How to Change the Way You Respond

By Melissa Korkes - 02/10/2022


“How do I change the way I respond when I am triggered?”

This may be the most frequently asked question I get. And it’s an important one.

First, let’s define a ‘trigger.’

A trigger is when something in our present moment elicits a very big emotional reaction within us. The reason the feeling is so big is because what we are reacting to in the moment is typically about something we are carrying with us from the past. It can be past experiences, past emotional wounds, or past unmet needs; some traumatic. Our current experience is then being filtered through those events and we assign meaning to what we are experiencing in our current environment. For example, if I have a critical father and have listened to his remarks my whole life, then in present day when he makes a critical remark I may have a very big internal emotional reaction. Objectively it may have been a one sentence remark, but in this moment it has become the accumulation of every critical statement my father has ever said. And, in that moment, I may begin to assume the remarks mean that he doesn’t respect me, value me, and/or think I am loveable – all contributing to how I feel inside. 

When triggered we often do one of two things. We either kick and scream (do something outward) or we go inward and detach, numb, or dissociate. For many of us, in this moment of big emotions, we are actually having a physiological experience, a nervous system response. This is why we may feel it in our body. Our heart rate may increase, we may begin to sweat, etc.

For this reason, breath is so important in these moments. Using our breath can be an incredibly helpful tool to bring our body back into physiological balance. To help calm the very real nervous system activation that is happening in our body when we are triggered. If we can pause for a moment when we feel a surge of emotions and create space for our breath, this could be the difference in allowing our emotions to down regulate enough and choose to respond responsibly, rather than react impulsively. So instead of screaming or detaching, I give myself the gift of choice. To choose to do something new in that moment. As a result, when I leave that exchange I get to feel empowered and avoid feeling terrible about how I behaved.

It may sound simple, but as you begin to practice focusing on your breath, it will likely feel pretty weird. This is why practice is so important. Do not wait to practice breathing until you are in the moment of a trigger. If you do, a few things may happen: You are probably not going to remember this concept and if you do, you are not going to be practiced enough for it to be effective. There are hundreds of breathing techniques out there. While I am a big fan of belly breathing, I encourage each person to find the practice that works best for them.

If we learn how to use our breath and harness this power, we can begin to create empowered choices even in the most uncomfortable or challenging environments.

So the next time you experience an intense emotional response, I invite you to PAUSE and BREATHE before acting.

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