a mean drunk. To make matters even worse, children whose parents are not able to attune themselves to their children – for example, alcoholics, who can’t do that very well – often, do not receive enough soothing to learn how to regulate their emotions, making emotional regulation a battle for the rest of their lives. So, when that happens, it’s really stacked against a person, because they have an uphill battle to fight to regulate their emotions. Nevertheless, it can be done.

Here are four ways to deal with triggered emotion. We do live in an imperfect world, so we all need to control our emotions to some extent. And here are four ways to do just that:

The first thing that we can do…I’m going to call this, managing emotions. In the first installment of this series, we talked about a way to breathe that reduces anxiety and the resultant fear and anger. That’s one part of what we can call emotional management – controlling the body’s tendencies to hyperventilate and to think catastrophically. If you’re counting your breaths – or breathing in and thinking, “In,” and breathing out, and thinking, “Out,” you are not thinking fearful or angry thoughts any longer. Nor are you hyperventilating, which makes things worse, because it intensifies that flight or fight response. So, if you’re now controlling your breathing, and you’re not thinking about what’s upsetting – because you’re thinking about in, out, or counting your breath, that calms you down. You know, is your child passively/aggressively being forgetful or driving you crazy? Just breathe for a while. Calm down. Let the frustration – now under control then – propel you to discover why your child is angry with you, and work on the relationship, and build effective boundaries to help you stay calm and your child to know what’s expected of them.

Another thing is to recall at time in your past when you felt calm and relaxed, and then elaborate on it in your mind, is another way to take control of your feelings. It’s pretty hard to do that in the moment. You have to kind of get away from it, sit down, and…. We teach people to develop a safe place – a calm, relaxing time in the past where they enjoyed something, like the beach, or the mountains, or sitting by their favorite stream in the mountains, or something like that – and just think about that for a while. You can feel the tension drain out of your body when you do that.

I know someone who has trouble sleeping, and she has a number of soothing scenes that she would think about – a cabin in the woods covered with snow in the moonlight, lights showing out of the windows, and smoke gently curling from the chimney. She would imagine being cozy and warm and safe in that cabin with loved ones and pets.

Exercise is also a powerful way to reduce negative emotions and generate positive ones. Massage, yoga and other forms of physically relaxing disciplines are also helpful.

The one downside to these things is, quite often, we’re too upset to do them when we realize we need to. And they only work when you work them. So this is early intervention stuff we’ve just talked about.

The second thing that we can do is to understand the emotions of others. All this we’re learning about ourselves can also help us be calm in the face of the over reaction of another person.

I had a client come to my office and tell me that she did what I told her to do at our last session and it just made things worse. She said I was no better than any of the other doctors and therapists that she’d seen, and she was going to give up on therapy and me. She even called me a few bad names. Now, this woman – all her life – had been a self-sufficient, responsible person, employee and parent. But in the last three years, she’d suffered an injury that no one could see to diagnose. She was unable to work, yet none of her doctors

would give her diagnosis, which she needed to get financial aid. So she was extremely frustrated and depressed and anxious. As she grew up, I learned, early on, her mother was neglectful and abusive. All the disrespect, fear and anger she felt as a child was triggered in the present frustrating situation. While I knew she felt angry with me, it was really anger toward her mother that was being triggered into the present situation. Before the session was over, she was crying and asking me to forgive her for being disrespectful to me. And in the end, she was more connected and more determined to process her past than before.

So, every crisis is an opportunity for closeness and growth. The fact that I understood why she was angry helped me to keep cool and react in a way that was helpful to her. When I’m not able to do that, it’s always because something’s going on between me and the client that’s triggering something from my past. So I have to be aware of that counter- transference if I’m going to be a good therapist. And anybody can learn how to understand other people, and that helps them be calm in the face of abuse, or disrespect, or any of the forms of triggered anger that we, sometimes, experience.

The third thing we can do is to process emotional experiences. The first two efforts – managing our emotions and understand the emotions of others – are helpful, but they don’t really get to the cause of the problem. There are still negative emotions to be triggered after we employ both of these two. But when we process upsetting events from the past, when our brain does that memory search, it passes over the past events, because the negative emotions are no longer present.

So how does this work? What is processing? People ask me that question a lot. What do I mean by processing? Well, we’re going to explain it. We talked earlier in this series about the concept of adaptive processing. Bad stuff happens in life. And we either fight and rage against it, or we think about it a way that’s helpful.

I remember going to Big Sandy, Texas, a decade or so ago, to do some church health presentations there. Now, Big Sandy, at one time, was a satellite power center for a large Church of God organization. A lot of people worked there, so there was a lot of political activity, injustice, perceived injustice and hypocrisy, just as there is any time you organize people into any kind of group. While I was there, I talked to a man who was deeply embittered about wrongs he had experienced there in the past. These things had happened 20 or 30 years prior and he was still angry about them – that everyone hated to see him coming, because they knew what he was going to talk about. It was always the same thing. Most of the other people I met there could have told similar stories, but most of them had processed their experiences – that is, adapted to them, put them in perspective and moved on. They found a way to get past the past and become, or remain, productive. What had, at first, been the only thing they could think about was now just a memory of a bad time in the past. They had gone on with their lives.

So adaptive processing is mostly a matter of perspective. Let’s look at some biblical perspectives in Matthew 18:35.

Matthew 18:35 – So also My heavenly Father will do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart. We won’t be forgiven unless we forgive. That’s something to think about, isn’t it?

Let’s look in Romans 3:23.

Romans 3:23 – For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Oh, we’re all in this together. What a concept! It’s not just that people do bad things to us. It’s that we all do bad things to each other. It doesn’t matter what church you’re in, what your religion is, what political party you belong to. We’re all in this together. We all make mistakes. We all hurt other people. And we are to forgive others as God has graciously forgiven us. What a concept!

Romans 8:28 – here’s another one.

Romans 8:28 – And we know that, for those who love God, all things work together for good for those who are called according to His purpose. Even when bad, wrong, painful, unfair things happen, God makes it all work out for the best for us, if we’re working with Him. So, it makes sense to drop it, let go of it and move forward. We can ask God to help us do this and He promises to do that.

The biggest part of that help, however, is to focus on what God has done for us. Then it’s easier to let go of wrongs and hurts that have been done to us by others – to focus on the things that God has done for us. And doesn’t he tell us to count our blessings and to be thankful. That’s one of the reasons why. So it turns out that a list of blessings, counting our blessings, lists of answered prayers, remembering things God has forgiven us for – all these things help grease the rails that lead to adaptive processing – resolution of past hurts, mistakes we and others have made.

When adaptive processing takes place, it’s somewhat like metabolism. You know, you eat food. It gets digested and then it becomes energy. All the bad things that have happened to us, and that we have done, become instructive to us – good experience – so we can avoid similar problems in the future.

So that’s three things. Here’s one more – one more way to get past the past. Let’s go back to the man who was still angry after 20 years. Should we judge him down? Is he a weakling or some sort of crackpot? Is he stubborn for refusing to let go? Well, I’ve explained this part many times before, but I keep running into people who have heard me explain it and still haven’t understood the concept. Apparently, it’s a hard one to hang on to.

When people are stuck in fear, anger, anxiety and other negative emotions, we call that PTSD. It’s trauma. Did you know that past trauma makes it easier to be traumatized in the present? So what if this man I met, who’s still traumatized after 20 years, what if he grew up in an abusive family? Or, was in the military and was traumatized serving his country? He would be more susceptible to PTSD than somebody else. Or, maybe he’s more sensitive than most people – maybe he just takes in more than the rest of us. Or, maybe he was carrying a heavier load than others who have gotten past the organizational rigors of the Churches of God. So, there’s always a reason why things happen, and most of the time, we don’t know what that reason is, so, don’t judge – just encourage.

What causes trauma? Well, you could list off a number of events that occur that cause trauma, like bombing or beatings, or something like that, but I’m talking about why an event is traumatic to a person. When something that happens that overwhelms a person’s coping resources, the memory gets stuck in the wrong place in the brain. It’s left in the emotional side only. So the person has no way to use their logic to reprocess it. Talking about it doesn’t help much. It just seems to enflame it more.

Now, I’ve talked to many, many Christians who are in this situation. They have prayed, studied, fasted, meditated, gone to church, tithed, served, and nothing happens. There are several reasons why this might be the case. This burden is needed by the person, so God hasn’t removed it. Or, God is letting them search for a solution, because that will help them learn to wait patiently on Him. Or, perhaps He will let them struggle with their stuck memories and heal them in the resurrection, as a witness of His power. For myself, I found a type of therapy that clearly moves stuck memory so that it can be processed adaptively. I have seen it work. Sometimes I can even hear it when the stuck material becomes unstuck. And that causes me to conclude that God has built into our brain the ability to heal itself of trauma. Maybe He expects us to use what He has given us and do what we can for ourselves, instead of sitting back and expecting Him to do everything for us.

There are therapists trained in this form of therapy all over the United States and the world. There are 5,000 in the United States alone. Now I don’t know about anyone else. I’m not judging all of you. But knowing what I know, I’m sure He would expect me to do that kind of work.

Okay, that’s our fifth part of this series, Taking a Look at Our Emotions. Next time, we’ll look at how our brain creates emotions to match our beliefs – some good stuff there. So don’t forget to look for it – liferesource.org.

Until then, this is Bill Jacobs for LifeResource Ministries, serving children, families and the Church of God.