Emotional triggers and how to deal with them

Knowing yourself and what may trigger anxiety, panic, or an emotional reaction is crucial to self-care. Part of what we do in counselling can be about exploring ourselves; our emotions, thoughts and behaviours. With many life changes, events and relationships we can begin to lose a sense of ourselves and it is this that may bring us to counselling. It may be that you find yourself becoming emotionally overwhelmed over what might seem the smallest of things and you can’t understand why. You feel like you are beginning to rely too much on alcohol or other distractions to prevent these emotions from surfacing, or having to think too deeply about why they are there in the first place.


"To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom" - Socrates

What is a trigger?

An emotional trigger can be many things. It may be that you have buried an event, an emotion or a belief about yourself and the world. Something happens and your buried emotions resurface. Often, the triggers will unconsciously remind us of past events or deep-seated beliefs from childhood. If left unchecked, we might use defensive coping mechanisms to push away the emotions that are trying to resurface. We might use alcohol or drugs to numb, or we might gain comfort from binge shopping or eating. In other words, a trigger is an event that leads to emotional overwhelm and results in unhelpful behaviour, thoughts and further strong emotions and reactions.

To give an example; you have achieved something at work that you are proud of. You’ve done a great presentation, and you are telling your husband about this. His response might be flippant; "oh yeah, I have to do presentations all the time". You feel disregarded. Immediately, you might feel on the defensive; angry, hurt, and upset. If things like this occur frequently, you might begin to wonder what's wrong with you. For some, these emotional responses can feel overwhelming.

Yet, on reflection, and with some exploration, you eventually remember the many times that your childhood achievements were disregarded in the same way, and how hurt, lost, and uncared for you felt; how it made you feel worthless. There is nothing 'wrong' with you at all. The messages from childhood have been buried deep and are resurfacing for you to heal. Triggers can be useful if we become curious about them. We can ask questions such as "what is this emotion telling me, what do I need right now, and what do I need to heal within myself?".

Here are some examples of emotional triggers;

  • A person may feel insecure in a relationship if they had emotionally unavailable parents. This can lead to feelings of rejection, worthlessness, sadness, fear, and anger.
  • A person who had a childhood where their parents were overly controlling might get angry if told what to do, or they may panic in a situation if not used to taking control.
  • A person who has been in an abusive relationship might be constantly on the defensive in a new relationship and have issues with trust.

These are just a few examples, and it’s worth exploring what your triggers are and where they come from. First, identify what your triggers are. To do this, write on a piece of paper the word 'trigger'. Then call to mind recent times when you have had strong emotional reactions. You can write down briefly what the event was and what emotion surfaced for you. Next, write down what your reaction was to the event. Did you shout and slam doors, walk away, or feel withdrawn? If you do this over a period of time you may notice patterns developing. Over time you may also be able to identify where the original belief came from.

Next in the process is challenging and changing your belief. Ask yourself what needs are not being met when you are triggered. For example, you argue with your partner frequently when you feel disregarded, but this may come from feeling insecure as your needs were not met in childhood. So, what do you need from your partner? What do you need to ask for, and how can you ask for it calmly for your partner to clearly understand what is happening for you.

When you're triggered, it means it's time to pause, breathe deeply, and drop your awareness to below your chin.

  • What is happening in your body?
  • What emotions are coming up for you?
  • What do you need at this moment?

Taking time out can calm you down and facilitate this exploration. Whatever the trigger for you, the takeaway message is to provide yourself with as much self-care and compassion as you can give to yourself. Write a list of ways that you can take time out to relax and a list of things that you can enjoy. This may include a walk, a bath, listening to music, or drawing. Keep your lists to hand to remind you at times when things become difficult. Remember that you are doing the best that you can. The ways that you have learnt to react to situations can be changed once you pause, recognise the trigger, and change the response. Be compassionate and curious, and look at all of this as a journey to rediscovering yourself.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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High Peak, Derbyshire, SK23
Written by Samantha Flanagan, Anxiety Therapist (PGDIP, Registered member of BACP)
High Peak, Derbyshire, SK23

I am a member of BACP with a level 7, PGdip in Integrative Counselling and Psychotherapy. I am qualified to work with many issues which include but are not limited to: emotional abuse, trauma, anxiety, depression, substance mis-use, developmental trauma, domestic violence.

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