Why Mental Health Tools Fail When Triggered Perry Emerick (1)

Why Mental Health Tools Fail When Triggered (and How to Actually Create Change)

In a recent insightful TikTok video, I explored a common challenge I notice among my counseling clients – difficulty applying coping skills and techniques during distressing moments. I explain how our natural threat responses can limit access to such tools, emphasizing the need for deeper work to create lasting change. Let’s unpack the key points below.

The Struggle to Use Skills When Overwhelmed

Many individuals seek therapy hoping to gain practical strategies for managing difficult experiences and emotions. However, I’ve noticed a crucial barrier – when we feel threatened or attacked, our instinctive defenses take over.

I describe it as the “fight, flight or freeze” reaction originating in the amygdala, the brain’s danger detection center. In the heat of the moment, we go from “zero to a hundred,” and that intense activation inhibits our rational thinking and problem-solving.

As a result, despite learning helpful tools and techniques, people may find themselves unable to implement them when they need them most. The heightened arousal state essentially cuts off access to the skills.

Shifting to a Bottom-Up Approach

To truly empower my clients and create meaningful change, I advocate for a deeper therapeutic process. Rather than only teaching surface-level coping mechanisms, I stress the importance of understanding and addressing the underlying triggers.

This is what I call a “bottom-up” approach. It involves exploring what specific wounds, fears or memories are getting activated that generate the overwhelming emotional and physiological responses. By identifying and processing the root of the reactivity, individuals can lessen its hold over them.

Think of it like this – you can have a toolbox full of the best gadgets and gizmos, but if you don’t know how to use them effectively or can’t even open the box, those tools are essentially useless. Similarly, without insight into our unique triggers and traumas, even the most powerful mental health strategies may prove futile.

Finding a Therapist Who Goes Beneath the Surface

Based on these realities, I encourage those seeking counseling to look for a therapist who doesn’t just dispense techniques, but who commits to uncovering and treating the core issues. This may involve modalities like EMDR, somatic experiencing, or attachment-based work that target healing at a deep level.

By releasing the underlying pain and reprocessing difficult experiences, clients can reduce their distress responses over time. This allows the rational brain to stay online even in challenging moments, making it easier to access and apply coping tools successfully.

So if you’ve ever felt frustrated by your inability to use that grounding exercise or communication skill when you’re highly triggered, know that it’s not a personal failure. Our brains and bodies are doing exactly what they were designed to do. With the right therapeutic support to rewire those automatic reactions, transformation is possible.

Begin Your Journey to Deep Healing and Lasting Change

Ready to start your own healing journey and find freedom from the inside out? Consider reaching out to our trauma-informed therapists at Christian Counseling Services. We’re here to guide you every step of the way.