Phone calls during the work day. Cuddling in bed with anyone past 11 a.m. The Sundays’ mid-90s cover of “Wild Horses.” These are seemingly unrelated events, yet they’re all emotional triggers for me. The “why” behind each is something my therapist and I are working to unpack, but what I can say with confidence is that I’m glad I can now identify them for what they are. Because in the past, when I wasn’t able to pinpoint what led me to me feel panicked or off in some way, my mental well-being and important relationships often suffered as a result.
It makes sense why, too. Emotional triggers can lead to irrational, impulsive responses. And while that certainly stinks for the people who are experiencing the mental tumult, it can also be problematic for friends, partners, or other loved ones—especially if they don’t know the big picture of what your triggers are. So how can you respect your own sensitivities without lashing out, even if unintentionally, to people who really care?
Below, learn how to identify, communicate, and work on handling your emotional triggers—for the benefit of yourself and your loved ones.
How to spot emotional triggers
Even when everyone is objectively safe, emotional triggers can facilitate a sensation of feeling emotionally threatened when triggered. “While they may not be truly dangerous, emotional threats feel every bit as threatening to our survival as physical threats,” says psychologist Helene Brenner, PhD, author of I Know I’m in There Somewhere. “When we feel that threatened, we tend to go into fight-or-flight mode very, very fast, reacting first and thinking about what we’re doing later. So, we may end up reacting in a way that, later, we don’t feel good about.”
Obviously, being able to recognize emotional triggers seems like a smart way to stop the hypothetical train from crashing, but unfortunately, that identifying aspect isn’t so easy to accomplish in practice. Every person is different, and, thus, emotionally triggered in different ways. So, unraveling the highly personalized intel requires dedicated thought. “The tough part about emotional triggers is that they’re not so easy to spot,” says Dr. Brenner. For instance, “it makes perfect sense to us when we get upset with our partner for saying ‘How are you?’ in a slightly wrong tone of voice.” But do you know why? And does your partner?
Good news: Even if the root cause triggering you is subconscious, there’s still an easy way to spot it. For better or worse, emotional triggers will usually manifest in physical reactions. For instance, my go-to trigger reaction involves shallow breathing and a quick crying fit—essentially, a small-scale anxiety attack. Really, though it can be any sort of fun (read: awful) physical stress or strain.
“You can know you’ve gotten triggered if your heart is pounding or your chest or gut is tightening in a way that feels out of proportion to what happened.” —psychologist Helene Brenner, PhD.
“Sometimes you can know you’ve gotten triggered because you feel like your heart is pounding or your chest or gut is tightening in a way that you know is way out of proportion to what just happened,” Dr. Brenner says. “If this happens, you can try to reflect on it before you do something that you might regret later.”
Sometimes, though, the best (and perhaps only) way to avoid getting triggered is to go through the experience once and then learn from it. When you’ve identified what, precisely, is at play, you can tackle the problem. And here’s the best part: You don’t have to do it alone.
To handle emotional triggers, be mindful about how you communicate
Dr. Brenner’s top suggestion for managing your triggers is to own your own triggers. That means recognizing the origin point, and communicating the issue—without blame—to loved ones.
“If you tell your partner ‘I got triggered because you did such-and-such,’ you’re still blaming your partner for your trigger and not really accepting that the trigger is in you,” Dr. Brenner says. “If instead, you say something like, ‘Wow! I really got triggered when you said X and Y, because I thought it meant that you…’ then you can have a real conversation about what your partner really did or didn’t do, and really did or didn’t mean.”
What does a healthy conversation look like? Dr. Brenner says it should identify why you got triggered in the first place, what past experiences led to this point, what your partner can do to help you not get triggered again, and what you what you can do to see things differently so that you can react in a calmer way. These ongoing dialogues invite transparency and can help you feel less alone when dealing with something that’s upsetting.
And, do communicate (rather than concealing or suppressing) triggers
Dr. Brenner points out that recent research has backed up that trying to deny or repress the negative emotions that are reflective of getting triggered doesn’t quite work out long-term. Bottling those emotions, rather, tends to come manifest in other areas of life.
“People who try to do that still exhibit lots of physiological signs of distress,” says Dr. Brenner. “It’s when people experience the feeling, but then re-appraise what’s happening so that they see it in a less negative and threatening light that they actually become physically calmer, emotionally less reactive, and more able to handle what is happening.”
This technique, she tells me, is called cognitive re-appraisal, and it’s an effective tool for controlling your emotions. According to research, though, in addition to being effective for improving long-term emotional regulation, it’s also adept at relieving short-term physiological symptoms. So this moment of pause and recognition can help you when you’re feeling triggered.
Obviously, dealing with your emotional triggers isn’t an overnight fix. But by committing to keep communication lines open with your loved ones—and with yourself—you can rest-assured that you’re on the right path.
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