An emotional trigger encompasses anything, such as memories, experiences, or events, that ignites a strong emotional response, irrespective of your present emotional state. Understanding your emotional triggers and learning how to manage them is a fundamental aspect of maintaining optimal emotional well-being.
Throughout each day, you likely encounter a spectrum of emotions, including excitement, unease, frustration, joy, and disappointment. These feelings are often connected to particular occurrences, such as interacting with your boss, discussing current events with a friend, or spending time with your partner. How you react to these occurrences depends on both your mindset and the context of the situation.
Nearly everyone possesses emotional triggers, though these may vary slightly from individual to individual. These triggers can encompass reminders of unwelcome memories, sensitive subjects, the words or actions of others, and even one's own behaviours.
Common situations that can evoke intense emotions include:
Encountering unjust treatment
Having beliefs challenged
Feeling helplessness or loss of control
Dealing with exclusion or being ignored
Coping with disapproval or criticism
Sense of being unwanted or unneeded
Feeling overwhelmed or excessively needed
Dealing with insecurity
Experiencing loss of independence
Be attuned to your thoughts and bodily signals.
An essential component of understanding your triggers is being observant when situations elicit a powerful emotional reaction. In addition to heightened emotions, you may also encounter physical symptoms of anxiety, such as:
A pounding heart
An upset stomach
Feeling shaky or dizzy
Take a step back
Upon recognising these trigger signs, pause to reflect on the recent events and the resulting reactions.
For instance, imagine you spent hours preparing a special homemade dinner for your partner. Anticipating their return home, you eagerly await their reaction to the carefully crafted meal. However, when they arrive, they quickly grab a takeout container from the fridge and head to the TV without acknowledging your efforts.
Feeling let down by the lack of appreciation, you start to sense a mix of anger and frustration. Your heart begins to race, and your jaw tightens. Suppressing the urge to respond with comments like "Did you even notice the dinner I made?" or "I can't believe you didn't acknowledge it!" requires a considerable effort.
Trace the roots of the trigger
Attempt to trace the origins of these emotions by reflecting on past situations that evoked similar feelings. For instance, it might feel like you've reverted to your teenage years, striving to do some cooking at home to earn approval from an indifferent parent.
When the emotional trigger (in this case, your partner's indifference) is activated, you're transported back to that specific period in your life when you felt that your efforts were consistently deemed insufficient.
Occasionally, the link may not be immediately apparent, requiring a bit more exploration. When intense emotions surface, refrain from attempting to dismiss or suppress them. Instead, approach them with curiosity to gain deeper insights into what may have triggered them.
Are there any obvious patterns? For instance, conversations about relationships might evoke feelings of envy and frustration tied to your fear of solitude.
Addressing triggers in the present moment
Upon recognising your emotional triggers, the initial inclination might be to think that avoiding those situations is the solution. However, it's not that straightforward. You can't steer clear of every challenging situation life presents, and it's nearly inevitable that distressing emotions will arise at times.
In essence, abandoning the idea of escaping and instead readying yourself to cope with any triggers that may emerge in your daily life is a more effective approach.
Here are some guidelines to assist you in responding:
Embrace your emotions
To start, reassure yourself that it's perfectly acceptable to experience any emotions in that particular moment whether it's sadness, anger, fear, and so forth. Triggers have the ability to stir various emotions, and such reactions are entirely normal.
However, before delving into addressing these emotions, it's essential to acknowledge and embrace them. Suppressing or neglecting your feelings typically exacerbates the situation over time.
Consider reminding yourself of the distinctions between the past and the present, doing so with self-compassion rather than self-judgment.
Imagine a scenario where a colleague notices a piece of art you're working on and asks, "What inspired this?" If this triggers memories of art critiques from a challenging art class, causing feelings of anxiety and frustration, the initial impulse might be to hide the artwork.
Instead, recognise that although past circumstances may have caused pain and triggered those emotions, the present situation is different. This acknowledgment empowers you to regain control and actively choose an alternative response — perhaps providing a brief explanation of the inspiration behind the artwork or expressing your creative process.
Create some distance for yourself
Stepping away physically when you've been triggered can prevent emotional overwhelm. If possible, politely excuse yourself for a brief break. This action can prevent impulsive reactions that you might regret later.
While alone, engage in breathing or grounding exercises to bring about a sense of calm and comfort.
The objective is not to entirely evade the circumstances that triggered your emotions. Instead, you are affording yourself an opportunity to regain composure, enabling you to approach the situation more constructively. Once you feel more at ease, you can rejoin the situation with a clearer mindset.
Approach situations with an open mind
In general, most individuals in your life do not intentionally try to cause you distress. Some of their actions or words that might upset you could be unintentional consequences of their emotional triggers or other factors that you may not be aware of.
Consider the scenario where your partner enters and fails to notice the meal that you prepared. It's possible they received distressing news or had a challenging day, necessitating some time alone to decompress before discussing it.
Every person harbours unique emotions beneath the surface at any given moment, and you may remain unaware unless they choose to share with you.
Interpreting behaviour or intent becomes more challenging when you are not familiar with someone. Therefore, it becomes crucial to prioritise understanding their perspective.
Engage in open communication
When another person's actions provoke your emotions, expressing your thoughts may prevent a recurrence of similar situations with them. Take a moment to find your composure, if necessary, and then attempt to employ I-statements and other constructive communication techniques to address the issue.
For instance: rather than slamming your desk drawer and shouting, "Where did you put my tape?" try calmly stating, "I feel frustrated when you take my things without asking and don’t return them."
In certain instances, it might be beneficial to encourage the other person to improve their communication skills.
If being given the silent treatment, encountering passive-aggressive behaviour, or facing unkind or sarcastic remarks serves as emotional triggers for you, consider responding with a polite, "What's on your mind?" or "Sorry, I'm not sure what you mean by that."
Long-term strategies for dealing with triggers
While short-term coping strategies can enhance your ability to deal with specific emotional triggers as they arise, it doesn't mean you have to resign yourself to simply enduring them.
Various approaches can be employed to address the underlying causes of your emotional triggers, reducing their impact over time.
Engaging in mindfulness exercises teaches you to pay closer attention to your present feelings and experiences.
Enhancing mindfulness skills enables you to become more attuned to the emotions that arise throughout the day. This heightened awareness makes it easier to understand what triggers these emotions and find constructive coping mechanisms.
Research indicates that mindfulness meditation can enhance your ability to process and regulate emotions. Other forms of meditation can also assist in honing your focus and discovering inner calm, even in the face of challenging or unwelcome emotions.
Identify Toxic Relationships
When it comes to managing emotional triggers, much of the responsibility lies with you. While others are not responsible for your reactions, they are accountable for their actions that may trigger your emotions.
Consider a situation where a colleague continually makes inappropriate remarks about your personal life, despite your initial expression of discomfort. Despite firmly communicating your boundaries and asking them to refrain from discussing certain topics, they persist in bringing up sensitive subjects. This ongoing disregard for your boundaries leaves you feeling frustrated, upset, and disappointed in their lack of respect for your personal space and limits.
People who intentionally provoke your emotions may persist in doing so, despite your requests for them to stop. Healthy relationships are built on mutual consideration and respect. On the contrary, relationships where your emotional needs are consistently ignored often end up causing more harm than benefit. Is it time to take account of certain relationships if this is the case?
Maintain a Mood Journal
Regularly documenting your emotions in a journal can help you identify specific patterns, such as emotional triggers and periods of heightened vulnerability.
For instance, you may notice that you remain composed when your boss critiques your work, but struggle when you perceive your partner's reluctance to spend time with you.
This information can guide positive change. Recognising that your typical response to certain triggers, such as withdrawing, exacerbates your feelings, you decide to initiate a conversation with your partner the next time these emotions surface.
Seek Professional Help
Emotion regulation is a challenging skill for most individuals, and identifying triggers on your own can be difficult.
Instinctive reactions to certain triggers can become deeply ingrained, and you may not even realise how these reactions impact your interactions. If you find it challenging to recognise and address the effects of your triggers, therapy can be beneficial.
Therapy offers a secure, non-judgmental space to identify triggering situations and explore potential reasons behind your reactions. A therapist can assist you in practicing more productive communication strategies and provide guidance and support as you work towards healing the sources of your triggers.
Recognising and managing your emotional triggers may take time, but the effort can yield significant benefits for your relationships and overall well-being.
While unpleasant events can elicit strong reactions, effective trigger management makes it easier to navigate tense situations without unnecessary distress.
Fully qualified counsellor, psychotherapist and trauma therapist based in Orpington, Kent
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My specialism is on the impacts of trauma, from events such as childhood neglect, childhood sexual abuse, sexual assault and rape, domestic and emotional abuse, accidents, violence, serious illness, and financial trauma (redundancy and bankruptcy). But I work with clients with many other life challenges and emotional difficulties, such as depression, anxiety, OCD behaviours, PTSD, self-harm, and eating issues.
I am easily accessible from local areas near me including Orpington, Bromley, Chislehurst, Petts Wood, Sidcup, Beckenham, Sevenoaks, Tonbridge, Knockholt, Biggin Hill, West Wickham, Chelsfield, Swanley and Bexley