Identify Your “Triggers”

Each person has specific types of situations that set their automatic negative path in motion; these are their triggers. To address your problems, you need to know which situations are difficult and trigger your negative path.

While many people are aware of their triggers, some have trouble identifying their specific trigger situations. For example, a person may tell you that they are “always” sad, or “always” drink too much, and can’t identify specific problematic situations. Identifying your triggers helps you start to see patterns and then know what to focus on in therapy.

A helpful first step is to monitor your problematic feelings or behaviors and see if there are some situations where your feelings are stronger or your behavior is more extreme. For example, a person came to therapy because they were always angry. When asked for examples of specific situations, they responded that they were angry “all the time.” The first homework assignment was to monitor their angry feelings and see when they were strongest. They came back having discovered that they were the most angry when their teenage son didn’t do what they wanted him to do; for example, when he did his homework at 2 a.m., broke curfew, or did not do his chores. They discovered that their anger toward her son was spilling over into the rest of her life.

Frequently, people will describe their trigger situation in vague terms, and don’t really understand what happened. They need to become more specific and concrete. A specific and concrete description includes what happened, with whom, and the specific time and place it occurred. For example, a vague description of a situation would be “My partner doesn’t respect my work”; a more concrete and specific description would be “My partner told me that they thought their work was more important than mine.”

The more specific and concrete your description of the situation, the more you will be emotionally engaged with the situation, and the more you will have access to your feelings and thoughts. Think of someone you are a little annoyed with. Now, think of a specific situation when you were annoyed with this person. Try to remember the situation in detail. Chances are that as you thought about a specific situation, you became more annoyed and your feelings and thoughts became more immediate.

Sometimes your situation is a long, complicated story. In this case, consider the whole story and then ask what was the worst or most difficult part for you. It is helpful to identify a situation that lasts from a few seconds to three minutes, any longer and you will probably have a large variety of feelings and thoughts, and it will be hard to focus on the main ones.

Sources: CBT Made Simple

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