Triggers as a Type of Conditioned Emotional Response

by Reneau Peurifoy

The first step in quieting triggers is understand a little about something call a conditioned emotional response. Conditioned emotional responses result from what is known as classical conditioning.

In the early twentieth century, a Russian scientist named Ivan Petrovich Pavlov showed how automatic responses can be triggered by things that normally have no connection to them. In his experiment, he sounded a bell just before giving hungry dogs food that caused them to salivate. With repetition, the neutral stimulus (the bell) became associated with the food. The salivating of dogs that is normally triggered by the sight or smell of food was now being triggered by something that had no connection to food. This type of automatic response in now know as classical conditioning.

In 1920 John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner did an experiment that would never be done today in which the conditioned a 9-month-old boy called "Albert" to become afraid of a white rat. They started by making him cry by the loud noise of a hammer striking a steel bar. Then they showed Albert the rat along with the loud noise. At first Albert showed no fear of rat, but after the sight of the rat had been accompanied five times by the loud noise, he cried and tried to escape, showing that the rat had become what they called a conditioned emotional response.

It turns out that classical conditioning and conditioned emotional responses play a major, though usually unrecognized, role in your daily life. Many of your preferences and dislikes result from the conditioning you experienced when you were young. Think of the types of food you like to eat. You probably enjoy food you are familiar with and often do not like food that differs from what you know. Because you have been conditioned to enjoy the sights, odors, and tastes of food you are familiar with, they trigger a positive response when you are hungry. In the same way, the sights, odors, and tastes of unfamiliar foods or spices may produce the opposite reaction. Just the sight of people eating some foods, such as snakes, grubs, or insects, may even sicken you while others find their mouths watering at the sight of such delicacies. The same can be said of the music you enjoy, as well as many aspects of how you approach work, what you find entertaining, and what attracts you to others.

Triggers, then, are a conditioned emotional response where events or situations produce a negative emotional response that is either not logical or more intense than what would normally be expected.

We’ll begin exploring ways to quiet triggers in the next post.

What Are Emotional Triggers?

by Reneau Peurifoy

The things that trigger most of our emotions are easy to identify. You win a prize. A car cuts you off in traffic, nearly causing an accident. You see an old friend. Someone you love ignores you. You successfully complete a difficult project. A friend makes fun of you in a hurtful way. However, sometimes we experience negative emotions that intrude into our lives and cause us to wonder, “Where did that come from?”

Emotions like these are caused by emotional triggers. These are things that produce a negative emotional response that is either not logical or more intense than what would normally be expected. There are many different things that can produce a response like this such as an object, event, person, or memory. When “triggered” a person can become anxious, angry, or sad.

Emotional triggers are also referred to as psychological triggers or mental health triggers. The three most common types of triggers include the following:

Anxiety triggers: as the name suggests these are triggers that cause anxiety and even panic in a person. For example, a person with a fear of public speaking might become very anxious just thinking about an upcoming presentation at school or work. A person with panic disorder might experience intense anxiety or even panic in a situation where they feel trapped even when it’s something as simple as standing in line at a store.

Trauma triggers:  These are usually associated with traumatic experiences that a person has experienced. For some, they come from experiences that occurred when the person was an adult, such as a terrible accident, being the victim of a brutal crime, or experiencing combat. For others, the trauma was experienced as a child. Sometimes, a trauma trigger can cause flash backs – a vivid recollection of the traumatic event that is accompanied by the intense emotions experienced when the original event occurred. Sometimes a person might even re-experience the physical sensations of the traumatic event.

Anger triggers: These are when a person becomes irrationally angry about a situation that makes them feel out of control. Anger triggers can cause outbursts of profanity, yelling, threats of violence and other types of aggressive behavior. Anger triggers are often related to trauma triggers.

In addition to the negative emotions that are experienced, emotional triggers can produce a large range of physical symptoms such as:

Chest pain
Rapid heart rate
Upset stomach

In the next post, I’ll discuss ways to quiet emotional triggers.

Holiday Anxiety (1 of 5): Unrealistic Expectations
by Reneau Peurifoy

Since I’m launching my new website as we approach the end of the year, I thought it would be helpful to start my new bi-monthly posts on something that is commonly called ‘Holiday Anxiety’. This is a term used to describe increased anxiety that many people experience from early November through the first week or two of January. For some it can start as early as the beginning of October.

Holiday Anxiety can be caused by any one or combination of the following:

  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Increased demands and activities
  • Lack of self-care
  • Difficult family gatherings
  • Emotions triggered by painful childhood associations

In this article I’ll talk about the first cause, unrealistic expectations, along with some practical steps you can take to reduce holiday anxiety caused by it. In the articles that follow, I’ll look at each of the sources of holiday anxiety along with practical steps you can take to quiet the anxiety generated by each. If you come from a troubled family, the last two will be especially important.

It’s easy to get caught up in what you think the holidays are supposed to be like and how you’re supposed to feel. If, in the past, you’ve run yourself ragged trying to live up to old holiday traditions, consider breaking with tradition and doing something different this year. So what if you don’t get the lights on the roof or don’t buy that special Christmas ornament for the kids? And do you really need to find the perfect gift for everyone on your gift list when most enjoy a simple gift certificate or gift card?

Instead of becoming focused on trivial things that cause you to miss the true purpose of the holiday season, take some time to think about what you want the holidays to be for you. For many this is simple the opportunity to reconnect with friends, family and be good to each other. Others also see it as a time for focusing on spiritual things. There are many ways to do this without exhausting yourself with what you think you should be or do. Take a few minutes to make a list of simple things that bring you joy so you can focus on them.

As you consider things to put on your list, decide whether it may be time to try something new and abandon traditions that you have long ceased enjoying. For example, let someone else prepare the Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner or have a potluck where everyone brings a dish. It may even be time to think about buying a pre-made dinner or going out to a restaurant. Instead of getting the entire extended family together, you may want to just spend time with friends or relatives you feel close to.

In part two of this series, I’ll look at ways to manage the increased demands and activities that occur at the end of the year more effectively.

Holiday Anxiety (2 of 5): Increased Demands and Activities
by Reneau Peurifoy

During the holiday season there are increased demands on you along with many activities that only occur at this time of the year. These make it easy to over-commit yourself. Since the holidays last for several weeks, make a deliberate effort to pace yourself and limit the number of activities you do.

One way to do this is to ask yourself the following three questions when you are considering whether or not to participate in some activity.

  • Do I have the time and money to do this?
  • Would it be enjoyable, or if not is there some compelling reason to do this?
  • Do I really want to do this?

Unless you can say “yes” to each of these questions, this is probably an activity you can skip.

As you think about activities that you plan to participate in, identify the people and situations that trigger stress. Then, figure out ways to avoid or minimize them. For example, if visiting a particular relative triggers lots of stress, tell them you can’t make it this year, or, if you feel you must visit them, just drop by for a few minutes, say hello, and explain that you have other engagements.

Likewise, if you find parties and large family gatherings stressful, limit the amount of time you spend there. How much time you spend at the party is usually not as important as being there. Come late and then excuse yourself early. Showing up is often all that matters. You might also find that bringing a friend can make an event less stressful.

Because the cost of holiday shopping adds up quickly and can make you feel out of control and anxious, draw up a budget before you start shopping and stick to it. One easy way to do this is to make a list of the people and things you want to spend money on along with the amount you want to spend. Make sure the total is within your budget. After you’ve calculated the total, place that amount of cash in an envelope. Then, restrict your holiday purchases to money from this envelope. When the money is gone, you stop your holiday spending.

One final idea is to avoid the inconvenience, crowds, and horrors of the mall parking lot by doing the bulk of your shopping online. When you do choose to go out, plan ahead, and as best as you can, avoid shopping trips and activities during times of peak activity. Avoid last minute scrambling to get gifts or buy supplies for cooking. Make lists and have a purpose for shopping trips.

In part three of this series, I’ll discuss the importance of self-care during the holidays.

Holiday Anxiety (3 of 5): Increased Demands and Activities
by Reneau Peurifoy

A third source of holiday anxiety is lack of self-care. A good way to avoid this is to keep in mind is that your body is a machine with a limited supply of energy. On days when you are rested and feeling good, your energy tank is full. On days when you are ill, stressed or experiencing lots of anxiety, you tank is empty. Because the demands of the holiday season cause you to have less energy than normal, you need to prioritize your activities and focus on those that are most important.

While this seems like common sense, it’s amazing how often people ignore this simple fact. One reason for this is that when you are stressed, small things tend to take on major importance. Take time make a list of all the things you feel you need to do. Then, decide what is really important and what you can either let go or leave until after the holidays. Making a list on paper often makes things seem more manageable than just running through them in your head.

When an upcoming event is going to be stressful, such as an office party or a family gathering with difficult relatives, avoid doing chores or activities that can be delayed or ignored just before and after the stressful activity. Instead, plan things that you find relaxing or pleasurable so you can decompress after a stressful event. You can also, schedule quiet evenings at home between stressful activities so you can recharge.

Another way to apply the idea that your body is machine with limited energy is to make sure you do things that give you extra energy. One key area is sleep. In fact, there is a link between lack of sleep and anxiety. Make an extra effort to sleep the full amount of time that is restorative for you. This is especially true before and after attending parties or other events that are energy draining. Along with sleep, it is very helpful to make any exercising you do a priority.

Because the holidays can be very busy with many opportunities to eat rich foods and deserts, it’s easy to abandon healthy habits that leave you with even less energy. Don't let the holidays become a free-for-all. Make an extra effort to eat healthy meals before and after holiday meals. Enjoy a slice of pie, but not three. It’s also helpful to drink a glass of water between alcoholic drinks or skip alcohol altogether. When going to a party, have a healthy snack before you leave so you don't go overboard on sweets, cheese or drinks.

During the hustle and bustle of the holidays, it’s easy to forget to take medications. Make sure that your refills are up-to-date and make an extra effort to take medication as prescribed.

There are two things that cause you to be more vulnerable to colds and flu during the holidays. Stress tends to lower your immune system while at the same time, you’re around more people in close quarters. Washing your hands before eating and after social events is a simple way to reduce your chances of getting sick.

Holiday travel can also be very energy draining. Take your time driving and plan to take longer because of the increased holiday traffic you may encounter. If you are flying, schedule flights during off peak hours, check with the airport for scheduling changes, and give yourself plenty of time to get to the airport and through checkpoints. When you encounter delays at the airport, remind yourself that they are normally either due to bad weather or minor repairs being done to make sure you remain safe during your journey. Take a book, crossword puzzle or something else you enjoy to pass the time.

Holiday Anxiety (4 of 5): Difficult Family Gatherings

By Reneau Peurifoy

Family gatherings with relatives who are difficult to be around is another common source of holiday anxiety. If this is true for you, take some time to decide if you really want to be around relatives like this. Saying “no” to events where they will be present is always an option. This is especially true for relatives who are alcoholics, addicts, very negative or abusive.

If you do choose to be around difficult family members, there are several things you can do to reduce conflict and experience less stress. If you have relatives who get drunk, become argumentative or fight during holiday gatherings, meet in a public setting such as a restaurant, park or holiday event. Being in public tends to promote better behavior than when in private. You can also practice neutral responses such as, “Let’s talk about that some other time,” or say, “I can see how you feel or think that way,” then change the subject.

When around family members who are negative and critical, keep in mind that you cannot control them, and you are not responsible for how this person behaves. You are only responsible for how you behave and react. Rather than striking back or becoming offended, just smile and do not respond. Don’t waste precious energy on someone who is stuck in negative behaviors. Someone being rude or provocative is about them. You can either choose to respond, which will only escalate things, or you can be generous and have empathy for them. It is not your job to try to fix anyone. A difficult person doesn’t want your help and will probably just turn your efforts against you. Instead, say a quick hello, then find family members or friends whose company you enjoy and spend your time with them.

When visiting difficult family who live out of town, consider staying in a motel or inn rather than at their home. This provides you with a place you can escape to. It also allows you to limit the amount of time you spend with them. You can always have somewhere else you’d like to go such as an event or show. You can also say that you’re feeling tired or ill and want to return to your room and rest.

If you have a family member who is an alcoholic, consider visiting them before they become drunk, and then leave once the drinking begins.

Finally, set clear boundaries and limits with others about what you will and will not tolerate. Be willing to leave if your boundaries are crossed.

Holiday Anxiety (5 of 5): Emotions Triggered by Painful Childhood Associations

by Reneau Peurifoy

If you grew up in a family where there was physical, sexual, mental or emotional abuse, some if not much of the holiday anxiety you are experiencing may come from associations with painful childhood experiences.

People who come from abusive families often begin experiencing anxiety, irritability or a feeling of not being themselves around Thanksgiving. While this sometimes decreases a little after Thanksgiving, it then tends to increase again as Christmas approaches. They then begin to feel normal the second or third week of January.

The reason for this is that the increased tension of the holiday season often makes parents with limited coping skills more abusive during this time. A critical parent, for example, becomes more critical, while a physically abusive parent becomes more out of control. Increased holiday drinking can also play a role in increased abuse.

In families like this, the holiday decorations, music and activities become associated with danger. These types of associations can develop into conditioned emotional responses commonly called emotional triggers. These are emotional responses that trigger the fight or flight response by something specific you hear, see, feel, smell, taste or think. If you want to learn more about these types of triggers, view the video titled, “Emotional Triggers” in the videos section of this website.

If you come from an abusive family and experience this type of holiday anxiety, a simple tool I call “what’s happening/what’s real” can be very helpful in reducing and eventually quieting this type of holiday anxiety.

When using this approach, the first step is to Identify Situations that Trigger the Conditioned Emotional Response. The more specific and clearly you identify both your reaction and the situation that is triggering it, the more successful you will be.

Next, you identify how today is different from the past. Again, the more specific you are, the more successful you will be. Here is an example of what one person used to summarize what was triggering her anxiety and how today is different from the past.

She wrote her summary on a card and then read it once a day for several days until she could paraphrase it without much thinking whenever she noticed her anxiety or irritability was increasing.

What’s happening: I’m experiencing a conditioned emotional response that was caused by frightening things that occurred in my home during the holidays. Mom and dad became more abusive and I was constantly on the alert to stay out of their way and below the radar.

What’s real: I’m now in my own home and I control what happens here. I am safe and I can make the holidays into whatever I want.

In addition to using this technique, take time to decide what you want for the holidays as was discussed in earlier posts. This might include new traditions that would be healthy for you as well as abandoning old ones that have generated negative emotions. It might also involve avoiding or at least reducing the amount of time spent at anxiety-producing events.

As you quiet the conditioned emotional responses, set limits and develop new traditions that generate positive feelings, you’ll find, over the course of two or three holidays, you can diminish most of the holiday anxiety you experience.