Getting real about triggers.

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We need to talk about triggers. 

I know, I know. No one likes to talk about triggers. 

In fact, the word “trigger” itself has kind of become sarcastic cultural shorthand for “somebody’s being oversensitive.” 

But triggers are real, and have to be managed if we’re realistically going to recover— not just from trauma, but also anxiety, depression, and very definitely addiction. 

And we need to talk about triggers now more than ever, insofar as much of what is going on in the world right now is triggering the living daylights out of a lot of people. 

Let’s be clear about what a “trigger” is. When I use that term, I’m referring to an event or stimulus that happens outside of us, that swiftly (usually, immediately) makes a cascade of reactions in our bodies and mind more likely. 

We often think of triggers in the context of trauma, because the diagnostic criteria for PTSD discusses how trauma survivors are particularly sensitive to reminders of their trauma. 

The example many people may be familiar with is the sound of a car backfiring triggering the memory of firearms, leading to an anxiety reaction on the part of a veteran. 

It’s not just auditory reminders of a traumatic event that can be triggering, though. 

It’s very common to get triggered by multiple sense modalities. Sights, smells, even temperatures and textures, can all be potent triggers. 

It’s also very common for bodily sensations to trigger us. Sweating, being out of breath or struggling to breathe, or the sensation of losing our balance or falling can very easily be triggers. 

We also need to remember that we’re not just talking about anxiety disorders like PTSD. Depressive episodes, addiction cravings, and even psychotic breaks can be triggered by things happening outside of us. 

Why do we need to particularly understand and respect our triggers right now? 

Because right now there things happening that are absolutely triggering to large numbers of people…who don’t seem to realize that they’re being triggered. 

Right now, in the cultural zeitgeist, there is massive uncertainty about really important— life or death, literally— issues that affect us all. 

Right now many of the routines and institutions that significantly contribute to our lives being organized and predictable are in states of significant disruption. 

Right now, many of us are looking at apparently open-ended situations where our social support networks may not be as available, or available in the ways we’re used to, as they’ve always been. 

These situations aren’t “car backfiring” types of triggers…but make no mistake, they are triggers. 

These situations are absolutely making post traumatic, anxious, depressive, and addiction relapse responses far more likely. Particularly in people who have histories with those conditions, and who are more vulnerable to them…but not just in those people. 

The only way to manage our triggers is to be aware of them and prepared for them on a practical level. 

We can’t afford to deny and disown the fact that we are vulnerable to triggers— even if we feel embarrassed to admit it. 

There is absolutely no shame in getting triggered. Everybody gets triggered. It’s not a mark of weakness or inferiority. 

It’s a mark of having a functioning human nervous system. 

The world is triggered right now. 

And I assure you: you’re probably triggered right now. At least a little, at least in some ways. 

Get curious about what’s happening in your head and heart and body right now. 

Don’t avoid it. 

Pay attention to it— with patience and compassion and clarity. 

We can manage our triggers, even in this stressful time…but it won’t happen by accident. 

 

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Don’t forget who you are in times of crisis.

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It’s during times of stress when it’s most important that we stay in contact with who we fundamentally are. 

To remind ourselves of what we are fundamentally about. 

To revisit our important goals and values— even when our progress toward some of those goals has been disrupted by the chaos and stress around us. 

The reason why it’s so important we remember who we are during times of stress is, those are EXACTLY the times when it’s easiest to let those fundamentals slip away. 

It’s easy to remember who we are and what we’re all about when everything is fine. 

But when a stressor comes along and yanks our attention away from our goals and values— that’s when we can really feel alienated, lost, and alone. 

We can feel foreign to who we are. 

Self-esteem isn’t just about having a favorable opinion of ourselves. It’ about having a clear, compelling sense of who we are and what’s important to us. 

It’s hard to have healthy, realistic self-esteem if we are not in touch with the most important aspects of who are are. 

After all, if we don’t have a strong sense of who we are, then who exactly are we “esteeming” in the context of self-esteem? 

The thing about stress is, it demands our attention. 

By definition, a crisis or emergency stressor needs to be attended to NOW. 

We have to interrupt, if necessary, our normal patterns of focus and routine in order to address it. 

 

By definition, if we don’t address a crisis when it pops up, the consequences will be significant. 

Thus crises and stressors have the very real potential to tear us away from our personal development journeys, the projects that we undertake day in and day out in order to live our values. 

And if there’s anything we know about patterns, it’s that every time a pattern is interrupted, it’s harder to get back into that original groove. 

That is to say: as crises and stresses yank us away from our lives, again and again, each time it gets get a little harder to get back to what we were doing…and, more importantly, who we are. 

Over the course of time, we run the risk of forgetting who we really are. 

We run the risk of not feeling like ourselves anymore. We’re just people who respond to these crises that keep popping up again and again. 

(People who wish to brainwash and condition other people often break down their sense of personal identity in exactly this way: they introduce stressor after stressor, such that the person has a progressively harder time “remembering” who they are outside of their stress response.) 

And when we don’t feel like ourselves, it’s hard to esteem ourselves. 

What can we do, right here, right now, in the midst of all of this, to head off this phenomenon? 

We can remind ourselves— consistently, purposefully, and clearly— of who we are. 

We can keep things around us— quotes, pictures, prayers— that remind us of what we value. 

We can intentionally connect to those people— mentors, guides, friends, therapists— who reinforce who we are. 

We don’t have to let crises steal our sense of identity and self-esteem. 

But if we’re going to remember who we are in the midst of all of this, it’s on us to be consistent and emphatic with the reminders. 

The fact is, we can respond to crises AND be ourselves. 

Crises don’t have to interrupt our journeys. 

In fact, we can even respond to crises in ways that deepen our sense of who we are and what we’re all about. 

But it won’t happen by accident. 

 

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The nuts and bolts of managing fear.

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We’ve been told a lot recently to not panic. 

We’ve been told that we shouldn’t let fear rule our lives. 

We’ve been told to keep the current health situation in the world in perspective, and not to overreact. 

It’s definitely true that panic is rarely a helpful response to a situation— but I can’t help but notice that many of the things we’ve been told lately have treated our concerns about our health as an attitude problem. 

That is to say, we’re told the the problem is not the viral pandemic that is developing worldwide— it’s our attitude about that potential pandemic that is the REAL problem. 

(We’ve also been told some idiotic statistics about how many people die as a result of various other conditions, as if it was some kind of competition or useful comparison.) 

Every time I hear it said that we shouldn’t let fear run our lives, it occurs to me that that’s easy to say— and it very conveniently blames the scared person for their own fear. 

If a person is scared, they don’t need a lecture about their bad attitude. 

They need tools and skills to manage both the situation and their emotions effectively. 

Make no mistake: there are things about the current health situation to be concerned about, and maybe even scared of. 

(It also annoys me that a subset of people breezily assert that the spreading virus will likely “only” be deadly to a subset of vulnerable people— as if, what, they don’t count or something?)

We don’t need admonitions to not let fear win. 

We need tools and skills to manage the fear in our heads and the situation on the ground. 

When it comes to managing fear, it’s important to remember that fear (just like any emotion) is created and maintained by what you focus on and the narrative you’re telling yourself (often quite unconsciously and unintentionally) about what is going on. 

People who are scared out of their minds are focused on things that can only support and exacerbate that fear; and they’re accepting a narrative that leads them to the inescapable conclusion that they are in danger. 

In order to manage any emotion, fear included, you’re going to have to manage your focus. 

That means becoming aware of and purposefully altering what we see in our heads and what we say to ourselves. 

The good news is, fear doesn’t have to be perfectly managed. 

In fact, if we never felt afraid, we’d probably do some pretty stupid things. 

The absence of fear is not courage. The absence of fear is a recipe for reckless behavior. 

In order to manage your fear right now, get clear about the thoughts and beliefs that re feeding that fear. 

Then take a step back, and remember that your thoughts and beliefs don’t necessarily represent reality— they represent your conditioning.

Think through the extent to which you might be buying an outsized narrative. 

Think through what an alternative, more empowering narrative might be. 

Ask yourself what you can focus on, right here, right now, in order to feel something other than the panic and fear you WERE feeling. 

And ask yourself what you can DO, right here, right now, to make yourself feel 1% more prepared to deal with whatever it is you’re fearing at the moment. 

Remember that fear doesn’t always represent a distortion. Sometimes we get afraid of things we SHOULD be afraid of; and what needs to be managed is not our perception, but our actual readiness to deal with a situation. 

But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that all this fear is just because you have a bad attitude. 

Positive thinking won’t protect you from a pandemic. 

But neither will panic. 

Luckily, those aren’t your only choices. 

 

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Great expectations are not your friend.

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The pressure to improve yourself, your life, and your performance, 100% can be crippling. 

Every day we are buried by memes and marketing that tell us that we need to be shooting for EXTRAORDINARY lives!

Every day we are told that the goal of improving our health is to become SUPERHUMAN!

Every day we are told that the goal of having or improving a relationship is to make our love life a PASSIONATE LOVE AFFAIR!

Whatever else you can say about our culture, it is not short on hyperbole— either in its language or its expectations. 

Don’t get me wrong: I, too, love the fantasy that there are specific tools and skills that I can learn (let alone teach!) that will result in everyone having an EXTRAORDINARY life!

I too love the fantasy that by making tweaks to our nutritional and exercise regimen, that we can become functionally SUPERHUMAN!

And I too love the fantasy that just by learning how to relate to our partners or potential partners in specific ways, we can find ourselves in PASSIONATE LOVE AFFAIRS!

They’re all nice fantasies. 

And who knows, maybe they’re achievable, at least to one degree or another. I’m not saying they’re not. 

What I am saying is that the pressure that kind of language and those kind of expectations place on normal people introduces an emotional wall that is really, really difficult to scale. 

Many of these expectations are stoked by marketing. The people who create and sell self-improvement products and services know all too well that customers fall in love with language that promises them the opportunity to transcend their normal limits and experiences. 

Marketers historically know the value of teasing us, telling us that we just MIGHT be able to live our fantasies…if only we “invest” in the product or service they happen to be selling. 

I’m not anti-marketing or sales. Marketing and sales serve a useful purpose in our culture. 

But what we need to realize is that when we live in this profit-driven world of constantly stoked expectations…it will have an effect on our mental health. 

Creating an EXTRAORDINARY life sounds pretty intimidating to someone who is struggling to just get up and go to work in the morning. 

Becoming SUPERHUMAN seems like an overwhelming idea for someone who has struggled off an don with their weight or chronic pain issues for years. 

Being in a PASSIONATE LOVE AFFAIR sounds improbable to someone who struggles with social anxiety or intimacy issues. 

The thing is: we don’t need to use that language of excess in how we think of or set our goals. 

You don’t NEED to create an “extraordinary” life. You don’t NEED to become “superhuman.” Every relationship doesn’t NEED to be a “passionate love affair.” 

You need to create a life that you like. A life that allows you the opportunity to pursue your goals and live your values— in the everyday world. 

Adventures are great— but every day doesn’t need to be an adrenaline-fueled thrill ride. 

Passionate love affairs are great— but every social contact doesn’t need to resemble a young adult vampire novel. 

Putting pressure on yourself to create an EXTRAORDINARY life EVERY SINGLE DAY will lead to burn out. Not “can;” “will.” 

Easy does it. 

Don’t start by proclaiming your intention to create an EXTRAORDINARY life of SUPERHUMAN health in which you experience PASSIONATE LOVE AFFAIRS!

Start by deciding, you want to feel and function 1% better today. 

No more; no less. 

That’s how you can wind up feeling good…and then better…and then even better. 

But real progress is made step, by step, by step— with plenty of side shuffles and backward steps. 

Anyone who says otherwise is selling something. 

 

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Letting go of a love.

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Letting go of a love can feel like torture. 

There are a lot of reasons why we might have to say goodbye to someone we love. 

It might be a romantic relationship that’s run its course. 

It might be a family relationship that we’ve finally decided to put limits on, because of its toxicity. 

It might be a death. 

Whatever the reason we have to say goodbye, however, letting go is famously one of the toughest things we humans have to do. 

It’s so difficult, in fact, that many of us will do psychological and emotional backflips to keep from having to do it. 

We will live in denial for months or years. 

We will actively try to convince ourselves that we don’t need to say goodbye, that things are just FINE…and even if they’re not, we will try to tell ourselves that no matter how bad a situation is, it HAS to be better than letting go. 

Backflips, we’ll do. Somersaults. Cartwheels. 

All to avoid the necessity of letting go. 

The thing is, those backflips and somersaults and cartwheels only ever delay the inevitable. 

They feed the illusion that we might not have to let go after all. 

After all, you’re not beaten until you quit, right? And many people truly view a relationship that needs to end as nothing more than a battle they’ll inevitably win if they just refuse to quit. 

I wish it worked like that. 

But letting go of someone we love, and moving on to the next phase of our lives, is an experience that cannot be circumvented. 

When the relationship has run its course…the relationship has run its course. 

This holds true even when we’re dealing with a death. 

Often there’s a part of us that truly thinks that, if we refuse to accept the necessity of letting go, then a person isn’t really gone. 

We know it doesn’t make sense. But part of us believes it anyway. Hoping against hope that somehow, some way, we can be the exception to the one rule that has applied across the board, to every human being who has ever lived: everything ends. 

Letting go is a process that can’t be rushed. 

But it’s also a process that can’t be avoided. 

Our only hope to remain sane and stable when we’re faced with letting go of a love, is to approach the project with overwhelming compassion for ourselves. 

We didn’t ask for this pain. 

We’re not born knowing how to let go. 

Almost everybody struggles with it— no matter how smart, how tough, how wise, or how stable they are. 

Virtually nobody is immune to the pain of having to let go of a love. 

There are a lot of people who think they’re numb to much of the pain of the world, because they’ve been through so much— and on the outside, they may put up a good front. You may never know they are suffering. 

But they are. 

Overwhelming self-compassion. 

Patience. 

Willingness to sit with your feelings— even those feelings that re complex and contradictory. 

Those are the keys to getting through it. 

Don’t try to rush grief. That creates more problems than it solves. 

Remember that, no matter what happens next, you still have worth and you still have potential. 

We are not our relationships. 

We do not end when our relationships end. 

But when a chapter is out of words, the chapter is over. 

 

 

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Goals are everyday tools. Really.

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Goals are about more than just you living your best life. 

(Though, make no mistake, having goals and plans ARE, in fact, really important to you living said best life.) 

Goals, and the plans we make to achieve them, give structure and purpose to our everyday lives that is essential for us to feel good on a daily basis. 

Many people drastically underestimate the importance of goals and plans to feeling good. 

Humans have a hard time consistently feeling good if we’re not purposefully engaged in forward motion. 

It doesn’t have to be a magnificent obsession or huge life goal— in fact, most goals aren’t. 

But having daily goals and working toward them just tends to make people happier. 

It lends structure and purpose to the day that a lot of people need when they’re feeling anxious or depressed. 

When your entire emotional world is chaos thanks to intrusive PTSD symptomatology, daily goals give you something else to think about and help you stay grounded in the here and now (instead of the there-and-then). 

A lot of people shy away from goal setting, because it’s often associated only with career goals. 

They hear “goals,” and they immediately think of someone strategizing to get a promotion or become the “best” at what they do. 

Those certainly are goals (though, in my experience, many people who set those goals struggle a little with the “plan” part of the equation— they like the idea of the destination, but the journey itself kind of intimidates them). 

But the goals I’m talking about here usually aren’t that ambitious. 

I tell my people to always set goals in terms of what they want to feel, instead of what they want to achieve. 

After all, the only reason we EVER want to achieve ANYTHING, is because we think that achievement will help us FEEL a certain kind of way. 

The on-the-ground goals that we visualize are kind of psychological stand-ins for those feeling states we’re chasing. 

We stand a much better chance of feeling the things we want to feel, if we get explicit about the fact that it’s the feeling we’re chasing— not the goal itself. 

So often, the subject of goals stirs up peoples’ feelings of doubt and inferiority about themselves. 

We tend to associate “goals” with hyper-ambitious, super-aggressive, “Type A” personalities. 

Believe me: we all need goals. 

Even more than that: we all HAVE goals, whether we’re conscious and explicit about them or not. 

At the very least, almost all humans share an overarching goal of moving away from what feels bad and moving toward what feels good. 

(Yes, sometimes it gets complicated— some people experience “feeling bad” as a specific kind of “feeling good’— but I’m talking about the broad strokes here.) 

Every action we take has purpose— it’s an attempt to nudge away from pain or closer to pleasure. 

We may think we’ve opted out of the “goals” equation by just not thinking about it, but that’s not true. We are all goal-pursuing animals. 

Why not take advantage of the fact that setting goals and working toward them actually feels good? 

Get less intense with your goals. Less ambitious. Ease up on the throttle. 

You’ll discover that less overwhelming, more realistically achievable goals can actually be enormously motivating. 

And you’ll discover that everyday goal-setting can be a REALLY useful tool in that toolbox of coping skills you’re assembling. 

 

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You can’t soothe anyone else until you learn to soothe yourself.

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Not lashing out when you’re overwhelmed— when you most want to lash out— is one of the hardest skills for anyone, of any age, to learn. 

It’s also one of the most important. Especially for adults. 

Kids get talked to a lot about emotional regulation. Visit any preschool or elementary school on any given day, and I assure you you’ll see plenty of teachers working hard to get their students to “use their words” and coaching them on the importance of not behaving destructively when they’re upset. 

As adults, though, it’s kind of assumed that we’ve either been taught how to do all of that, or we’ve figured it out since we were kids. 

In fact, when someone tells you to “be an adult” about something, what they’re usually referring to is getting a handle on your intense emotions before you act out. 

The thing is, if you haven’t noticed: there are PLENTY of adults who still struggle with emotional regulation. 

It may not be our fault…but it’s definitely our problem. 

The adults around us may have tried their best to teach us how to manage our feelings (or, maybe they didn’t)…but the fact is, there are a LOT of people who arrive in adulthood without an adequate toolbox for handling negative or overwhelming feelings. 

One of the reasons why Dialectical Behavior Therapy became overwhelmingly popular in the early 2000’s was because it was one of the few therapy modalities that focused strongly not even on changing feelings and behaviors, like most therapies do— but simply on not acting impulsively when we’re feeling bad. 

The vast majority of adults I’ve ever met struggle with emotional regulation. 

Emotional regulation doesn’t have to do with intelligence, it doesn’t have to do with maturity, it doesn’t have to do with morality or character. 

It’s a set of skills and tools— and they have to be practiced and refined and experimented with over time. 

That means we have to be willing to be bad at them for a minute. 

It also means we have to be able to admit to ourselves in the first place that we may not be as “adult” as we like to think we are, or as “adult” as the world thinks we should be. 

None of that is as easy as it sounds. 

Most of the resistance we experience to developing coping skills is admitting the need for them in the first place. 

We’re are in full blown LOVE with the fantasy that we are “adult” or “tough” enough on our own to get by without having to do something as lame as practice coping skills. 

Yet that’s exactly the fantasy we need to kick to the curb if we’re going to learn and practice emotional regulation. 

There is no shame in admitting you’re not great at handling strong feelings. 

In fact, it’s kind of the only way you can get started at getting better. 

It’s natural to want to skip right past the “handling feelings” problem to the “changing feelings” possibility— but the only way you access that possibility is by handling that problem. 

You can’t calm anyone else down— including any children you happen to be dealing with— if you can’t calm yourself down. 

It’s a tough set of skills to develop, no question. Don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t. 

But it’s very, very necessary. 

 

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