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Mindfulness When You Are Triggered

I’m working my way through Pat Ogden and Janina Fisher’s groundbreaking work on “Sensorimotor Psychotherapy: Interventions for Trauma and Attachment”. The book, which is primarily aimed at therapists, provides a wealth of interventions people can use (often with the aid of a therapist) to heal past traumatic events and traumatic relationship patterns.

Trauma can make it hard to be here, in the now. Too often, we live in a horrifying past or in a (almost certainly terrible) future. The lovely experiences of aliveness — what makes life rich and worth living — is available when we are aware of our experience of the present moment. This sense of aliveness and well-being is diminished when we instead dwell on events that happened in the past or worry about what might happen in the future.

Unfortunately, dysregulated people often experience that their attention is instinctively drawn towards building blocks that dysregulate them. You don’t want to be replaying the fight you had with an acquaintance over and over again. Or to be tortured by the same (painful) image over and over again. You don’t want to be replaying your obsessive thoughts about how things are going to go hell (despite so much evidence to the contrary).

Mindfulness of internal experiences helps people who are having a hard time being present for themselves come back to and appreciate the present moment. So if you are someone who experiences obsessive thinking or has intrusive thoughts or images, these exercises may help you.

By being mindful, people can first identify and describe, and then deliberately alter, their experience.

What is Mindfulness?

Usually, when we think about mindfulness, it means paying attention to internal experiences. This is an incomplete description for people who are trying to overcome traumatic triggers.

There are five building blocks to mindfulness as described by Ogden and Fisher.

Five-Sense Perceptions: These include images, tastes, smells, touch, and sounds. Practice focusing on each of your five sense whenever you think of it. I like starting with noticing sounds, as this is usually pretty manageable for most people.Turn off the television and your music. Practice focusing attention on the background sounds around you–the roar of a car passing, a buzzsaw, a hammer, birds chirping, children shouting, your cat licking her paws. Name what you hear to yourself. I was surprised to realize that there are actually almost always birds chirping in my urban Brooklyn neighborhood. Before I made a conscious effort to listen to what was around me, I had literally never heard them before.

Try describing your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations and movements before and after you practiced focusing on the sounds around you.

Thoughts: We are often unaware of our thoughts. Nonetheless, patterns of thinking play a large part in perpetuating both our positive and negative feelings about ourselves, others, and the world. We tend to believe our thoughts, even if they aren’t totally rational. When you’re having the thought “nothing ever goes right” it can seem like it’s the truth. Instead try reframing it as “I’m having the thought right now that nothing ever goes right.” This can help you remind yourself that the thought is not forever. It’s just a “brain product” that is happening in the present moment. Like farts, people have brain products all the time. Sometimes they’re useful and interesting. Other times, they’re so much (metaphorical) hot air.

Emotions: The emotions we experienced frequently in the past can bias how we feel in the present. As with thoughts, when we’re in the center of an intense emotional experience, it can often seem as if that feeling is permanent. Therefore, it can be useful to talk to yourself, narrating your internal experience. Try saying: “I’m feeling an emotion of sadness in this moment.”

Body Movements: We respond to all the things that happen to use, especially how others treat us, with movement. In this way we form procedural habits of movement. Our thoughts and our posture is linked. By noticing the habitual posture that occurs with a specific thought, we can challenge ourselves to practice a new, opposite physical posture or movement. This helps elicit new reactions more suited to present-day life. For example, when you have the thought, “I’m not good enough,” you might notice that your chest collapses and your shoulders slump. An opposite movement you could make is squaring your shoulders and sitting up straight. Notice what happens when you take this purposely opposite posture.

Body Sensations: These include internal sensations, such as racing of the heart, muscle tension, butterflies in the stomach, nausea or hunger. Notice what happens when you think about a situation that has not gone well. What do you notice physically in your body? Now think about a situation that has gone well. Notice how your body feels now. Do you feel like you have more energy? Does your heart stop racing? Are you able to breathe more deeply?

Mindful Awareness of the Building Blocks

When we’re triggered by reminders of the past, our present-moment experience of the building blocks can change dramatically. Traumatic reminders can cause intense reexperiencing of danger, even though cognitively we know the danger isn’t occurring in the present. Reminders of distressing family dynamics from childhood can also cause changes in our experiences of the building blocks.

Try paying mindful awareness to the five building blocks when present-moment cues remind you of the past. Through such mindful inquiries, you learn to name the present-moment building blocks that you are experiencing rather only reacting to them.

Many of us, for instance, learned that anger was dangerous. We became adept at masking and ignoring our experience of anger. When someone does something that makes us angry, if we pay attention, we might realize that our shoulders tighten, our breath becomes more shallow, and our heart starts to race. We might have the impulse of a fist, or an impulse to push the person away. By being curious about what the body wants to do, we can then begin to unlearn the habitual patterns that have kept us stuck and in the same behavioral loops for so long.

Often, when we can observe and name the five building blocks, the symptoms may subside and we can become calmer.

For people who find themselves drawn to unpleasant stimuli repeatedly, it can be very useful to deliberately choose to focus attention toward other, less noticed parts of the building blocks. For instance, if an attachment difficulty (such as being criticized) causes you to become hyper-aroused, it can be quite useful to become mindful of the sensation in your legs to foster a new experience of grounding, rather than fixating on the distressing thoughts and feelings that occur when you are criticized.

It’s important to recognize that we are talking about mastery over distress, not avoidance of it. So too, we need to be aware of when we are deliberately focusing on something versus habitually focusing on it. We can change the brain’s wiring by repeated practice of directed mindfulness.