How to Deal with Emotional Triggers

Nathan Perkins • May 17, 2019

An emotional trigger is loosely defined as anything that evokes an emotional reaction. In the case of mental health, we typically define these reactions as negative. The form that these triggers can take are numerous and include topics we’d rather ignore, our senses, and our own emotions.

Triggers can be difficult to understand and face, and it’s common to try to avoid them. But when we fight this urge and face them head-on and take the time to learn more about them, we find that we’re better able to cope the next time they arise.

Some common emotional triggers include:

  • Topics – relationships, money, careers, death and loss, etc.
  • Senses – sights, smells, and sounds that remind of traumatic events
  • Emotions – guilt, shame, stress that can lead to substance abuse, eating disorders, anxiety attacks, etc.
  • The way in which others treat us

There’s obviously some crossover between those different types of triggers above, and they can often appear without warning.

Consider the variety of negative ways in which others sometimes treat us – from being rejected or ignored to disapproval, criticism, or attempts to control. These can easily lead to feelings of anger, neediness, becoming withdrawn, and attempts to please or put blame elsewhere.

Another way to look at triggers is this – an external event or memory that triggers an internal response.

How Triggers are Formed

To understand how our triggers are formed requires more understanding of the human mind than we currently possess. Therefore, there are more questions than answers.

It is believed that traumatic memories are stored in a different part of the brain than non-traumatic memories, though no one is absolutely sure. What we can be sure about is:

  • There is a strong sensory connection to emotional triggers
  • They can be related to a deeply-ingrained habit
  • They can cause a reaction before (or without) us realizing what is happening

As triggers happen very quickly, there aren’t likely to be any warning signs. However, with awareness and practice, we may be able to recognize our own problem areas and the resulting triggers for those.

Tips to Cope with Emotional Triggers

The first step is to not shy away from our mental health issues. Avoidance will only serve to make us feel more helpless, vulnerable, and out of control. Very Well Mind offers an outstanding piece of advice on where to begin.

“Empower yourself by preparing to cope with triggers, rather than thinking of yourself as a victim. Become aware of signs in your body that you’re reacting to a trigger, such as changes in your breathing, so that you can learn how to calm yourself down and shift your emotional state. Your ultimate goal should be to detach yourself from the trigger, re-center, and focus on your coping strategy.”

So, once we learn to identify our triggers, there are some useful ways to learn from them and prepare ourselves to deal with them better in the future.

Practice Mindfulness

Living more mindfully has numerous mental health benefits. (link) But in the context of identify our emotional triggers, we must be aware of them firstly, and mindfulness can help with this.

The best tip, and greatest difficulty, to living more mindfully is to reduce the internal self-talk. When we’re thinking about the past or stressing about the future, guess where we aren’t? The present. And if we’re not in the present, we have very little chance of noticing triggers when they happen, which will lead to those feelings of being out-of-control.

Try keeping a journal. This may sound simplistic but consider who’s really driving the car that is your life – your subconscious. Your conscious self is merely a passenger most of the time. Your subconscious knows more about you than your conscious self, and when you’re writing more than thinking, things may come out that you don’t expect. You can learn from these.

The biggest key here is the part about writing more than thinking about what you’re writing. It’s been referred to as spontaneous prose by some authors, though most people know it as free writing. And you can begin this exercise by writing anything, even gibberish. At some point, something magical happens and you begin writing from a place deep within yourself. It may take some practice.

For some tips on how to begin free writing, check out this resource. It’s mostly used by writers to overcome blocks. But you can also use it to overcome your own emotional blocks when your intent is in the right place.

Avoid Unhealthy Behavior or People

Are there one or two behaviors that trigger emotions that send you down the wrong path? Are there people in your life that are constantly causing negative emotional triggers in you? It’s hard to ignore your boss, but most relationships are more voluntary.

Avoiding unhealthy behavior or situations is probably easier than avoiding unhealthy people, especially if some of those relationships include family and friends. The truth is that some relationships are unhealthy. And it’ll be up to you whether you want to find a way to cope with the person or people in question or remove them from your life.

If you’re triggers are of a more sensory nature, avoiding them will be almost impossible, which brings us to some ways to cope with triggers that cannot be eliminated or avoided.

Strategies for Coping with Emotional Triggers

Increasing your awareness will help you better recognize triggers, but you’ll still need to deal with those you cannot possibly avoid, and there are a number of options here.

  • Have a support network in place – friends, family, or a mental health therapist you can rely on for help
  • Practice deep breathing, as it’s practically impossible to feel stressed or anxious while also breathing deeply
  • Exercise is so important for mental health (link), and a great way to reduce the effects of our emotional triggers
  • Find other relaxation techniques until you discover one that resonates with you, like EFT.

EFT is a fantastic tool for dealing with a number of emotional issues like fear, anxiety, depression, PTSD, and more. It stands for Emotional Freedom Technique, and it’s something that can have immediate beneficial results.

The important thing to remember is that when we experience emotional triggers, we are not some bystander incapable of action. We have the power to identify them and either remove them or cope with them. You are not a hamster on a wheel. You are in total control of your life and emotions.