Emotional Muscle Memory: why we get triggered and how to stop

This article first appeared in Elephant Journal on August 20, 2019.

I walk through my kitchen, I glance up at the same spot on the brick chimney.  I know what I’m looking for. I know it’s not there. And yet, every time, I look. When I last lived in this kitchen, it was eight years ago. And this had been my kitchen for the dozen years prior. And for those dozen years, a clock hung in that singular spot on my chimney.

But then I moved. I was gone for eight years.  I moved four times.

And now that I’m back in this environment that is oh-so-familiar and yet hasn’t been home for almost a decade, I cannot stop my eyes from glancing up at the singular spot several times a day, thinking somehow, I’m going to see the time.

time can trigger muscle memory

The funny thing is, I do it even when I don’t actually care what time it is. And I don’t own a clock anymore.

This is muscle memory in action. A mental muscle memory.

It happens in other situations too.  After a long hiatus from running, I took my first neighborhood run, felt the familiar burn in my legs with a painful pleasure, and automatically navigated my way through an old favorite route.  One I hadn’t run – or thought about – in eight years.  My legs stretched, challenged by hills that didn’t exist in Florida, and yet to my quads and hamstrings and calves, it all felt familiar. Almost easy. (To my lungs, not so much…)

The joy of physical muscle memory.  I just tell my lungs whenever we face a hill: it’s ok, your memory will come back, too. I don’t think they believe me but at least they haven’t given up yet.


The restaurant is quiet and not particularly crowded. We’re out for a late dinner on a beautiful summer night with a full moon. We’re talking about the movie we saw earlier in the week, the themes underlying the plot. It’s a favorite type of conversation of mine – meandering, exploratory, sometimes debating, curious. There may not be any real answer or conclusion but it’s discovery not just of what we saw, but of how each of us thinks.  

But his next comment makes me freeze.

Externally, I am enjoying a fish taco and listening to him continue his train of thought. Internally, a sudden pressure has gripped my chest – a feeling that I have learned is my body’s signal for “not safe!”

working through emotional muscle memory

His comment triggers a different kind of muscle memory.  The emotional kind.

I put the taco down and play with it a moment as I try to simultaneously follow his ideas and breathe through the warning tightness in my chest.

Emotional muscle memory is based on our experience and our training. While emotional muscle memory can evoke both joyous as well as fearful emotions, the danger is that the automatic response triggered in our body then triggers an automatic response in our feelings, and then our actions.  And if we are not aware of when our emotional muscle memory is triggered, we can mistake it for truth in the moment rather than just a memory. This means the resulting action or words can be out of context or inappropriate for the reality of the moment.

Emotional muscle memory is the tool of our gremlin, who is dedicated to keeping us emotionally safe. Our inner gremlin warns us whenever we are in any situation where we are at risk. I’ve talked about my own gremlin, Sheila, and how hard she works to ensure that my insecurities, my anger, my fears are all managed in such a way that I am never hurt. She is a master rationalizing all things going on around me, and even inside me, in such a way that I am cocooned from great pain. But it also means she cocoons me from great joy.

After all, can we ever, truly, never be hurt – and be living?

This is what I remind Sheila when she is triggered to push me to run to safety rather than sit and experience the moment. I can survive being hurt. And while it’s not a pleasant experience, it is as much a part of living life as is happiness, sorrow, anger and every other emotion that courses through us. Sheila has taught me, in her attempts to protect me with her expert muscle memory skills, that not only can I survive the wealth of experiences and emotions life offers, I can love them. Even the painful ones.

Managing your emotional muscle memory is not easy, and it’s not a one-time fix. It was created from years of patterns. It built over time, over repeated behaviors. You don’t unravel that in one brilliant moment of self-awareness.

I know. Bummer.

The approach to managing your muscle memory is simple. It’s just nowhere near easy.

  1. Be aware. Pay attention to your body. Your emotional triggers show up in your physical body before anywhere else.  That physical reaction sparks the emotional one, which drives the action taken or words spoken. In that taco moment, I felt a gripping sensation in my chest. I know that’s my anxiety and fear kicking in – and when I get that sensation in my chest, I know it’s my heart I am worried about. (When I get that feeling in my stomach, on the other hand, it’s a nervous anxiety – my heart isn’t about to get wounded but my ego might). So where in your body does your gremlin show up, and what does that tell you about how you’ve been sparked?
  2. Breathe. I know. So trite. But there’s a reason “just breathe” is one of the most circulated memes on Facebook. It works. Give yourself that momentary pause to breathe through the sensation – in your chest, your stomach, your throat, where ever it turns up for you. Feel it, acknowledge it, and take deep breaths until you can feel it settle. It may not go away, and that’s ok.  The goal is to calm it just enough so that it’s not driving your reaction in that moment.
  3. Observe. What is really happening in this moment – what are the facts? This is the hardest part. We have to take off the filter through which we see the world and look at what’s really going on. This is the moment we breathe towards, to step outside of the swirl that has spun up in a flash, and to really look at the situation around us. The emotional reaction is very real, very valid. But that doesn’t mean it’s accurate for what’s going on in that moment. Discern the difference.
  4. Choose. If you can acknowledge the sensation, breathe to calm it and pause to look around at what’s factually happening in the moment, then you have made it to your moment of choice. This is your moment of power. This is where you not only validate the inner chaos your gremlin has churned up – because it is valid and real – but where you get to consciously decide what you want to do about it. This is the moment in which you can break your habitual pattern, create a new perspective for yourself. The power is yours to direct who you want to be in that moment, and how you want to live your life.
fish tacos in a moment of power

In the moment of eating a delightful fish taco and discussing a movie plot, I had a moment of power. 

Ridiculous, right?

Only it’s not. These moments happen to us every day. They are big and small moments. Our emotional muscle memory is on auto-pilot, after all.  Throughout the day, every day, we are reacting and making decisions based on “what we know” – our muscle memory.  And because our emotional muscle memory is such a habit, it feels normal to go with it. It’s what we’re used to, so we know how to cope with it. In fact, when choose something different, that different choice can feel awkward, risky and even wrong.

That’s your gremlin talking, trying to protect you. Again.

Keep in mind as you face your own gremlin-provoking emotional muscle memory:

  1. Making a different choice is hard. To do something different, we have to push through the doubts, the fears and the patterns that our inner gremlins have trained us on for years. Recognize that when you try to change those patterns, your gremlin will fight you in its effort to “protect” you. It’s up to your awareness, and your conscious choices, to make a change. And you will sometimes fail. That’s ok. You will have another opportunity to try again.
  2. Choosing a different path is not time-bound. While recognizing the physical sensation when you’re triggered, and breathing through it, is in the very moment it’s happening, your phases of observation and reaction can take as much or as little time as you need. It can be seconds. It can be days. You can acknowledge the sensation and breathe through it in ten seconds. And you can ponder your observations and choose your response over hours or days. Or weeks. The pause is for you, no one else. You may choose to have no outward reaction in that moment, but know that in a day or two, you will revisit it – but you will revisit it with your more thoughtful perspective. There is no “right” way to react and no requirement to react right away.
  3. Your gremlin is not always wrong.  Sometimes we fight against our gremlins because we’re rationalizing that it’s our gremlin driving us, it’s our own baggage making us feel this way, not a genuine “red flag”.  But sometimes a red flag is a red flag. And we should run. Observing what’s really going on in a moment, removing your emotional filters and paying attention to the facts of the moment, is necessary to discerning whether your gremlin has identified a true risk or is being over-protective and reactive to something superficial.


So, where did I end up? I recognized that the person across from me is not the same person who used a similar turn of phrase two years ago, and he certainly wasn’t conveying the same message even though he was using similar words. I breathed. I listened, and I watched what was going on in that very moment. I decided my trigger was just that – a trigger. And I chose to respond, not react.

Thank you, Sheila, for trying to protect me. I appreciate it. But I got this.

And I finished my very delicious taco.

Oh, and yes… I will be buying a clock for that spot on my kitchen chimney. This is a case where my muscle memory is going to win. And I’m ok with that.

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  • alice gamble

    Very helpful analogy here, and it can help one create a more balanced inner “Gremlin” instead of the Gremlin who lashes out when triggered. Self control in many situations is indeed difficult, depending on our social/occupational/family/relationship milieu. Lots of areas where we can get triggered unless we are living as a hermit or we are tamped down so much that we just don’t express our feelings very often. That’s not healthy at all. But this article gives one pause for thought, why not create something you call upon when you intuitively know you are getting that tightness in the chest, where a situation is triggering that familiar unpleasant stress. Thanks for this article.

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