NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, July 6, 2015

Coping With Trauma: Becoming Aware of Emotional Triggers

Prior to coming to therapy, most people, who have underlying emotional trauma, are unaware of the emotional triggers that can cause them to react to what is going on now as if they were living in the past (see my article:  Reacting to the Present Based on Your Traumatic Past and Overcoming Trauma: When the Past is in the Present).

Coping With Trauma: Becoming Aware of Emotional Triggers 

When your brain is reacting automatically to something happening in the present as if you were back in the past, it can be very confusing, especially if you're not in therapy.

You might not understand what's happening to you.  You might not even be aware that your reaction is based on the past and not in the present.

Developing an Awareness of Your Emotional Triggers in Therapy
Often, people come to therapy to deal with difficult situations in the present, but they don't realize, at first, that the situation is triggering their past.  They just know that they're having a difficult time in a particular situation, which could be in their personal life or at work.

Sometimes, they're aware that their reaction to a particular situation is out of proportion to what's going on now, which is usually a sign that there is an earlier incident (or incidents) that is triggering the current emotional response.

Other people might be completely unaware of the earlier incidents and they deal with the current situation at face value.

A therapist, who is trained to listen for underlying trauma, can often detect the signs of earlier trauma and would broach this with the client.

Even if the therapist isn't sure if there is earlier trauma, there are ways in therapy to discover whether there is an earlier trauma and if that trauma is what's being emotionally triggered in the current situation (see my article:  Bridging Back to Discover Old Emotional Wounds).

If there is an earlier incident (or incidents) that is getting emotional triggered, working on the incident from the past often helps to alleviate the symptoms that are getting triggered in the current situation.

Usually, a trauma therapist will work on the past, the present as well as the anticipated future as it relates to the presenting problem.

A vignette, which is a composite of many different cases to protect confidentiality, will help to illustrate these points:

Greg came to therapy because he was having problems at work with his boss, Harry.

Everyone on staff agreed that Harry was difficult to work with, but Greg was having a particularly difficult time, and he often found himself enraged and frustrated with Harry to the point where he was afraid that he would lose his temper and say or do something that would get him fired.

Emotional Triggers:  Staff Meeting With Harry Criticizing Greg

Most people would have problems dealing with a boss like Harry because he was critical and overbearing.  But Greg allowed Harry to really get under his skin.

Whereas other employees looked for the first opportunity to leave the department to get away from Harry, Greg was determined to stay, even though he had better offers.  He was determined to prove to Harry that Harry was "wrong."  Greg was focused on being vindicated.

At that point, Greg couldn't see that he was overly invested in this situation, but his wife, Alice, knew that Greg was overreacting to Harry and she knew that there was something more going on for Greg.

Since Greg was unable to let go of his preoccupation with Harry even on his down time, Alice felt that it was affecting their relationship.  She was the one who recommended that Greg get help in therapy.

Greg's Wife Knew That Greg Was Overreacting and Recommended that He Get Help in Therapy
During his initial consultation, Greg said he wanted to learn stress management techniques to deal with his situation at work.  He recognized that he was under a lot of stress, but he was too immersed in the situation to see that he was overreacting.

He talked about wanting to "prove" to Harry that his criticism of Greg was "wrong."  He was determined to do whatever he had to do to "show Harry" that he was one of the best employees on staff.

Coping With Trauma:  Become Aware of Emotional Triggers:  A Difficult Boss as a Trigger

Even though Greg knew that he was highly regarded by his coworkers, Harry's superiors, and people outside the company in the same industry, Greg maintained a single-minded focus on vindicating himself with Harry.

Greg lacked perspective of how overly invested he was in trying to change someone who clearly wasn't going to change.

My experience as a therapist working with many similar problems is that people often develop limited perspective with only talk therapy when they are so dug into a situation like this.

Talking about the situation would engage Greg's logical mind, but it would have a limited impact on his emotional mind.

Rather than talk therapy, we needed to use experiential therapy (see my article:  Experiential Therapy Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

So, in order to determine if the current situation was triggering an earlier situation, we used the bridge back which is often used in clinical hypnosis and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing).

I asked Greg to close his eyes and think of a recent memory where he reacted to Harry in the way that he was describing to me.

When Greg said he had a memory in mind, I asked him to notice what emotions came up and where he felt them in his body.  He responded by telling me that he felt anger and frustration and he felt it in his throat and stomach.

Then, I asked Greg to use the emotions that he felt and the awareness of where he felt them in his body and see what earlier memories came up (see my article:  Mind-Body Psychotherapy: The Body Offers a Window Into the Unconscious Mind).

I told him that he was looking for possible earlier memories where he had the same reaction but, with regard to content of these memories, these older memories didn't have to be the same type of memory.  I asked him to just allow whatever came up to come up without judging or censoring it.

To his surprise, Greg remembered several memories, going back to his childhood with his father.

Greg described his father was being critical and overbearing, like Harry.  His father treated him as if he couldn't do anything right--also similar to Harry.

He remembered feeling angry and frustrated whenever his father criticized him.  He also felt like he always wanted to "show" his father that he was "wrong" and this was his most fervent wish as a child.

Over time, as we continued to work on these earliest memories, Greg became aware that underneath his anger and frustration, he also felt a lot of sadness (see my article: Discovering That Sadness is Often Hidden Underneath Your Anger).

He grieved for what he felt he didn't get emotionally as a child from his father.

Gradually, as we worked through these earlier traumatic memories, Greg became less invested in remaining in his struggle with Harry because Harry became less and less important to him on an emotional level.

We also worked on what Greg wanted for the future (see my article:  Experiencing Your Future Self: The Self You Want to Become).

Coping With Trauma: Becoming Aware of Emotional Triggers

After a few months, Greg accepted another job where he was in charge with a much higher salary and a healthier work environment.  He was much happier.

Greg's childhood memories lost their negative emotional charge, so he was also able to forgive his father, who had mellowed over the years and was no longer the critical father that he had been when Greg was a child.

Coping With Trauma: Becoming Aware of Emotional Triggers

Greg and his wife were also happier together since he was more emotionally available to her when he was at home.

Often, when you're immersed in a situation where you're experiencing a lot of emotion, it can be hard to be objective.

People who are close to you, like a spouse or close friend or relative, might recognize that there seems to be more going on for you than what's happening in the current situation.

Although loved ones can be emotionally supportive, they can't help you to discover if there are unconscious underlying issues that might be getting triggered for you, and they can't help you to work through those issues.

Getting Help in Therapy
Experiential therapy, like EMDR, clinical hypnosis and Somatic Experiencing, can help to make the unconscious conscious in ways that you can't do on your own (see my article:  Psychotherapy: Making the Unconscious Conscious).

If you're struggling with emotional problems that you've been unable to resolve on your own, you could benefit from working with a licensed mental health professional who uses experiential therapy.

Freeing yourself from the emotional burdens of the past might be one of the best things that you do for yourself because it will allow you to live a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.