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How to recognize when you’re triggered


Small pug dog with chin on floor looking scared and little, like an emotional flashback makes you feel

Most of us live too much of our life in some form of limbic escape. Limbic escape happens when information from the body is making it up as far as the brainstem but not far beyond before the brain sends commands back to the body to activate a response.


Because information from the body isn’t making it all the way to the cortex for rational cognitive processing before a response is set into motion, the higher mind has next to zero influence over how you react. In this reactive state, you feel out of control, lost, hopeless, overwhelmed, stuck, rageful, or like you’ve left your body altogether.

 

I know I’m in limbic escape when I feel intense sensations of fear, usually from overwhelm (too much to do, too much to process) or vulnerability (oversharing or distrusting how I’ll be received). Once inside limbic escape, I can’t self-soothe by telling myself it will be okay or by taking slow and calm breaths. I can’t think my way out of it; the urge to run, fight or hide is just too strong.

 

On days where I didn’t sleep well the night (or nights) before, I’m most likely to stay stuck in limbic escape once triggered, and the best thing to do then is to ride it out as consciously as possible to mitigate what damage might result.


But if I catch my triggers early enough, intervention becomes possible. By recognizing those early signals of limbic escape and moving into somatosensory self-soothing at that stage, I stand a far greater chance of warding off a full-on threat response.

 

How do you know when you’re in the first stages of limbic escape?

 

Sometimes it is situational:

  • If you know you’ve not slept well in a while, or if you’re hungry, or if you’re having trouble catching your breath, then you can bet you’re on the road to limbic escape.

  • Even if you can’t take time to sleep for a while, you can have a snack, practice some forceful exhales and slow down your pace (type slower, walk more slowly across the office, slow down your conversations).

  • Then, when possible, prioritize sleeping, eating and/or breathing exercises.

 

Other times, the first hints of limbic escape are internal:

  • To paraphrase Pete Walker, CPTSD expert, if you start to feel small, you’re probably in an emotional flashback.

  • Such flashbacks are a sure sign of limbic escape, so if you notice your voice getting quieter or higher-pitched when you ask for help, or you feel a tug to disappear, curl up, hunch down or avoid eye contact, you might be heading toward limbic escape.

  • Racing thoughts are also a sign that you’ve been triggered. If you’ve ever tried interrupting your looping thoughts with just your mind, you know how futile it is. Instead, interrupt them with movement, music or a combination of the two. (Singing along to a favorite album while vacuuming the stairs might work!)

 

Other signs of limbic escape show up in parts of your body:

  • Pay attention long enough and you’ll see patterns where your belly or low back or shoulder blades or left upper chest burn, ache, pinch or tighten automatically in response to common triggers.

  • See these sensations as a sign to intervene. Sit with them. Try not to overanalyze them, but breathe into that area of your body and ask it what it needs. You’ll be surprised by the answers.

 

If you’re farther down the road of limbic escape and need a more intensive intervention, the best bet is to have a library of about 10 neuro drills (exercises) that reliably “rescue” your nervous system mid-threat-response – practices like bouncing from your knees, circling your tongue around your mouth, mobilizing your eyes, tracing circles with your ankles, etc. There are tons of such drills available through Applied Neurology, and once you explore them enough to build your go-to rescue library, you have immense power over your reactivity in-the-moment.

 

But neuro drills aren’t the only way to work yourself out of or through a triggered response without causing harm.

  • Journaling can be a helpful way to externalize a threat response (just be sure to re-regulate your system afterward).

  • Walking is an excellent way to move through a flight response or re-regulate your system after emotional processing.

  • Working out can help, but pay close attention to your energy so you don’t overdo it*.

  • Isometric holds help a lot, as can anything that purposefully engages the concentration of your frontal lobe while activating your body. The point isn’t to distract from what you’re feeling but to move it through.

 

The first step, though, is to learn how to recognize when you’re triggered. Here’s the great news:


You don’t have to know what your triggers are, but rather, know how they feel in your body so you can recognize them early.

Intervening when you feel those first signals will help you live more of your life outside of limbic escape, with full access to your higher wisdom and intelligence.

 

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*How can you avoid overdoing it when you workout?

 

An excellent way to measure whether you’re exhausting yourself during a workout (because you might not feel exhausted until it’s over, especially if you’re running on adrenaline and cortisol) is to keep your mouth closed and breathe solely through your nose. When you feel like you have to breathe through your mouth, you know you’re pushing beyond your natural limits: Slow the pace, take a break to re-regulate, then resume the workout.

 

This keeps your energy stable post-workout and avoids a post-workout crash.

 

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