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What causes emotional triggers and how to overcome them

emotional triggers
Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

In recent years society has taken steps to protect us from potential emotional triggers. These include warnings on books and other media that give consumers the choice to avoid content that may unduly upset them.

First of all, what are triggers? These are events that create an emotional reaction in someone that makes them feel as though they are re-living a past trauma.

With this definition in mind, it’s easy to see why we’d want to help someone avoid such a situation. But, it’s impossible to avoid them all as they can come up in the course of everyday living, such as conversation.

So, it’s important to learn how to handle these events when they arise, rather than relying on warnings to protect you. Here are 5 ways to cope with emotional triggers.

1. Observe them.

When someone dominates conversation, I’ve observed myself detaching and my flight response kick in. I’ve experienced ringing in my ears and visual impairment when someone monopolizes conversation this way.

Taking note of my responses to this (admittedly) annoying but otherwise non-threatening act helped me get curious about where this trigger originated.

Turns out my first memory of feeling this way came when I spoke up to my abusive boyfriend about the way he dominated conversation. Observing my reactions helped me unearth an origin story that I could now work to overcome.

Observing my reactions to a triggering event helped me unearth an origin story that I could now work to overcome. Click To Tweet

2. Breathe.

Paying attention to your breathing slows things down in contrast to the panicky feelings that triggers induce. It helps you relax and counteracts the emotional overdrive you’ve been hurled into.

Deep breathing gives your mind something to focus on and can help relieve the somatic sensations that take over in the wake of an event. It grounds you in the present moment, offering relief from re-experiencing the past trauma.

3. Journal about your emotional triggers.

emotional triggers

Journaling can help you process the emotions that come up when you feel triggered. Organizing your thoughts this way helps make sense of them.

Writing down how you felt, what you saw, smelled, heard, etc., can help you spot patterns. These in turn can prepare you to deal with future events more mindfully.

4. Talk to someone about your emotional triggers.

Similar to journaling, verbal processing can help you deal with these events. Reaching out to a therapist, coach, or understanding friend gets the feelings out where they belong.

If sharing with a friend, make sure they understand the nature of triggers. These reside in the body and cannot be dealt with on a cerebral or “common sense” level, for example.

If sharing with a friend, make sure they understand the nature of triggers. These reside in the body and cannot be dealt with on a cerebral or "common sense" level. Click To Tweet

A well-meaning friend who tries to reason you out of your triggers is not the one to turn to for this type of verbal processing.

5. Leave the scene.

You may want to excuse yourself and go to the washroom. Take the time you need to collect yourself before returning to the scene.

You may also decide to go for a walk. The back and forth movement calms the nervous system and has science-backed benefits for mental health similar to EMDR.

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