A trigger is a reminder of a past trauma that can show up in our mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual process and elicit overwhelming sadness, irritation, internal shutdown, emotional charge, anxiety, or panic. Emotional triggers are automatic responses that can show up as people, places, things, sounds, smells, words, or even colours. A trigger affects your ability to remain in the present moment. It can initiate or precipitate an emotional or psychological process. Within the context of mental health, a trigger refers to something that affects your emotional state, often significantly, by causing extreme overwhelm or distress.
If you feel triggered, that’s your body telling you that there’s work to be explored. We’ve assembled resources to help you understand your triggers instead of running from them and develop practices to aid in healing.
How to Identify Your Emotional Triggers and What to Do About Them
Awareness is the birthplace of possibility. Everything you want to do, everything you want to be, starts right here!
Ever wonder why some people respond in the same destructive way over and over even though they keep getting the same bad results?
Many of us can relate to having unhealthy coping mechanisms and responses to things like stress, fear, or other agitating emotional states. Often, we are unaware of the subconscious processes going on and we may, for example, instinctively reach for an alcoholic beverage at the end of a long, hard day, never realising we are setting ourselves for an addictive pattern that may one day claim our health, or possibly our life.
I know this was certainly my situation many years ago. But, I was unable or was unconscious of how to get out of this pattern of behaviour—until I learned to identify my emotional triggers and re-route my unhealthy habitual responses.
Addiction or other self-destructive behaviours or habits are learned responses to environmental and emotional triggers. You can un-learn these responses and create new ones, thus building a healthier way of engaging with the world, your emotional landscape, and your family and friends.
An example of a common trigger is when someone downplays something you’ve achieved. One day you are talking to your husband, wife, friend about an accomplishment at work. Their response? “Anyone could’ve done that.”
You would feel dismissed and belittled, as if what you had accomplished didn’t mean anything and had no value. Any time you feel dismissed in this way, you could lash out in angry ways. Or worse, you get yourself a large glass of wine or a beer and then another, and another, and another, and another…
Is this a healthy or productive response? No. Does it resolve anything in a useful way? No. Would you be in a position of power acting this way? No. In fact, you are allowing other forces and factors to control your behaviour and your emotions.
It is not until we realise where this emotional trigger comes from that we begin to recognise our actions for what they were: a reaction rather than a calm and poised response, a mindful reaction.
We can realise that when we grow up with perfectionist parents who would often criticize us if they didn’t feel like we were living up to their high standards. This often leaves us feeling devalued as a person, or “less than.” So, whenever we feel devalued, we often lash out in anger, whether at others or at ourselves.
This is a natural defence mechanism. But it is harmful to us in many ways because we never really acknowledge our pain, nor do we ever address it in a healthy way. Instead, we often turn this anger inward upon ourselves and, in order to numb the pain, drink it down, lash out more or try to gain control of others.
This is an ongoing cycle for years and how we deal with any kind of emotional pain: anger or sadness turns into inward hatred, and we drink, smoke, take drugs, lash out in anger and try control others to dull the pain.
When we don’t recognise our triggers and our unhealthy reactions to them, it can lead us down a long, tortuous path.
Part of ‘recovering’ from a debilitating substance abuse or psychological problem involves understanding how triggers work and also learning healthier ways of responding to them. This is why when we feel dismissed or rejected, we should give voice to those emotions. open our mouth and say, “You know, that hurt my feelings because…”
We then find that by giving pain a voice, we no longer have to turn it inward upon ourselves and suppress it with other means.
Let’s go over a few other emotional trigger examples:
A person who felt ignored and dismissed growing up might start yelling whenever they feel they aren’t being heard.
A person who had emotionally unavailable parents (or partners) may get insecure whenever someone isn’t there for them.
A person who felt controlled in the past might get angry when they think they’re being told what to do.
A person who felt helpless for years might panic when they’re in a situation over which they have no control.
Do any of these emotional triggers resonate with you? Ask yourself, “How do I handle it when this occurs?” Many of us turn to food, alcohol, or other substances to dull our pain when faced with unresolved anger or other emotions.
A trigger is simply a stimulus that evokes upsetting feelings, which may lead to problematic behaviours. We all have triggers, and we all have unhealthy ways in which we deal with them. But, we have the power to stop our automatic responses and re-route. The challenge is learning to identify our triggers and then recognising them when they are happening.
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Often, our triggers are experiences, situations, or stressors that unconsciously remind us of past traumas or emotional upsets. They “re-trigger” traumas in the form of overwhelming feelings of sadness, anxiety, or panic.
The brain forms an association between the trigger and your response to it, so that every time that thing happens again, you have the same behavioural response to it. This is because what fires together, wires together.
This means when neurons fire in the brain, they wire together the situation, emotions, and responses that caused that firing of the neurons in the first place. Sensory memory can also be extremely powerful, and sensory experiences associated with a traumatic event may be linked in the memory, causing an emotional reaction even before a person realises why he or she is upset.
Habit formation also plays a strong role in triggering. People tend to do the same things in the same way. For example, a person who smokes might always smoke while he or she is driving; therefore, driving could trigger an urge to smoke, often without the smoker’s conscious thought.
Because our responses to triggers usually occur at the subconscious level, and we are completely unaware of the firing and wiring we have created, we are doomed to repeat self-destructive behaviours until we identify our triggers.
Once we know our triggers and begin to recognise them when they happen, we can see them for what they are—over-reactions to a perceived threat. Then, we can learn to respond in ways that are more life affirming, useful, and healthy for us.
There are two different types of reactions to triggers:
We get stuck in negative emotions such as anger, sadness, blame, or anxiety and react in extremely emotional ways—getting violent, yelling and screaming, withdrawing completely, depression etc.
We crave certain substances (food, sugar, alcohol, drugs, etc.) This happens because the emotional pain triggers our habitual way of indulging in some kind of physical activity that we are using to suppress the emotion or dull the pain.
When it comes to physical reactions, it helps by creating space by doing something else, for example, taking a walk.
For emotional reactions, it helps if we clearly communicate our feelings. Mostly we have to learn to understand our emotions, acknowledge them, and then give them a voice.
Instead of unconsciously reacting to a trigger/stimulus, you can learn to consciously respond to them by doing what I call The Trigger and Response Exercise.
Start by taking a sheet of paper and creating three columns. Title them: Trigger, Current Reaction, and New Response.
In the Trigger column, write each one of your triggers. You can think of these as things that “push your buttons.”
In the Current Reaction column, list how you normally react when this button is pushed.
In the New Response column, write what you could do as a conscious, mindful response instead of your normal knee-jerk reaction.
Below are a few examples:
Trigger: When I feel that my spouse dismisses my comments or feelings about something
Current Reaction: I get angry and yell at them.
New Response: I’ll tell them my feelings were hurt and why, in a mindful way.
Trigger: When I feel insecure about my body
Current Reaction: I eat a bag of cookies.
New Response: I’ll go for a walk around the block.
Trigger: When I get overwhelmed and stressed
Current Reaction: I binge drink, take drugs, smoke etc...
New Response: I’ll practice deep breathing.
Now that you’ve written your list of triggers and changed how you’ll respond, you’ve got to learn to make these responses your habitual way of being.
Keep this list handy and use it as a guide. You can add new ways to manage your triggers as they come to you just as you can add more triggers as you realise them.
Don’t get discouraged if you falter, as it takes time to learn new ways of being. Just keep practicing them, until over time, they become your new habits. In this way, you are powerful in that you consciously own and choose how you respond to people, situations, and circumstances. You aren’t blindly reacting anymore and allowing your subconscious pre-programmed mind, or other people controlling your emotions.
Life is full of triggers, know this. But also know you have the choice and the power to respond to those triggers in ways that are healthy and achieve better outcomes. In this way, you transform your life for good.
One final thought… Mindfulness. Be mindful in your reactions to yourself and others, be aware that your actions and reactions also have an affect on others around you, just as other people’s actions and reactions have an affect on you and your triggers. Becoming more mindful of ourselves and others also has the affect of helping us re-learn positive habits.
The Intention Course fully helps and guides you through the full process of re-mapping and recreating the positive and new habits required.