You may have heard about getting triggered by another person but what does that really mean? Emotional triggers are situations, people, or experiences that provoke an intense emotional reaction or exaggerated response. Almost anything can be a trigger, depending on our past life experience, viewpoint, mood, or vulnerability.
For instance, Amanda is articulate, engaging, and enjoying a career in graphic design. At 38 years old, she is aware that she sabotages relationships that might be good for her. Amanda’s tendency is to fall in love too quickly, break up, and then make up with a partner who she knows is wrong for her.
Amanda explains, “It’s almost as if I’m addicted to pain. It’s as if I’m so familiar with that adrenalin rush that I get from being in a bad relationship, I don’t feel comfortable when my boyfriend Erik treats me right. But I’m working on that and I’m better able to stop myself from threatening to leave him when I feel afraid or something he says or does triggers an intense reaction in me.”
If you aren’t aware of your emotional triggers, let alone how to handle them, your intimate relationships will be more turbulent. Many times, I’ve seen triggers that aren’t identified lead to arguments and create unnecessary suffering for couples.
Gain Awareness of Triggers
Becoming more conscious of extreme reactions and not denying them or becoming defensive, is the first step to coping effectively. Bringing to consciousness those triggers that provoke intense responses from you, will lessen your risk of sabotaging relationships by withdrawing, issuing ultimatums, or threatening to leave.
For instance, you might start by reflecting on how you notice a sudden shift in the emotional tone of a conversation with your partner. If you’re both vulnerable and curb your defensiveness, you’ll be able to identify and describe triggers such as talking about money or family members. This open discussion will help you and your partner raise self-awareness and communicate effectively.
5 ways to identify “hot buttons” or triggers:
1. Notice your bodily reactions
Pay attention when you experience tensing of muscles, increased heart rate, tingles, or any change in your body that might indicate physically reacting to a trigger. Ask yourself: what’s the first reaction in my body? Do my fists clench? Does my breathing speed up? Does my face turn hot or red? Do I feel like fleeing the situation? Do I feel frozen or unable to move? Mentally note these reactions and write them down. Remember that physical reactions can range from understated to extreme – so don’t rule anything out.
2. Notice what thoughts seem intense or repeat themselves
Look for extreme thoughts with or strong opinions. You don’t have to do anything else but be aware of these thoughts without reacting to them. Let them play out in your mind. What script is your mind creating about the other person or situation? For instance, “Erik will leave me like the others did.” I recommend listing these thoughts in your journal or notebook (print or digital) to enhance your self-awareness.
3. Who or what triggers intense emotions?
Once you’ve become aware of your physical reactions, notice when your partner triggers extreme physical and emotional responses within you. Sometimes you’ll discover a single object, word, smell or another sense impression that triggers you. Other times, you’ll notice that you’re triggered by a particular belief, viewpoint, or situation. For example, your trigger could range from anything like loud sounds to a partner who is a back-seat driver (reminding you of an ex). However, you may have a whole series of triggers (most people do), so be vigilant and open to noticing a range of things that set you off.
4. What happened before you were triggered?
Sometimes there are certain situations that set you up to being triggered. For example, having a stressful day at work, being sleep deprived, or seeing someone from your past. When you’re trying to identify your emotional triggers, often you can prevent yourself from being triggered in the future by slowing down once you’re aware of past experiences with triggers.
5. What are your unmet emotional needs?
When you’re triggered emotionally, it can usually be traced to one or more of your deepest needs or desires that havn’t been met. Take some time to think about which of your needs or desires were neglected. These needs might include acceptance, love, safety, respect, control, or being needed. By being aware of your unmet emotional needs, you’ll be better able to cope.
4 Ways to Cope with Triggers
Now that you’ve become more aware of triggers by tuning into your body, thoughts, and unmet needs, work on becoming more aware of certain situations or words, or your partner’s actions that seem to set off these reactions. The following is a list of some ways you can cope more effectively to extreme emotions such as anger and fear so that you will be able to be calmer and more reflective.
- Remove your attention from the person or situation and focus on your breath. Focusing on your in-breath and out-breath for a few minutes. Breathe in through your nose and exhale through your mouth as you count to ten. Thinking about a pleasant place can help you relax. Try imaging yourself in your favorite place. If your attention goes back to the triggering person or situation, pull your attention back to your breathing. Take a break. Remove yourself from the situation. Walk away for five minutes and cool down. If you are speaking with someone, excuse yourself and say that you need to go to the bathroom or somewhere else. Return when you’re feeling more centered and calm.
- Find the humor in the situation. Practicing this suggestion is not always possible, but you might be surprised how much laughter and pleasure lightens your mood and mindset. When I say find the humor in the situation, I don’t mean necessarily laughing out loud. Instead, look at the situation from a different perspective and find the humor in it.
- Ask yourself who or what triggered your emotional reaction. Understanding why you’re being triggered will help you to regain a sense of calmness, self-awareness, and remain in control. Writing down these triggers will help to cement them into your mind so that you remain self-aware in the future.
- Don’t gloss over your feelings, but delay acting on them. For instance, if you’re feeling furious by someone, instead of exploding at them, consciously set those feelings aside to experience and unleash later in a healthy way. You might scream into a pillow or do an intense workout. Be very careful not to deny your emotions because you might find that you have a delayed reaction that is exaggerated.
Perhaps it’s because intimate relationships bring the possibility of love and closeness that we’re confronted with wounds from our past. Some people even create a narrative for their life that focuses on suffering, shame, and blame. However, with self-awareness and learning effective ways to cope with intense reactions to triggers, we can write a new narrative for our lives based on trusting ourselves and others.