Have you ever gotten extremely upset over something supremely insignificant? Emotional triggers, also referred to as mental health triggers or psychological triggers, are any word, person, event, or experience that touches off an immediate, disregulating reaction. The change in emotions can be abrupt. In most cases, the reaction will feel more severe than what the trigger would logically call for. Why does that happen?
As David Richo, PhD, MFT, aa psychotherapist, teacher, workshop leader and writer says, the trigger reaction happens in the limbic, or emotional, center of the brain, so rational explanations don’t help. Once you are in the realm of the limbic, you are in a part of yourself that does not, cannot, listen to reason. The anger that gets inflamed with an emotional trigger is anger pointed to where it still hurts, an earlier, formative cumulative experience when you felt vulnerable and powerless. It’s a classic case of the past hijacking the present.
Of course, emotional triggers can also be positive, reminding you of an earlier happier time. But typically, the term emotional trigger is used to describe negative stimuli—events that touch on sadness, anger, or fear, as well as hurt, shame and despair. Often, triggers set off a fight or flight reaction, a survival response. You might get flushed or sweat or go cold. The reaction takes over and it seems like there is nothing you can do; a childlike powerlessness is in play. The trigger hurls you into reliving an earlier trauma before you’re ready to face it consciously.
As Leslie Potter, a therapist and parenting coach, says “When you are emotionally triggered you are relating to your trigger, not to your present moment experience. It is painful to witness yourself acting out when rationally you know all the ‘right’ things to do. But hiding deep in your unconscious are those early templates that of course, you took on.” Young and impressionable, your view was formed and influenced by your environment and your caregivers.
How to Cope with Triggers
Identify your triggers
Recognizing common triggers is the first step to getting a handle on them, enabling you to pause and respond rather than simply react. Richo helpfully outlines nine of the most common triggers he sees in his practice.
- Feeling self-conscious, such as when we’re alone in a group or comparing ourselves
- Being discounted, such as when someone stands us up or ignores our calls
- Feeling we are controlled, such as when someone is making decisions for us or is telling us what to do or feel
- Feeling taken advantage of, such as when someone fails to pay us back on a loan
- Feeling vulnerable, such as when we’re in a situation in which we feel exposed
- Relationship experiences, such as when we’re lonely or feeling smothered
- Boundary concerns, such as when someone is disrespecting our space
- Feeling uncomfortable about what is happening, such as when we witness someone being hurt or when someone’s words or actions disagree with our values
- Fearing what might happen, such as when a threat appears imminent
All these triggers are human, universal, and unavoidable. But triggers also come with ample learning opportunity. By pointing to the hurt places inside of you, triggers can be a catalyst toward self-reflection, inner resources and resolution. As Richo says, “triggers thrive on the illusion that we can’t trust ourselves. But once we have access to inner resources, we can learn to catch ourselves instead of reacting blindly. Then we can trust that we can handle what we feel.”
How can you handle triggers with self-regulation and emotional intelligence? Here are some effective techniques for your trigger management toolbox.
Notice your arousal signs
When triggered, you get flooded with cortisol, a stress hormone and adrenaline. You might feel fragile, disorganized, and disoriented, so the first order of business is to focus on calming down. Breathe deeply to shift yourself out of “fight or flight.” Remind yourself that it isn’t an emergency. Self-care includes learning to soothe yourself and restore your own sense of safety.
Inquire within rather than blaming another
Explore inside, to find the origins of your reaction, rather than blaming someone else. Resist taking any action while you notice your own emotions. Take ownership of your experience. Work on melting that knot in your chest that’s making you feel so upset. To do this, we must slow down and, as a first step, train ourselves to recognize those moments and micro moments when there’s been some activation. Even this simple pause and recognition that you’ve been activated—and an unwanted guest has appeared on your doorstep with no forewarning—can be enough to usher in a new response.
Give yourself a breather
Find a safe, comforting space to sit, preferably alone, and spend 90 seconds breathing and being with the feelings that are arising. Follow Potter’s advice and “Put your hand on your heart and soothe yourself as you return to a place of connection and peace. Take the time to comfort yourself knowing and see if you are willing to offer yourself kindness in this moment. Open to the possibility that your acting out is not a conscious decision…it arises deep from your unconscious and it is possible to pause and offer kindness to this younger part of yourself.
See what it is like to release yourself from the guilt and shame that threatens to keep you from the precious present moment.”
Welcoming your triggers, rather than rejecting them, helps you break the habit of self-abandonment. Instead of disassociating, you allow for a deeper emotional intelligence to arise inside of you. The foundation of this shift is the capacity to slow down and bring a more discerning, compassionate, and spacious awareness to your experience. At the root of it, handling your triggers is the practice of being a true friend to yourself.