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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 here.” ~Deepak Chopra

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 realizing 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. But, I was unable or unconscious of how to get out of this pattern of behavior—until I learned to identify my emotional triggers and re-route my unhealthy habitual responses.

Addiction or other self-destructive behaviors 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 one of my triggers is when someone downplays something I’ve achieved. One day I was talking to my husband about an accomplishment at work. His response? “Anyone could’ve done that.”

I felt dismissed and belittled, as if what I had accomplished didn’t mean anything and had no value. Any time I felt dismissed in this way, I used to lash out in angry ways. Or worse, I’d get myself a large glass of wine and then another, and another.

Was this a healthy or productive response? No. Did it resolve anything in a useful way? No. Was I in a position of power acting this way? No. In fact, I was allowing other forces and factors to control my behavior.

It wasn’t until I realized where this emotional trigger came from that I began to recognize my actions for what they were: a reaction rather than a calm and poised response.

I realized that I grew up with a perfectionist mother who would often criticize me if she didn’t feel like I was living up to her high standards. This often left me feeling devalued as a person, or “less than.” So, whenever I felt devalued, I lashed out in anger.

I suppose this is a natural defense mechanism. But it was harmful to me in many ways because I never really acknowledged my pain, nor did I ever address it in a healthy way. Instead, I would often turn this anger inward upon myself and, in order to numb the pain, drink it down.

This was an ongoing cycle for years and how I dealt with any kind of emotional pain: anger or sadness turned into inward hatred, and I drank to dull the pain.

When we don’t recognize our triggers and our unhealthy reactions to them, it can lead us down a long, tortuous path.

Part of my recovering from a debilitating substance abuse problem involved understanding how triggers work and also learning healthier ways of responding to them. This is why now when I feel dismissed or rejected, I give voice to those emotions. I open my mouth and say, “You know, that hurt my feelings because…”

I have found that by giving my pain a voice, I no longer have to turn it inward upon myself and suppress it with alcohol. This helps keep me sober to this day.

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 behaviors. 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 recognizing 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.” ~Viktor E. Frankl

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 do the same behavioral 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 realizes 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 behaviors until we identify our triggers.

Once we know our triggers and begin to recognize 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:

Emotional

We get stuck in negative emotions such as anger, sadness, or anxiety and react in extremely emotional ways—getting violent, yelling and screaming, withdrawing completely, etc.

Physical

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 me to create space by doing something else, for example, taking a walk.

For emotional reactions, it helps me to clearly communicate my feelings. Mostly I had to learn to understand my 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 a 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 response instead of your normal knee-jerk reaction.

Below are a few examples:

Example 1

Trigger: When I feel that my spouse dismisses my comments or feelings about something

Current Reaction: I get angry and yell at him.

New Response: I’ll tell him my feelings were hurt.

Example 2

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.

Example 3

Trigger: When I get overwhelmed and stressed

Current Reaction: I binge drink.

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.

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.

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.

About Kerry Campbell

Kerry is founder of the Academy of Well-Being, a collection of online courses dedicated to helping you build a life centered on well-being and happiness. Kerry also leads workshops and private sessions to help others transform their lives in positive and impactful ways. Follow her on Instagram or email her at principleswellbeing@gmail.com. Kerry lives in Encinitas, a beach town north of San Diego, California.

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  • Annie Possis

    with all due respect…that dismissive comment your husband made stopped me in my tracks. That’s not a loving, kind or helpful thing to say when you’re sharing an accomplishment. You are not being overly ‘triggered’ to feel dismayed and hurt at that.

  • The timing of this article couldn’t have been planned better by me myself! I have been told not only by my best friend, but also by the man I am seeing that I have become “stubborn” or argumentative lately, and though he made some very negative, hurtful comments, I have looked at the situation, and realize that he was only acting out of a defensive place because he felt attacked by the person that supposedly cares so much about him. I have really come to realize I need to heighten my awareness when it comes to these triggers, and will be using a “how can my verbiage make this person feel supported and loved” approach. Thank you so much for this!

  • Steve Groff

    Accept the things you cannot change, change the things you can.

  • Annie Possis

    yes, platitudes are wonderful, and so is spouses treating each other with kindness.

  • Steve Groff

    With all due respect… I think you’re missing the point. She cannot change her spouse but only herself… “For emotional reactions, it helps me to clearly communicate my feelings. Mostly I had to learn to understand my emotions, acknowledge them, and then give them a voice”. Speaking of useful platitudes… ‘see the forest through the trees’ is a good one! 😉

  • Annie Possis

    I agree that it was a very useful article with many good ideas. And I reassert MY feeling that this was an unnecessary and unkind thing for a spouse to say to their spouse. I hope she gave him a ‘calm and poised’ (her words) response indicating her feelings about it.

  • Bullyinglte

    It’s the “what to do” part that is so important. You have offered some great starting tips. Other good ones include:
    * Read positive affirmations
    * Keep a gratitude journal
    * Forgive yourself (the most important person to forgive)
    * Let the past go. Don’t ruminate
    * Listen to music that makes you feel good
    * Talk to a mentor, counselor, coach, or friend
    It is so important to find good vs. bad reactions to your triggers. You can do a 180 degree life change at any time you decide to. Thanks for sharing these great thoughts!

  • Bullyinglte

    I don’t disagree with what you are pointing out about what her spouse said to her. I wonder if there is a context underlying there or is this normal behavior. As is also important to remember for all, how we talk to others reflects on how we talk to ourselves. While we can’t change others, there are things that we can choose to tolerate and not.

  • Laura

    I often wonder about that fine line between reacting or noticing and accepting mean behaviour (i.e. The husbands comment). I sometimes feel like I lose the aim of controlling me reactions as sometimes comments like that deserve one and where’s the fine line between being assertive and not letting someone treat you like that it being walked over like a doormat. Any ideas anyone???

  • Annie Possis

    YES! that’s it exactly! Where is the line between handling the normal ups and downs of life gracefully, and allowing others to treat you badly? Thanks Laura.

  • Karen Taylor

    I agree. Should we become ‘doormats’ & ’emotional vacuums’ in order to appease an insensitive spouse/partner? Yes, we can calmly say, ‘that comment hurt my feelings’, but any spouse that can make that comment in the first place isn’t going to have the sensitivity to say, ‘oh I’m so sorry honey, I didn’t mean to upset you,’ are they? Holding back & internalising emotions, is just as damaging if you ask me.

  • Shardha Prabhu

    The source of all misery is attachment….this is definitely the single most important thing to remember if you’re caught in difficult times or deal with difficult people. We cannot change people but we can decide how much importance to give them…whether to give them any power. As for the husband’s comments….looks like he’s either insecure or he loves his wife too much and wants her to move out of her comfort zone

  • Linda Hasenfang

    I have been talking about this with my significant other and my therapist. I realized he was activating my “mom” triggers. Not intentional. We are discussing this and working on it. I am looking at it as growth. He also has triggers that he’s working on. The key is to recognize it, acknowledge it, and be willing to change.

  • sian e lewis

    We were always taught to ‘count to ten’ before saying anything -mundane advice but its helped me quite often. As I get older I see more and more clearly that when people behave badly, the problem lies with THEM not us and it is up to THEM to sort themselves out.

  • Hermione Laake

    I like your comment, and your ability to re-assert it. You are quite right. I think that some people have issues with praising and bolstering their other half. They forget that we are interconnected, or mix up sharing a success with boasting, and want to take us down a peg or two, which is wrong. Maybe we should accept that we are all imperfect, and allow for imperfections and realise that we feel good when someone succeeds and want to help them go further, not feel diminished by others’ success and seek to crush them….

  • Adventure Hermit

    This was so timely. Minutes ago I broke up a verbal fight between my 10 and 13 year old daughters. However, I could not have done a worse job. While trying to point out the error of their ways, I exhibited every poor behavior that they were showing, especially my 13 year old. Sadly, this was not the first time.

    Eventually, we sat down and talked it out. I apologized for being a poor role model I hate the phrase, “do as I say, not as I do” and yet I was acting it out to a tee. We each took ownership for how we contributed to the unnecessary fighting. Minutes later, this post came in. We read it together. Then, we all looked for “new responses” to what we had just experienced. I am always amazed how Tiny Buddha seems to do that in my life.

    Thank you Kerry for an important and timely reminder!

  • Kyle

    Thank you for this article. I’ve recently made the major transitions of moving halfway across the country from family, starting a counseling graduate program, and starting an intimate relationship. I’ve now passed through the “honey-moon” phase of these changes and am addressing uncomfortable emotions. I’m aware of most of my triggers and no longer react in my unhealthy coping mechanisms. However I’m still sitting with uncomfortable emotions, which i realize is part of life. Trouble communicating feelings is something i’m working with and your article insightful. Thank you for sharing!

  • Nice!

  • Magickmum

    I agree that the comment was unkind (as it was related and assuming no other context). It was dismissive and hurtful. I was thinking, “I wonder if that is a pattern or a one-off.” We ALL can say things inadvertently or that came out wrongly. I’ve done it. I’m going through the apology right now because what I said was hurtful because I was hurting. I think her point though was to not lash out either at him or within herself. That was the accomplishment so I applaud her for making a measured response. (but I would not forget unless he sincerely apologized. I’m super sensitive to verbal abuse due to past history).

  • Magickmum

    have you been peeking in my house lately?! I just had this conversation with my best friend and my husband today.

  • Magickmum

    Like many others saying the same thing, this post came at a perfect time for me and it wasn’t the day it came out! I’ve been realizing that I am spinning the same recording and I need to find new ways to deal with my hurts. In my situation, the other person is not being deliberately hurtful but I am having a hard time finding the line between acknowledging and overreacting. Re-calibrating my response to something that was not intended to be hurtful (but was) is going to be difficult. I can only change me.

  • Regina

    I am so glad that I came across this post. I passed it onto my mother because she could really use this information. Even though I’ve tried to explain this to her before, having this in an easy to read and understand article has made a big difference. For her, I think it’s key that this kind of helpful and healing information is put in a way that is clear and muddle free (i.e. too heavy on psychology). I think that this post will help her to understand herself better. In our family there is a cycle of addiction. While I have been able to heal full circle (very grateful for this in my life) there are still others that I help to heal, including my mother. I’ve purchased your book as a gift to her as well. Praying it will help her to free herself.

  • Regina

    One more thing I’d like to add, I totally believe in giving pain a voice, whether it is through journaling or in speaking with someone calmly and collectedly once you’ve identified you feel something. Especially with your dear loved ones, it is healing l to let them know how the trigger has made you feel.

    You can’t always do that though, for example with people at work or friends you don’t know so well or even with your dear loved ones because you find that it turns out disastrous every time. It’s not a supportive situation.

    When you cannot give voice to the pain a trigger has caused to a person directly you have to practice another way, such as going for a walk or deep breathing or journaling.

    The point is not to ignore but to give the pain the awareness and attention it does deserve so that it can be said hello to. I have found that identifying the trigger, allowing the pain of that trigger to be actually shines light onto these dark places. Little by little you learn more freedom for yourself and discover room for self love.

    Dedication to this way is transformative. You can heal from a traumatic past.

  • KM

    This is a great article! I do have a quick question regarding example 1. Let’s say you tell your spouse your feelings were hurt. That is your new response instead of getting angry at him. But what if he dismays your feelings were hurt or makes you feel like you are too dramatic and taking things personal. I am speaking very general here. I realize that means it could be the wrong person for you, etc. But if you are trying heal and repair a long term, and very important relationship, how do you help the other person see that you are trying your very best?