When I realized my response to emotional triggers negatively affected my relationships, I felt grief and a desire for change. As I allowed God to guide me in my emotional triggers, I experienced freedom and the courage to speak out.
If emotional triggers impact your life, I hope you find encouragement and hope in my journey of healing to claim God’s promise of His power being made perfect in our weakness.
“My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me.” 2 Corinthians 12:9 NLT
How Emotional Triggers Happen
Christmas break from school had begun. I walked into the house from classroom parties and began to fill the table with gifts, backpacks, treats, and dishes from the food I had contributed.
As I was making trips from the van to the house unloading various items, my two sons began wrestling on the living room floor in their sugar-induced excitement.
While I trekked back and forth, my house became louder and more cluttered, and my focus was on the wrong things. Instead of looking forward to Christmas break with my boys, I thought about how much I still had left to do.
My schedule leading up to the last day of school had been overcrowded, and I was running low on energy.
While I worked, I spoke to myself about my perceived reality.
No one appreciates how much effort it takes to pull off a thing like Christmas. No one but me will wrap the gifts and stuff the stockings. No one else will do the cooking, cleaning, and entertaining—just me.
I was focused entirely internally, and I was getting more infuriated with each step I took.
And then it happened as emotional triggers often do. As the boys were wrestling, my older son’s glasses fell off, and one of the boys rolled on them. His brand-new glasses bent right in two, and I just lost it.
I screamed at my children. Yes, I did.
I yelled at them for their carelessness, and I made sweeping statements about how they didn’t help and that they made my life harder. I voiced to them in angry words what I had been saying to myself in my head.
And I will never, ever forget the shocked and slightly scared looks in the eyes of the two people God has entrusted me to care for and love.
What is an Emotional Trigger?
A trigger is something small that has the potential to set off something much more significant. An emotional trigger is an event in our lives that sparks an intense reaction.
Emotional triggers are often minor experiences that create a fiery explosion.
I am a trauma and abuse survivor. When I was 16, I was groomed and seduced into a romantic relationship by a 39-year-old married high school teacher. The relationship lasted approximately nine months.
When rumors of our involvement began to swirl and move from inside the small rural high school into the surrounding community, I experienced a social death from which I nearly did not recover.
Predators don’t only groom their victims. Predators also groom their circles of influence. My abuser was a beloved teacher, and he had trained the people around him to believe his explanations over the stories of girls who had fallen prey to his advances and dared to speak their truth.
At the tender age of sixteen, I did not know how to believe in my voice. And when it was stomped on and silenced, I walked away a shell of what I had been before.
Over two decades passed before I understood how that early experience shaped my life in the years that followed. I’m still learning how my brain processes information in its attempt to protect me.
I’m grateful for my brain’s incredible work to keep me emotionally and physically alive during the dark season that followed my release from the abuse.
However, our brains can work a little like an allergy.
Our bodies signal and react to prevent danger when the situation in front of us isn’t dangerous at all. It only reminds us of something dangerous.
And now, we’re left with the task of distinguishing between actual and perceived risk and making conscious decisions about how best to move forward.
It would delight me if none of this resonated with you. It would be incredibly wonderful if you never had emotional triggers… a benign conversation with a mom in the parking lot after school that triggered feelings of inadequacy and shame. Or if you never lashed out at your husband because something he said triggered feelings of rejection and abandonment.
But my experience has taught me that many of us tackle emotional triggers and live our lives from places of fear and brokenness.
5 Steps for Healing Emotional Triggers
The five steps that follow have helped me tremendously with healing from emotional triggers, and it is my hope they might help you too.
Step 1 – Recognize
When anxiety rises, what does my body do?
As I walked from the house to the garage that Friday afternoon before the glasses got broken, my body sent me distress signals. My mind was racing, my breathing was quick, and my footsteps pounded harder than they needed to on the floor beneath my feet.
These signs gave me the opportunity to pause. Had I heeded their warning, I could have prevented what happened next, but I kept going in that state of stress.
Now I know to treat those physical and emotional signals like I treat hunger or pain.
If my body signals that I’m hungry, I move to the kitchen for a snack. If my body signals that I have a headache, I move to the medicine cabinet for ibuprofen. I know how to answer the need I recognize.
The same can be true with emotional triggers like anxiety.
1 Peter 5:7 tells us to cast our anxiety on Jesus because He cares for us. Like a snack cures hunger and pain relievers cure an everyday headache, so pausing to pray, breathe, and invite Jesus into our current circumstance can cast that anxiety on something other than ourselves.
We don’t have to carry it alone.
Step 2 – Reveal
What am I believing on the inside about what’s happening on the outside?
The thoughts running through my mind as I unpacked Christmas party remnants from the last day of the semester were utterly self-focused. I was not dealing with cleaning out the van. I was dealing with assumptions about how others viewed my contributions as lacking.
The activities of that day and previous days had left me depleted, and, in that depletion, I fell prey to the temptation to believe lies about from where my value comes.
The truth was that Christmas brought extra work, and I had taken on too much of it. I needed to let some things go and ask for help.
But instead of humbling myself to ask for help, I found temporary satisfaction in blaming others for my overwhelm.
I listened to lies like my husband doesn’t care, and my kids make it harder.
That internal dialogue led me back to an old feeling of rejection and not being appreciated for who I am and what I offer (emotional triggers). I felt small and overlooked, and I felt like a joke.
John 1:5 says that darkness has no hope when light shines in the darkness because darkness cannot overcome the light. Light – or truth – is power.
If I had said out loud that my husband doesn’t care if I’m struggling or my kids only want me to work harder, I would have identified those thoughts as false. I’m grateful that those ideas could not be further from the truth in my family situation.
Revealing the darkness of our wayward thoughts invites in the light of God’s truth. Then the darkness has no choice but to flee.
Step 3 – Remember
Where have I experienced God’s faithfulness in previous circumstances?
When I was only eight years old, I profoundly experienced God during a week at church camp. I asked God for a sign to confirm what I felt in my young faith.
I’ll never forget later that day seeing something that stirred my soul. It brought an understanding that God was answering my prayer in the form of a tangible sign. In that sign, He communicated a message directly from His heart to mine.
I hope you’ve felt something like that – a time in your life when you understood God to be present in your circumstances. Those connections leave imprinted memories we can recall long after the experience.
When events press in, and we are emotionally triggered, we have the opportunity to remember what we know.
If it isn’t from personal experiences, it can be from stories and verses in the Bible.
Psalm 145:13 tells us that the Lord is trustworthy and faithfully keeps His promises.
Remembering God is faithful doesn’t check everything off a too-long Christmas preparation list. But it does give us strength for the moment in which we find ourselves.
If I had recognized the physical signs of rising anxiety, revealed the inaccurate thoughts running through my mind, and remembered the promises of God’s love and provision, I know I would have handled the broken glasses in a vastly different way.
Step 4 – Receive
How is God offering His help in this experience?
In Luke 15, Jesus shares the story of two sons. Both of the sons squander their inheritance. The younger son wastes it by spending it foolishly, and the older one wastes it by being unwilling to receive it.
When the older son accuses the father of not providing for him in the same way as his younger brother, the father assures him that everything the father has is already the older son’s to take, and he only needs to take it.
We are so often squandering our inheritance like the older son.
We want the love, joy, peace, and rest Jesus offers in abundance. But we hold our hands up to block it instead of opening our hands out to take it. It’s our choice.
When I’m in a place of decision, I speak aloud a verse of scripture that means a lot to me, or I stop and use a breathing technique to focus on Jesus.
John 14:27 tells us that Christ gives us peace. We do not need to be troubled or afraid because we can choose to receive His peace.
The next time rising anxiety, discouragement, and the voices inside your head threaten to take you down, consider trying this simple breathing technique to receive the peace God provides.
First, breathe in deeply, saying to yourself, “I am.” Then hold that breath and count to seven. Then slowly exhale, saying “loved.”
Repeat the process four times.
I am… hold your breath… loved.
I am… hold your breath… loved.
I am… hold your breath… loved.
I am… hold your breath… loved.
Then look at the cluttered kitchen table, wrestling children, and broken glasses, in whatever form emotional triggers present themselves, and move forward having received Christ’s offering of peace.
Step 5 – Repeat
How do I offer myself grace with this process?
In the years since the tale of the broken glasses, I’ve repeated that kind of scenario more times than I want to admit.
Of course, it didn’t look exactly the same. But I’ve raised my voice at the boys, lashed out at my husband, and fallen into self-loathing because I wanted the temporary satisfaction of a worldly release rather than being saturated with divine peace.
I don’t know why we continue to make that choice, but we will. The good news is that I see now that I make the choice less frequently.
Healing Emotional Triggers
Lamentations 3:22-23 reminds us we are not consumed by trouble because of the Lord’s compassion towards us. And His unfailing compassion is endless.
There is always enough to meet our needs, and we will never use up the mercy God is willing to pour out upon us.
Friend, if you see yourself in my story, be gentle with yourself. It’s likely something happened to you that wounded you deeply, and it isn’t easy to believe good about yourself and others.
That’s okay, and you are okay.
Healing emotional triggers is possible.
Give yourself grace and ask for help when you experience emotional triggers. My boys laugh now and say, “That’s Mom’s trauma brain,” when I realize I’ve overacted and apologize to them for doing so.
I’ve shared pieces of my story so they know sometimes I feel something initially that didn’t need to land where it landed upon further consideration.
I experienced emotional triggers, responded in a desire to protect myself, and am sorry I did so.
We can ask God to continually open our hearts to a deeper understanding of how He sees us so that we can align our beliefs about ourselves with His.
We will not journey with Him perfectly, but we will journey with Him well when we depend on Him to give us exactly what we need for whatever we face.
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