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The other day Chris and I had a couple of interactions that did not go smoothly. Ok, this is an understatement. I walked away from them feeling FURIOUS. I felt boiling mad…imagine steam coming out of my ears!

I tried to calm down, but it wasn’t working like usual. Thankfully, the kids were not around at the time so I opted for a little alone time and talked with Jesus about my big feelings. As I interacted with Him, the intensity of my feelings did not lessen like they usually do. However, I began to realize that maybe, just maybe, I was overreacting; a little bit. It occurred to me that Chris and I often have misunderstandings, and usually I feel frustrated and we quickly recover to joy. This time was different. I didn’t feel frustrated, I felt FURIOUS. I wasn’t recovering. I gave my feelings and the situation to Jesus then I asked Him what else He wanted me to know. I realized I was feeling way out of control and like my husband did not care about what was important to me, which, sadly, is a familiar feeling from my past. While the interaction with Chris was upsetting, the intensity I was feeling was out of proportion for the current situation. My past was unapologetically invading my present.

If there is something I have learned over the years, it is this. When I react with out-of-proportion intensity, there is more going on than meets the eye. This is known as being triggered, and our friend Dr. Karl Lehman also identifies this as unprocessed implicit memory, which refers to the feelings that are present without the information or details that go with the feelings. When a situation in present day life unconsciously reminds me of unresolved feelings (or situations) from the past, we call this being “triggered.” The difficulty with being triggered is we usually do not recognize it at the time and the intense feelings from the past spill into the current situation. What should be a minor frustration sky rockets into big and unmanageable emotions that are “off the charts.” In these moments nothing is going to go well until I can can quiet and have Jesus help me turn down the intensity from the past enough to resolve the problem in the present.

A number of things help me when I am triggered. Sometimes the simple act of quieting is enough. Since this is the easiest, I usually start there. If I need more, I talk with Jesus about how I am feeling and invite Him to help me calm down or show me what He wants me to know about the situation. This helps me feel seen, validated and understood so that I am not so alone in my feelings. I find that practicing appreciation warms up my brain and greatly increases the chances that I will be able to sense Jesus’ presence – even in the midst of my distress. When I have quieted and can clearly see where my past feelings are active, I can see the present problem and take responsibility for my part in the current situation.

After calming down I was able to follow-up with Chris on our earlier interactions. I could now own that the intensity of my reaction from earlier was not justified by the situation. I was able to express to him how I felt hurt by our interaction. My patient husband heard me and was apologetic. We discussed how the situation could be handled differently next time around. We were able to come up with a plan that felt good to both of us and we felt like we were again on the same team. Peace and joy was restored.

It is amazing how quickly things can spiral downward when triggered feelings go unrecognized. In most cases, our spouse has the response, “You are overreacting!” We may be overreacting but when our past pain includes feeling invalidated or minimized,things will be more explosive. Once we are able to calm down, recognize where the past is sneaking into the present and turn down the volume on the big feelings, the interaction has a much higher chance of resolving in a more satisfying way for everyone.

To learn more about triggers and implicit memory, I highly encourage you to read Outsmarting Yourself by Dr. Karl Lehman here or attend one of our Joy Rekindled Marriage Retreats to practice useful skills.

Posted in Marriage

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  1. Karl D Lehman

    One more thought I would add regarding the best possible response to an episode of getting triggered: As you are able, find time and space to sit down with someone who can facilitate Immanuel approach healing for the underlying memory (or memories). It’s very satisfying to find and resolve the underlying memory roots, so that you don’t keep bumping into them. It’s especially satisfying to bump into the same kind of trigger at some point in the future, and notice that your old reaction is either totally resolved (or steadily decreasing if you are working away at a pile of similar underlying memories).

    P.S. I realize that Jen already knows this, and that she and Chris actually do this, but it wasn’t explicitly mentioned so I thought I would just add it in here.

  2. Taylor

    I so could have used this the other day! I had a similar situation and, even though I realized I was being triggered, I had no idea how to calm down those emotions! Thank you!

    • Jen Coursey

      One more thought on this. The hardest time to quiet yourself and interact with Jesus is when you are triggered and emotional. Practicing quieting regularly and interacting with Jesus about everyday things in life will help you use those skills more effectively when you are triggered.

      • Julaine Kammrath

        Yep, this less stressed time practice is what I need to do now. When I’m triggered, big time, I just end up feeling alone in it. Had Immanuel Prayer today but clearly this particular trigger is a block. At this moment, I just end up just feeling alone and sad.

  3. Erna Topliffe

    Thanks, Jen. Excellent way to explain triggers and how reactions that’s bigger than situation warrants, is a sign of past things intruding on present life!

  4. Marsha Kumar

    Hi Jen,
    Wow love your blogs. So much good material to share with my Joy Groups. Thanks for being so open and transparent. Thanks to Dr Lehman for his response. I could so relate to the idea of response being out of proportion to the event. Even with all the tools we have, there are still those moments when we get triggered. Blessings to your caring husband.

    • Jen Coursey

      Thank you Marsha. We definitely don’t do things perfectly, but I am glad to share stories of how we recovered. My hope is to share the tools that get us through the tough times.

  5. Ken

    WOW! Something similar just happened to me. Calming and talking about feelings in the open is better than nothing. The other person won’t learn Immanuel process and there is no one else in this area that I know of who can help. When my implicit memories are not triggered or so raw as they were tonight I can process being aware of Jesus most of the time. When there is the interference of powerful triggered implicit memories it can be overwhelming. I am so glad I ran across this old post. Refreshing to know I’m not the only one having such emotional struggles at times.

    • Jen Coursey

      It is hard when we get triggered and even though there is a real problem, our ability to handle it well is overshadowed by intense emotions from the past. Praying you have time to process the things that were stirred up for you and that Jesus gives you additional peace, even in situations that would normally trigger the past.

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