Home Personal development How to understand and manage your emotional triggers (9 tips)

How to understand and manage your emotional triggers (9 tips)

by Vidya Sury June 7, 2021 4 comments
how to understand and manage your emotional triggers

As humans, we are wired with emotional hot buttons or emotional triggers. One moment we are fine – then someone says something or something happens to push that hot button, bringing an intense emotional reaction. We become upset. We’re thrown off balance. We are unable to think or act irrationally. Not surprisingly, these reactions may be way out of proportion in relation to the actual event.

The result? Once we calm down, we usually have regrets about what we did or said. We can cause damage to ourselves and to others. The good news is, we can learn to understand and manage our emotional triggers in healthy ways.

Where do emotional triggers come from?

The part of our brain that controls the fight or flight response, the amygdala, also stores our memories related to emotional events. If you are wondering why our response is out of proportion to the triggering event, it is because those stored memories come flooding up.

Emotional triggers are personal and vary from person to person. What triggers you may not have any affect on me because our life histories are different. Let’s look at a common example of triggering.

You’ve done great work. But your boss makes a dismissive comment. Some people might shrug this off but for others, it is a trigger. The response may be to fight – by becoming defensive and arguing or getting angry, or flight – by simply shutting down.

Our intense reaction is not just about the boss and that comment. It is about similar past experiences, perhaps through childhood when parents expressed their disappointment in our grades or being made to feel not good enough in their eyes. And thus, the person and their remark is a source of danger.

The real threat is what we carry inside of us because our triggers bring forth powerful sequences of emotions and memories that we can trace back to our childhood. Or they may have originated in the trauma of growing up when we did not feel valued by a parent, or felt isolated in school or were affected by an emotionally absent parent or guardian.

The hurt and shock during the growing years creates a sort of template that is layered by other hurts. Ultimately a core wound is formed. This is so sensitive and painful that we make it our life goal to avoid feeling it. When this wound is nudged, the amygdala interprets the trigger as a life and death situation and initiates the fight or flight response.

If you are lucky enough to not carry a core wound, emotional triggers are insignificant.  For example,

  • When a person does not say thank you.
  • When someone interrupts when we’re speaking.
  • When someone does not get back to us.
  • When a roommate is messy.
  • When our partner will be late and does not call.

As I mentioned before, when our brain perceives a threatening situation, this becomes a trigger. We react with anger or fear and then quickly rationalize our behavior so we feel justified. These reactions can damage our relationships.

How to deal with emotional triggers?

The key is to be alert and catch ourselves when we react to emotional triggers so that we can assess if the threat is real. We don’t always choose our reactions because triggering happens too quickly for our rational mind to stop the amygdala’s command to activate the fight/flight response.

However, we can control what happens next. We can learn to manage our emotional triggers. Knowing what triggers us is the first step.

Understanding Emotional Triggers

1. Define the trigger

A trigger is basically an experience that pulls us back into the past and awakens old feelings and behaviors. For example, a colorful rug may remind you of family picnics. That office group gossiping could bring memories of high school groups.  

2.  Identify external prompts

Some triggers are situational and social. If your partner is worried about something, it can affect your mood. Holiday gatherings may make you end up overeating.

3.  Recognize internal causes

It is possible to internalize just about anything. Even when in a happy family gathering, it is likely that you are harboring old grudges that come in the way of your interactions and ability to live in the present moment.

Read: How to let go of grudges and be at peace

4.  Be aware that everyone has triggers

We usually hear of triggers in relation to an addiction, but it is crucial to remember that memory has a powerful role in our lives.

5.  Acknowledge individual differences

It is important to understand that the same trigger affects different people differently. For example, if a loud noise startles you and your partner does not seem to notice, clearly they are not affected by the noise. Being aware of this can pave the way for better communication and relationships.

While emotions are a big part of life that come with their highs and lows, some are easy to manage while others are not. Struggling with emotional triggers is normal but when it becomes too much to handle, it can lead to mental health issues.

Let’s now look at some practical ways to manage emotional triggers.

9 tips to control your emotional triggers

9 Practical Ways to Manage Your Emotional Triggers

1. Keep a journal

The first step to manage your triggers is to track them. Maintain a log of when you experience intense emotions or engage in behavior you want to change. When this happens, what is going on in your head? What is happening around you? Note it down.

Read:  Journaling as a tool for self-discovery

2. Challenge yourself

The best way to overcome our fears is to face them. A similar strategy works here. To bring about a change, don’t be afraid to face difficult situations. Be open to doing new things. For example, if you are worrying about paying off that loan and are losing sleep over it, why not make a payment plan with your creditors instead?

3. Know what you are capable of

Take things at your own pace. For example, if you need to stand up for yourself at work, practice being assertive at home with your family and your friends.

4. Find alternatives

When you have a quiet moment, think about ways to manage when you feel under pressure. For example, if you are trying to break a particular habit, make a list of activities you enjoy that you can do instead.

5. Take time to relax

Simply managing your stress can make life easier and put you in a better place to handle your intense emotional triggers. Consider starting a daily meditation practice. Or begin your day by listening to soothing music as you go about your morning routine.

6. Seek professional help

Sometimes it can be tough to manage things on your own and progress. If you are struggling with that, consider therapy. Find out names of trustworthy psychologists—your doctor might be able to help you with that. Or ask close friends for references. You will be able to get a clearer perspective on what you are dealing with and find the right solutions. For example, if one of your triggers is dyslexia you could try looking at dyslexia resources that can help you work through your triggers.

7. Adopt a healthy lifestyle

An easy and rewarding way to become more resilient is by looking after yourself – your body and mind. Eat well, get enough sleep and exercise regularly. You’ll be surprised at how much better you feel and ready to manage anything that comes your way.

8. Build your support system

Relationships are crucial to our well-being. Close family and friends validate and nurture us. Tough issues are easier to deal with when you know that you have people who care about you and are ready to help.

9. Be compassionate

As you understand your own emotional triggers, you will be in a better position to understand what others are struggling with. Practice patience and forgiveness—you will be surprised at how people seem more ready to do the same for you.

As we grapple with our own unique triggers, learning to handle them helps us to fix the issues that get in our way and move ahead in life.

Let me conclude with a simple technique called Being Present that you can practice to manage your emotional triggers.

The Being Present technique

When you notice yourself reacting to a trigger, you need to shift your emotional state so that you can think through what your trigger might be. Being Present is a gentle technique to help you do this. Follow these steps:

Relax – breathe and release the tension in your body.

Detach – clear your mind of all thoughts.

Center – focus your awareness to the center of your body just below your navel. Feel your breath. This helps to clear the mind.

Focus (and implant) – select one word or thought that represents how you want to feel or who you want to be in this moment.

Once you shift your emotional state, you are free to examine the situation. Is someone actually taking something away from you? You can then ask for what you need or let it go and move on. Continue to breathe and think of your keyword or thought. This will help you control your reactions and responses to your emotional triggers.

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Debbie L Hampton June 10, 2021 at 9:47 pm

This is such helpful information, Vidya. As you stress, becoming aware of and understanding emotional triggers is a huge part of lessening the hold on us. As you explain, our subconscious associates what is happening now with a past hurt and tries to protect us. But he response is no longer needed. I like the “being present” technique.
Debbie L Hampton recently posted…How the Pandemic Has Changed Our Brains and Mental Health

Elle Sommer June 12, 2021 at 6:32 pm

I totally agree Vidya. Your ‘Being present technique’ works for me. Disregarding what is happening outside of ourselves gives us a chance to better manage the runaway thought and feeling train of our mind. I’ve found an affirmation or two with some deeper breathing is n amazing way to calm everything down.

Zeenat+Merchant+Syal June 13, 2021 at 12:35 am

I love the wonderful ways you have shared here Vidya. They are all SO helpful when it comes to handling those pesky negative triggers. Journaling is my personal favorite 🙂
Zeenat+Merchant+Syal recently posted…Rewriting the Mind – We Are What We Think

Sandra Pawula June 14, 2021 at 3:30 am

This is so important, Vidya. Emotional triggers can end of ruling our life and make us feel so happy. These are great tips and I know we will all feel happier when we follow them. I do my best to watch out for emotional triggers and take a step back as you suggest.
Sandra Pawula recently posted…A Simple Way to Balance Your Emotions and Revitalize Your Body


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