The world can be a big, bad, scary place. Almost everyone goes through hardships or experiences traumatic events. Past experiences or childhood trauma can affect the way we respond to events in the present. These emotional triggers can cause us to experience painful thoughts and behaviors.
As they’re dependent on individual experiences, emotional triggers will differ from person to person. Understanding your own triggers — and how to deal with them — can help you cope long term.
Emotional triggers are certain words, events, memories, or other stimuli that cause strong emotional reactions. They can remind you of a traumatic event or experience and ignite an emotional response in the here and now.
These responses might lead to unhelpful behaviors, like being overly aggressive. Or they might cause negative thoughts to spiral. It depends on the person and their experiences.
Examples of emotional triggers
Triggers come in different shapes, sizes, and situations. They can be people or places, words or smells, or even colors.
It’s so important to realize when you’re in a triggering situation. Some common triggering situations might look like:
- being rejected (like after a breakup)
- being treated unfairly (megalomaniac boss at work, anyone?)
- having your beliefs or ideologies challenged
- losing your independence
- feeling unwanted (or on the opposite end of the spectrum, feeling smothered)
- being ignored or excluded by people
- losing control (of a situation or just more generally in life)
These are just examples though. Everyone has unique experiences that affect them in different ways.
Noticing how you feel when you’ve been triggered is the first step in identifying your triggers and their source.
Be patient with yourself though. It’s not always easy to recognize, and your heightened emotions can make it difficult to pinpoint specific triggers.
Try thinking back to when you first experienced these feelings. Was there a specific event from your childhood that stirred up similar emotions? Or maybe it’s a more recent event, like a really bad argument with a friend or loved one.
Your triggers will be easier to spot as you become more self-aware. And once you’ve noticed, you can take steps to change or regulate your reactions.
Symptoms of emotional triggers
Despite what Descartes might tell you (if he wasn’t, you know, dead and stuff), the mind and body aren’t separate. They’re a fixed package, like the Olsen twins or The Rock and baby oil.
Emotional triggers can produce physical effects in the body. They may resemble symptoms of anxiety disorders, which include:
If you experience any of these symptoms (or any others), try to take a step back and assess the situation. You can use these physical effects as a warning sign that something’s not quite right.
Relationships can be emotional rollercoasters. And let’s face it, almost everyone has been through a tough period with their partner or ex. Negative experiences in past relationships can affect how you behave in your current ones. They can cause you to think and act in ways that can sabotage the relationship.
For instance, if you were lied to or cheated on by an ex, you might be on high alert for this behavior in your current relationship. At the first sign of any trouble, you might become overly angry or emotional, because you’re reminded of that past betrayal.
But romantic relationships aren’t the only ones to suffer. Triggers can also affect your friendships or relationships with family members.
For the most part, it’s your job to keep on top of your emotional triggers. No one else is responsible for your reactions.
But it’s important to know when a toxic relationship is making your triggers worse. When a partner (or group of partners) constantly disregards your emotional needs, it’s only going to end up hurting you more in the long run.
OK, so you now know what your triggers are and when they happen. You can just avoid those situations altogether, right?
Unfortunately, life just isn’t that simple. Sooner or later, you’re going to find yourself in a triggering situation. So you’re going to have to learn how to deal with them when they occur.
How to defuse an emotional trigger
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to defusing an emotional trigger. Your experiences are personal to you, and it might take a bit of experimenting to see what works.
Here are a few ideas. Try them out and see what works best for you:
- Accept your feelings. Your feelings are valid. It’s OK to feel, angry, upset, or scared. The trick is to accept these feelings and not let them overtake you. You might not be in control of all your feelings, but you do have control of your actions.
- Take a step back. When you’re triggered, you lose your objectivity. It’s almost impossible to have any perspective when you’re overcome with emotion. If you can, take a step back from the situation so you can see things more clearly. Highly emotional thinking doesn’t produce clear solutions.
- Communicate. Heightened emotions make it more difficult to communicate. But effective communication skills are the key to any good relationship. If a friend, colleague, or loved one has triggered you, take a moment to gather your thoughts. Communicate clearly what has happened so they can understand how you’re feeling.
- Breathing techniques. You read earlier about how emotional triggers can produce physical symptoms of anxiety. Breathing techniques can help calm you down and stop things from getting worse. Here are 6 exercises that can help you relax in 10 minutes or less.
So you’ve worked out the best way to deescalate your triggers when they’re fired. Now it’s time to look at long-term strategies.
Self-care takes work. Identifying your mental health needs and finding activities that support good mental health are super important.
Addressing the root cause of your emotional triggers can help lessen their impact over time. Below are some ideas to help build your resilience.
Mindfulness exercises are a great way to slow down and focus on the present moment.
Working on mindfulness can help you become more aware of your feelings and emotions. This can help you to notice emotional triggers when they fire.
A study from 2019 showed that brief mindfulness meditation (BMM) may improve emotional processing, such as intensity of emotion and emotional memory.
Try out some of these mindfulness activities for adults and kids. They might help you get a much-needed moment of Zen.
Journaling is a great way to bring some order to all those thoughts rushing around in your head. Keeping track of when you were triggered and how you felt can help you identify certain patterns.
Try writing down your top three emotional triggers which knock you off balance. Are there any similarities between them? Can you identify a common root cause, or are they all different?
As you saw earlier, identifying where your triggers come from gives you more insight. Ultimately, insight is knowledge, and knowledge is power.
You could also try positive affect journaling (PAJ). PAJ encourages you to write 15 to 20 minutes a day about everything positive in your life right now.
A study from 2018 showed that PAJ may decrease mental distress and increase well-being in medical patients with higher anxiety levels (although it shouldn’t replace medical interventions entirely — doc still knows best).
Talking with a therapist
Sometimes, your past trauma can be so deeply rooted that it’s impossible to find the cause without the help of a professional. That’s where a therapist comes in. They can help you understand your emotional triggers, and give you personalized methods for coping.
It won’t be for everyone, but talking can really help. Especially with someone who is trained to understand your thoughts and feelings.
If you find yourself struggling to regulate your emotions in everyday life, don’t be afraid to talk with your doctor. You might be dealing with PTSD or another mental health condition, and they can help you find a diagnosis.
Unsure whether you need therapy or not? Here are 12 signs you need to talk it out.
Learning to recognize your emotional triggers is a process, and it certainly won’t happen overnight.
But becoming more aware of your triggers — and what to do when they appear — can improve your overall well-being. It will help foster good mental health in the long term.
Remember, you might not be able to control your feelings in the moment, but you can control how you respond to them. It just takes a patience and practice.