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What Really is An Emotional Trigger?

What Really is An Emotional Trigger?

Recognizing and coming to terms with the origin of emotional triggers can create an opportunity and space to grow in the future. 

Do you remember a time when you may have felt a sudden and powerful shift in your emotions because of something that was said or done to you? Whether it was anxiousness, fear, anger, jealousy, or sadness, whatever made you react in a way that felt out of character or perhaps even like a younger version of yourself could be linked to an emotional trigger. When the feeling subsides, and this can take a few moments or as long as a couple of weeks, you may feel a bit embarrassed, a sense of clarity, or complete bewilderment at what took place. These are all signs of a reaction to an emotional trigger. 

What is an emotional trigger?

An emotional trigger is a three-part (mental, physical, and emotional) reaction to an external factor of some sort. This external factor often prompts a subconscious thought or belief linked to an experience or trauma. In other words, think of an emotional trigger as a jolted reminder of an old wound that was never healed from childhood. Whether it was overexposure to criticism and hurtful comments at a young age, conflict, and trauma in the home, rejection, helplessness, or having your basic needs denied, these areas of your life often lead to a learned response—a response to protect these wounds and yourself from further pain. 

If you grew up with overly critical parents, for example, you could often make a person sink into themselves at any form of criticism as an adult. Similarly, having guardians who would constantly argue or fight around you may lead someone to stray from all forms of conflict later in life or may only be able to express themselves through aggression. If the emotional wounds continue to go unaddressed or aren’t healed at the initial hurt, this can over suppress certain feelings and responses being buried or denied. When someone comes along in your life and scratches that wound intentionally or unintentionally, past pain is set off. It flares up whatever emotional reaction was created to protect you. Not recognizing or being empathetic to emotional triggers can lead to a life of personal struggles and conflict in relationships. 

Common emotional triggers:

  • Rejection
  • Abandonment
  • Helplessness
  • Someone discounting or ignoring you
  • Someone being unavailable to you
  • Someone giving you a disapproving look
  • Shame or Guilt
  • Judgment
  • Low sense of value
  • Sexual Manipulation
  • Control Dramas
  • Dependency

Why do we have them?

When our body feels like it is in danger, we experience the fight, flight, or freeze response. These responses to fear or anger prepare the body to overcome a threat. Our body and brain are constantly scanning for cues that signal danger to protect us. One of our most powerful subconscious fears is being rejected. In primitive times, rejections – or exclusion from the community – meant vulnerability to predators and increased death risk. There was safety in numbers. To this day, the human brain remains vigilant to cues that signal rejection. The problem arises when the brain misinterprets otherwise non-threatening facial expressions, words, or tones of voice by linking them to past pain. 

For example, in a work setting, you’re in a team meeting, and your boss praises individual members but, for some reason, doesn’t mention you. Though at a rational level, you know she values you and your contribution, you feel angry. Go below the surface of the emotional, and you might discover you feel hurt and excluded. If you go even deeper, the reaction might be linked to an incident at school when a teacher praised your friend for a project on which you both collaborated but ignored your contribution. This might have you feeling unacknowledged, invisible, and insignificant. In this situation, it’s easy to blame your boss for not valuing you – or even to accuse her of favoritism when it might not be the case. 

Another example, concerning social media, if most of your time is spent in the social world of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Dating Apps, etc., we are constantly being filled with things that may not be for often bother us. Have you ever seen a friend’s post, and it was something innocent, but you found yourself feeling angry, jealous, or even neglected after the fact? Consider where those feelings may have stemmed from. Does rejection and neglect on social media take you back to a time of feeling left out or forgotten? If you see your friends with other friends, does it make you feel not good enough? Are you baited to respond to trolls that leave hateful and nasty comments? All of the things that social media brings out of you already exists; it’s just a matter of dissecting where that may have come from in childhood.

It is improbable that the situation and the people prompting the present response are actually to blame for what you feel when triggered. When we take a deeper look at what’s inside us, we find that the response we are feeling is unraveling whatever that core onset may be. Anais Nin said, “We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.” I love this quote concerning how we look at our triggers because there lies an opportunity in this point of view. Have you ever asked yourself, “Did that really happen, or is that just how I remember it?” When we have our triggers, we are presented with an opportunity to recognize what has happened when the trigger occurs. There is a possibility to explore where it comes from and identify the source of that pain. What or who created it? How can it be healed? When you take the time to ask these questions and think intentionally about your emotional responses, you’re able to untangle the negative patterns associated with your thought, feeling, and behaviors. 

What makes up a trigger?

When working in the foster youth sector, we went through training for learning emotional trigger response to serve our youth better and understand what they may be feeling. The basic pattern of an emotional trigger response follows the TTFB pattern – A TRIGGER leads to a THOUGHT that goes to a FEELING, resulting in a BEHAVIOR. The cycle then repeats with the behavior leading to another thought and feeling, and so it continues. This is called a looping thought pattern. Like behavioral habits like nail-biting or smoking, a person can develop automatic emotional habits they might prefer not to have, but they can be altered. 

The first step to change lies in identifying and naming the trigger, then creating new ways of responding and behaving that match a different version of ourselves. As the response often involves feelings of embarrassment, shame, or guilt, one way to disempower triggers and heal wounds is to practice self-compassion. It’s easy to be self-critical and judge harshly, believing you need to be more in control of yourself and your behavior. But just as you wouldn’t expect someone to walk properly on a broken leg, how can you expect yourself to interact when there are unhealed emotional wounds? 

Extensive studies show that people who practice self-compassion have increased feelings of happiness and connectedness and decreased anxiety, depression, and fear of failure. It’s associated with being more comfortable to admit mistakes, less self-criticism, and a greater desire to change what might be unhelpful behaviors. It’s also been shown to reduce a person’s sensitivity to emotional triggers. 

What is self-compassion concerning your triggers?

It involves being kind to yourself when you perceive your behavior to have fallen short of your own expectations, acknowledging everyone makes mistakes, as well as realizing no one’s perfect. It’s completely natural to feel this way by sitting with uncomfortable feelings and accepting rather than judging them harshly; it’s possible to achieve a renewed sense of perspective and balance. 

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I can see why this concept alone may be difficult because when are we ever taught to be kind to ourselves genuinely, to extend grace in the face of mistakes and setbacks? I didn’t start implementing these things into my life practice until I started therapy and dig myself in a hole of negative self talk. I used my triggers based on what is right in my life when things go wrong, and I was wrong. Understanding that things happen and those things may not be your fault, yet recognizing the responsibility you have to get through whatever is where I find my sense of self-compassion. It takes a lot of ease and love to bring yourself back to a state of safety. That sense of security and release can accompany emotional triggers and realize that these emotions can be controlled. Relationship patterns can be seen in a new light, with destructive ones of blame and conflict broken. An attitude of curiosity and self-compassion can neutralize emotional triggers and allow the relationship to grow deeper and stronger. 

Exercise: How to heal an emotional trigger
Consider your answers to the following:

Identifying the emotional trigger:
Ask yourself about negative patterns of behavior you tend to repeat, and what is usually the trigger?

Looping thought patterns:
What initial thought follows the trigger? What the resulting feeling, and then finally, how do you behave?

Breaking the loop:
Look at your looping thought pattern and ask yourself how you could think, feel, and act differently. How would your preferred version of yourself think, feel, and act? Close your eyes and practice visualizing yourself to experience better thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Practice this visualization daily. 

Exercise self-compassion:
How could you be kinder to yourself when you’re in the grip of an emotional trigger? What could you say to yourself that shows compassion towards the hurt you’re feeling? One way to do this is to make a list of ways you can comfort yourself. 

In these moments, take a minute to remind yourself that no one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone is healing from something, especially you. 


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