• Your three-year-old refuses to hold your hand while crossing the street in spite of your reasoning and even bribes. Having to grab his hand to force compliance is irritating. Why can’t he just listen? In your irritation, you think you would have NEVER gotten away with this as a kid.
  • Your boss doesn’t seem to notice your extra effort, making you feel like you did as a child when your parents didn’t notice how hard you were trying. 
  • Your trustworthy spouse urges you to relax and let him help, triggering fears of other partners’ broken promises and disappointments. 

Whether in parenting, at work, or in our closest relationships, our buttons can fire at any time, setting off a chain of neurological associations that can feel hard to understand, let alone control. Understanding a bit more about what’s going on in your brain when you are triggered can help you gain a better sense of control.

Our brains are built to help us survive. Thanks to our survival-tuned brain anatomy (with the memory-storing hippocampus being adjacent to the threat-activating amygdala), we are set up to vividly remember and feel danger when we encounter situations that are similar to others that have previously hurt us. We interpret these similar situations as being potentially dangerous.

With your memory being strongest for events from the past that are particularly painful, your emotional memories stand at the ready to protect you when you are at risk. When your buttons are pushed, you are triggered, respond with strong, and sometimes confusing, emotional reactions to a present situation that in some way reminds you of past pain.

Designed to protect us from danger, our buttons represent our own personal catalogue of past threats that amplify protective reactions when we encounter similar situations. They are enacted quickly, and are part of how our brain prioritizes safety at all costs without a great deal of thought.

When you get triggered, understand this is your memory and brain anatomy working for you, aiming to protect you from reexperiencing pain, and ultimately your safety.

Our formidable memory of past threats alerts us to situations in the present that remind us of the past. It can be surprisingly accurate – but it can also misfire.

Sometimes one of the most uncomfortable things about being triggered is the fear of the past repeating itself, and of course, your desire for it NOT TO.  After all, you are no longer in the past without control or knowledge, you are in the present, and things are NOT the same. Your partner is NOT your previous one, your coworker is not your parent, and your child is not your younger sibling.

Because we lack control over the associations and the frightening feelings that flow from them, our triggers can start to feel overly sensitive and disruptive. However, as we develop a better understanding of our triggers, we can better recognize them when they are happening, and set up more control over our reactions.

Here are three key steps to take back control when your buttons get pushed.

1) Identifying your triggers/buttons

When you can recognize your buttons being pushed, you start to develop your own understanding of what being triggered means. This recognition allows you to noticing the situations and patterns where you feel similar but not the same as a past experience with its leftover fears and anxieties.

This recognition alone can help lower your anxiety and allow you to direct your focus to the actual problems at hand.

2) Recognizing when your triggers/buttons are pushed

When you notice yourself getting triggered, you turn on more parts of your brain to bear on the issue, ultimately afford yourself more control over your trigger reactions. With practice, you get better at recognizing faster when you are triggered and why. This is a turning point for most people where instead of feeling controlled by their reactions, people start to feel more in control.

3) Sort out past triggers, and refocus on the present

The past and the present can seem one and the same when you are triggered. Yet identifying past hurts that are flaring up in the present situation can help you start detangling past from present.

While memories from the past are working to protect you, the present situation is what deserves your attention. Teasing out irrational fears related to the past can help you focus on the rational fears of the present.  When your mind starts spinning about what might be happening, try to pull back the possibilities so you can focus more on the probabilities. Focusing on the facts can help calm your racing mind and emotions.

Defining your buttons can be a powerful starting place to work through past fears and anxiety that inevitably get triggered throughout life. While your survival-oriented brain anatomy keeps these situational memories at the ready to protect you, you get to decide how you understand your experience, and what you do with it.

Getting clear on your buttons, and applying your awareness, can be a powerful coping tool in managing your strong and confusing emotions. Practicing these steps can help cultivate your resilience, and ultimately regain the emotional control you want to have at your fingertips next time your buttons get pushed.