“Triggering” joy

The term triggering has been widely used in recent years, partly because of our increasing understanding of how our nervous systems and bodies work with our psychology. According to Dennis Pelon, PhD, a clinical psychologist and IAYT-certified yoga therapist who recently passed away, it is possible to trigger positive emotions, such as joy.

In this episode of his podcast, which he generously shared with the yoga therapy community, Dr. Pelon offered the yoga perspective on where joy comes from as well as the neuropsychological understanding of triggering positive emotions. Both frameworks can help us to cultivate more joy.

Joyful birthright

The yoga perspective holds that we are born with joy, love, and compassion already built into us. This positive perspective is essentially who we are, but as we grow and acquire language we develop a sense of “I”—which engenders an ego, an evaluative mental function (judgments of “good” and “bad”)—and expectations (desires and aversions) that cloud over our direct and potentially joyful experience of our lives. The various yoga practices, and particularly meditation, support letting go of these structures, even temporarily, to open back up to our natural sense of wonder, awe, and joy.

Strengthening the good

From a neuroscience perspective, Dennis explained that as the brain develops, experiences become encoded and stored as memories. Our sense of smell is perhaps the greatest memory trigger. Our other senses also can work this way, especially hearing music, and touch and sight can bring up memories as well. Essentially, when we are triggered, some current stimulus is similar enough to an encoded sense (for example, a certain smell brings us back to a moment from childhood) that we activate the same nervous system patterns.

A critical point in Dennis’ podcast is that negative emotional experience, especially trauma, gets triggered within milliseconds, whereas positive emotional experiences, such as joy, require 10–20 seconds of stimulus. Importantly, he noted, we can absolutely trigger joy in much the same ways we trigger the fight, flight, or freeze responses. Triggering joy does take intentional practice and slightly more time!

Put it into practice

Dr. Pelon offered several short, accessible practices for triggering joy, sharing that, similar to any skill, we can get better at cultivating joy. Working with the neuroscience and yoga understandings together can make the practice stronger and more successful for you.