mental health

SAFER mode: stay sane while triggered


Ever have a day (or a week) that appeared to be specifically crafted by an arch-nemesis you never knew you had to set off all your most potent emotional triggers? And did that day (WEEK) culminate in a big, ugly fight with someone you care about?


It did? Quelle surprise!

Just like a computer that is fighting off a virus on its last bar of battery life, you are unlikely to be able to make effective headway on whatever problems you’re dealing with when you’re upset. Indeed, you are far more likely to pick an unproductive, deeply damaging fight in that state. And no matter how justified (and satisfying!) that may feel in the moment, I guarantee you will regret it the moment the emotional fog lifts.

So, instead, the moment you become aware that you are feeling emotionally triggered, I recommend you go into “SAFER mode.” Here’s how:

  • Say what you’re feeling
  • Alert those around you
  • Frame your present circumstances
  • Ears open
  • Repeat back what you hear

Let’s break that down…safe_mode_android

Say what you’re feeling

In a 2007 brain imaging study, a group of UCLA psychologists discovered that putting our feelings into words significantly reduces their intensity. So whatever you’re feeling, articulate it, either out loud or in writing.

Focus on the feelings, NOT on what you think caused them. Chances are whatever external trigger you want to blame that feeling on is not its root cause, nor will identifying that cause necessarily make the feeling evaporate. And more to the point, you don’t need to justify what you’re feeling by identifying a reason for it. Feelings happen. Accept what is.

Alert those around you

If you find yourself feeling triggered in the presence of others, don’t try to hide it. Let them know in no uncertain terms. I recommend the simple, straightforward:

“I’m feeling really triggered right now.”

If you have the presence of mind to do so, it’s helpful to ask your interlocutor(s) for their help/patience in working through the emotions you are experiencing, or conversely to ask for space so that you can work through them in private. But that’s a bonus round. It’s absolutely fine to stick to the minimum and just let folks know they are not dealing with you right now, but with an irrational bundle of reactive energy.

Again, DO NOT focus on what you think triggered you. That’s a red herring, and is likely to set off a back-and-forth trigger-fest that will drag all involved down into the mire of irrationality. You can alert the person who set off the trigger to the presence of that particular trip wire once you’re back in your rational mind.

Frame your present circumstances 

Are you in immediate physical danger?

If so, fight or flight are perfectly appropriate responses. GTFO and/or land a solid punch.

If not, take a deep breath, look around, and take stock of what is actually happening in present time. I find it helpful to name the things I see, either out loud or to myself: black coat hanging on coat rack. Ticking clock. Tree outside of the window bending in the wind. Chances are your mind is reacting to another place and time, and the adrenaline coursing through your veins is neither necessary nor appropriate for the current circumstance. Occupying said mind with what is actually going on outside of it can help keep you grounded and curtail the emotional tailspin.

Armed with this real-time data, frame your surroundings as safe, and yourself as free to leave this interaction and continue the discussion at a later time when you are in a better head space.

Ears open

Now that you’ve opened your eyes to present reality, open your ears to it as well. Really listen to the words being said, not your reactive interpretation of them. And, finally:

Repeat back what you hear

This is the single most important tool in your belt. The benefits are threefold:

  1. It requires minimal mental and emotional energy to simply parrot back exactly what you heard
  2. It promotes connection and empathy: your interlocutor knows they’ve been heard and understood
  3. It allows them to clear up misunderstandings or re-think what they’ve said

So maybe you can’t always be 100% rational. But now at least you can keep yourself SAFER.