Column: Managing your triggers can be challenging

VolperMark Twain wrote, “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which never happened.”

Twain’s humor suggests that, unknowingly, we create many unnecessary problems. Researchers point out we have more than 60,000 thoughts daily and most are repetitive. We believe rethinking problems protects us against tragedy, but, in reality, these thoughts inadvertently can create more anxiety and prolonged discomfort.

So how do we harness our minds and make them our friends when challenged?

Having meditated for almost 30 years, I like to think of myself in training to not only work with my mind, but to make it my friend. Meditators, as well as proponents of cognitive behavioral therapy, teach thoughts and feelings are like clouds in the sky; they come and they go. It is the nature of our minds to think and work out problems. Thinking has been our best defense against the real dangers in the world, yet there is a tipping point at which rethinking a problem can create more internal stress.

One meditation technique I have learned is to respond rather than react to difficult events. As a younger person, I often reacted to perceived hurts by either striking out verbally or, alternatively, remaining silent though hurt and angry.

Neither response created a successful resolution.

But by waiting to respond to charged events or emotions, I have been able to develop more objectivity, enabling me to create more successful outcomes in these situations.

Some years back, a client told me his colleague was rude to him in a meeting. His account contained many details of the verbal insult he endured. In the retelling of his story, he became self-critical by demeaning his professional skills, his role as a husband and as a father.

How did one unpleasant exchange with a colleague end with a character assassination?

Tara Brach, a psychologist and meditation teacher, refers to this state as the “trance of unworthiness.” This trance, which feels normal, prevents us from recognizing our self-criticisms.

Unpacking his experience within a few therapy sessions, the client slowly discovered his exaggerated responses were exactly that; exaggerated and trance-like. He became more conscious of his initial reactive state and recognized his additional reactive thoughts about himself were hurtful. This awareness was significant in allowing him to see thoughts and feelings are not fixed states, but, in fact, constantly changing.

My role as a therapist is not to ask people to meditate, but instead to teach them in therapy the principles of self-regulation that come indirectly from mindfulness meditation and from responding rather than reacting to difficulties.

When triggered by an event or a person, we are often unable to soothe and comfort ourselves because we are overwhelmed with emotion. The following five steps are suggestions to help you work more successfully with uncomfortable feelings.

First, note the event that triggers you. Are you responding to a person or an external event? Observe your bodily responses. Do you feel hot, is your face flushed, are you cold, shaking or sweating?

Second, become curious about your feelings and identify the feeling. Are you angry, sad, confused or afraid? If you don’t know, then just note that awareness.

Third, take a few deep breaths from your belly and breathe out through your mouth. Breathe slowly, giving yourself time between breaths to avoid becoming light-headed. Breathing deeply brings you into your body and out of your thoughts which calms the nervous system. Note the change in how you feel as you breathe. Use supportive statements, such as “thoughts and feelings are temporary,” or “this will pass,” or whatever statement feels comforting.

Fourth, remind yourself of the importance of calming down before confronting a potentially explosive situation. Use healthy distractions to assist you in refocusing your thoughts, such as exercising, listening to music or a podcast, reading a favorite book or calling a trusted friend.

Fifth, remember that a “cool down” period can take a few hours or even a few days depending on how unsettling the experience has been. The goal is to be less reactive and more responsive. With the lessening of emotion, you will be more capable of making a rational decision in face of a demanding situation.

Mark Twain, living more than a100 years ago, proved to be a keen observer of his mind who pointed out that ruminating over problems can end up being a fruitless exercise. All of us have the capacity to lessen our emotional burdens. We can learn to handle our intense emotional states by taking time to sort our feelings, thereby minimizing, rather than maximizing, our difficulties.

If you are interested in reading more on this topic, I recommend “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach, PH.D.

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Hillary Volper, LCSW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Westchester
and New York City. To contact Hillary you can email her at HGVolper@aol.com
or go to her website www.HillaryVolper.com