In Psychology, a trigger is often defined as something that affects a person’s emotional state by causing extreme distress and overwhelm. A trigger can affect you in many ways, such as your ability to stay in the present moment with what’s triggering you, and it may bring up specific memories or thought patterns and can directly affect your behavior in response to that trigger. It also has an uncanny ability to affect the body with a whole host of physical reactions such as increased heart rate, blood pressure, temperature increases, and even feelings of choking or not being able to speak. A lot of times, these triggers feel like they creep up on us, seemingly coming out of nowhere. It is important we delve into what is causing the response and how then to best regulate yourself so if the trigger resurfaces at a later date and time, you now have resources to help reset yourself.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation
One of the easiest ways to do this is by “Vagus Nerve Stimulation” techniques. Our Vagus Nerve is the longest nerve that runs through our whole body, starting at the brain stem and extending down into the abdomen. It monitors and receives information about the functioning of many of our essential organs. The main job of the Vagus Nerve is to orchestrate bodily responses to keep you safe or warn you of impending danger before you even have a chance to think about it. The Vagus Nerve is why your heart will race and stomach cramps and flips when you sense something that is a perceived threat, and conversely, why your breathing slows, and your body relaxes when you experience something you consider beneficial or positive. It almost acts as a highway between the body and the brain. Breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and digestive functions are all controlled by the Vagus Nerve, and all of these physical attributes are affected by stress or triggers.
If we think of a trigger as a nervous system response to an outward stressor, it makes sense then to activate the Vagus Nerve to bring us down to baseline functioning (how we were before the trigger activated). By stimulating the Vagus Nerve, you can send messages to the rest of your body that it is time to relax and de-stress, and can ultimately lead to long-term improvements in mood and overall mental well-being. Scientists are beginning to understand the connections between physical and psychological states of distress as well as physical and psychological baseline or calm. When we are in a state of distress, our Vagus Nerve sets into motion our “fight, flight or freeze” response.
Vagal Breathing is one technique that can be used. When practicing Vagal Breathing, you are engaging the diaphragm and activating the vagal pathways in your body that counteract the “fight, flight or freeze” response and ultimately shut it down. To practice Vagal Breathing, you want to make sure you are inhaling slowly and then exhaling twice as long as the inhalation. For example, Box Breathing is a technique where you inhale for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 4, then exhale for a count of 4, then holding the exhale for a count of 4 (creating a visual of drawing a box in your head). This type of breathing lowers defenses, relaxes the body, and slows the heart rate. Studies show that it can also improve decision-making.
Another technique to stimulate the Vagus Nerve is through the change in temperature. You can do this by putting ice or ice packs on your sternum or at the base of your skull. You can also do this by filling a sink or a bowl with ice water and plunging your face into the ice water. The cold actually winds up almost short-circuiting that anxiety/danger signal and is a quick way to “shock” your body back to baseline. You can also gargle with really cold water as well as a means to activate the Vagus Nerve. When you gargle, the muscles close the throat, which activates the nerve.
Since the Vagus Nerve serves our vocal cords, singing loudly or humming can activate the nerve as well. Intense and quick exercises such as doing a few jumping jacks in place, or dancing to your favorite song, can also help stimulate the Vagus Nerve to act. Any sort of physical movement you can do can help activate the nerve in times of distress. If you are unable to walk or get up and move, you can also mimic this by tapping your feet rhythmically (right, left, right, left), taking your hands and patting your legs or hugging yourself and patting your upper arms. This back-and-forth movement stimulates both sides of your brain along with the Vagus Nerve and literally interrupts that danger signal from the trigger.
Therapy and Techniques
In summary, triggers can often feel like they are intense and never-ending. Somehow when the triggers are strong, it is not always easy for us to employ other coping skills. Triggers are, by design, unpredictable at times. We may recognize and be aware of where they come from, but ultimately, we can feel powerless or overwhelmed when they come on. Through therapy and the daily practice of relaxation techniques, we can learn what is at the root of said triggers and ultimately leave the trigger powerless. You can take back your power to them by changing your response to them. Healing is very rarely linear, and we need to give ourselves grace and patience as we navigate new ways to move forward in our lives. You don’t have to go through things alone. Triggers, like feelings, pass. The more you are open to learning about your triggers, where they come from, and how to manage them, the better you will be able to regulate yourself on a daily basis.
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Published on 9/22/2022 | Written by Nicole Drake
Last Updated on September 22, 2022