How to Stop Memory Triggers Leading to Emotional Dysregulation
To avoid getting triggered by intense emotions from traumatic memories, it’s vital to recognize when we’re in recall, accessing emotions about an event that is over and done with, or in reality, what we call the now or the present. Much of my work with clients about regulating emotions (and ending mindless eating) is preventing slippage into recall and, instead, staying in reality. To do this, we must be able to recognize the hallmarks of both states. If this idea is new to you, read these blogs before continuing: Current versus Memory-Triggered Emotions and Clearing Emotional Pain.
I’m often asked how to know when you’re in recall or reality. The answer is that you’re in recall when your internal distress is intense and out of proportion to the current situation. You don’t get invited to a party and feel devastated and unloved, just like when you were a little girl and your mother favored your two sisters over you no matter what you did to gain her favor. Or your boss yells at you for a mistake you made and you feel paralyzed and go speechless before him, exactly as you did when you were a boy and your father berated you for being stupid, lazy and a loser.
In each example, the intensity of affect stems from your memory of being hurt and—more importantly—powerless to respond because you were a child dependent on parents. When recall and current situations are similar, charged memories often surface. However, to function as emotionally healthy adults, we can’t let them dictate our reactions. As an adult, you want to realize that failing to receive a party invitation doesn’t mean you’re not liked or loved, only that not everyone gets invited to everything. As an adult, you want to know that it’s wrong for your boss to yell at you, that you may have done nothing or little wrong, that his opinion has nothing to do with your worth, and that you have recourse in your response.
To stop recall triggers, make a list of troubling memories regarding how you were hurt in childhood: being shamed, abandoned, neglected, compared unfavorably to others, fiercely competed with, ignored, teased, undermined, invalidated, feeling unheard or invisible, regularly being forced to do things against your will, being manipulated, etc. Recognize that similar present situations might kick up these memories. By identifying triggers, you can anticipate their eruption and label them as not applicable today.
One way to know that you’ve slipped out of reality is that you’re not using problem-solving skills to address a current situation. You’re flooded with emotion, not with common sense and empowerment, and feel like a hapless victim which, as an adult, you are not. Getting stuck in recall is depleting, while being present and problem-solving is energizing. You’re thinking clearly about what you can do now: what it really means in your current life to not be invited to one particular party or how to address concerns about your boss treating you disrespectfully. To repeat, hallmarks of being in recall/memory are intense, overwhelming emotions and feeling like a victim; hallmarks of being in reality are feeling empowered, thinking clearly, and taking charge.
To summarize, by identifying your usual memory triggers (stop and do this right now!), recognizing intense affect out of proportion to a situation, and sensing whether you’re in victim or problem-solving mode, you’ll learn to prevent being triggered, reduce emotional dysregulation and, therefore, mindless eating. Even if you can’t catch yourself in the moment when you’re upset and drag yourself out of memory to reality, after the fact, spend time analyzing what happened in your brain, specifically what memory or set of memories was activated so that you will see this process coming next time.
Don’t berate yourself for succumbing to being triggered. It’s a natural occurrence. Instead, focus on recognizing what situations make this happens and how to know when you lose touch with the present. Knowing you’re responding out of recall is the first step in moving back into—and staying in— reality.