Emotional triggers are anything that can evoke a strong emotional reaction in us, regardless of the mood we are in. They could be occurrences, situations, events, actions, words, or memories.
During a typical day, we can experience a wide range of emotions in response to specific situations we encounter. For example, we can feel joy when meeting a friend, sadness upon hearing bad news, or excitement when about to do something we've longed for.
The difference between these kind of stimuli and emotional triggers is that emotional triggers evoke a disproportionate reaction in us compared to the stimulus itself. These emotions we feel can be accompanied by physical sensations: rapid heartbeat, sweating, dizziness, a feeling of suffocation, nausea, stomach pain, and so on. For example, you might start crying and even have a panic attack if someone speaks in a raised voice (even if they're not talking to you, and you're just an observer) because this kind of situation activates certain wounds or traumas from your childhood - perhaps one of your parents used to scold you frequently, yell, or had self-control issues.
So, if we had certain childhood experiences that caused us suffering, hurt us in one way or another, because at that time we lacked the ability to manage situations and emotions properly, as adults, any stimuli or situations similar to those we experienced then will trigger a similar reaction in us.
For example, if your parents were generally unavailable, and in childhood, you spent a lot of time alone or felt that you couldn't rely on them, as an adult, an emotional trigger might be the unavailability of those around you. So, if a friend doesn't answer your calls or isn't available to you for some reason, it can trigger strong negative emotions - you get very angry, blame yourself or blame them, start crying or getting angry, and create various scenarios in your mind.
Next, we will list the most common emotional triggers. The first thing I invite you to do is to observe which of these resonate with you, in what situations you automatically experience strong negative emotions.
When someone doesn't like you – What could be the cause? If you don't like yourself, if you have a negative self-image, or if you believe you're not good enough, most likely, someone else not liking you will trigger intense emotions or make you feel hurt.
When someone doesn't pay attention to you – What could be the cause? In childhood, you felt unimportant, you felt "invisible."
When you are misunderstood - What could be the cause? In childhood, your parents or caregivers were not interested in understanding you, understanding your emotions, needs, desires, interests, or they misunderstood you.
When others don't need you – you want to feel appreciated, and others needing you makes you feel useful and important; often, you prioritize others' needs over your own. For example, if your help is rejected, you may start questioning your own value and capabilities. What could be the cause? In childhood, you were valued for what you did, not for who you were; you had to meet certain expectations and please your parents to be appreciated and loved; you learned that others' needs are more important than yours.
When someone rejects you – What could be the cause? In childhood, you felt unaccepted or you felt alone, you felt rejected by your parents or by your grandparents, siblings, teachers; you felt neglected or you felt them hostile and unable to connect to your needs.
When you face injustice – What could be the cause? You had to repeatedly fight to get justice; you were treated unfairly in childhood.
When you feel your freedom is threatened – What could be the cause? In childhood/adolescence, your parents were very strict, you had to obey many rules, you had many restrictions; you had to fight them to get more freedom.
When someone threatens to leave you or actually does so – What could be the cause? In childhood, you felt abandoned, you lost a parent or a significant person.
When you feel your safety is threatened - What could be the cause? A traumatic event in your childhood that gave you the feeling that you can never be safe.
When someone betrays you – What could be the cause? If in childhood, you relied on your parents to defend you and support you when needed, but this did not happen, as an adult, you can become extremely sensitive to the slightest sign that someone might betray you or not be on your side.
When someone blames you or makes you feel ashamed - What could be the cause? In childhood, you were frequently blamed, or you felt guilty for what was happening in your family, you were told that what you were doing was "shameful." If you were abused, you might end up believing that there is something wrong with you, as if you were "damaged" or not good enough.
When you are judged or criticized - What could be the cause? In childhood, you were frequently criticized, your shortcomings and mistakes were highlighted, and you felt that no matter what you did, you couldn't meet your parents' expectations and demands.
Once you identify what your emotional triggers are, you can start exploring what lies behind them – childhood wounds or traumas or unmet needs. The idea is to try to discover which past experiences underlie these triggers. Take your time, be patient, and compassionate with yourself in this process of awareness and healing.
Of course, you can discover other triggers besides those listed above, such as a lack of control or when someone tries to control you, being excluded or ignored, a disapproving look, a child's crying (you unconsciously associate that crying with the suffering of your own inner child), when someone is too pushy or has too many needs, helplessness, and so on. The important thing is to observe what in your life triggers these intense emotions, these overwhelming feelings.
Next, observe what strategies you usually use to avoid, to run away from these triggers – some people take refuge in alcohol, work, food, or compulsive shopping when they feel they can't handle what's happening to them. Others get angry, blame others, complain or emotionally shut down in front of others. But the inner pain doesn't disappear if we try to avoid or run away from our problems.
The next step is to start taking ownership of your emotions and consciously change your responses/reactions – accept what you feel when facing a trigger, but talk to yourself in your inner dialogue to reframe the situation. For example, "I notice that I got angry/upset because my daughter didn't answer the phone, but this is not actually the real issue; it's how I relate to this. I notice that the trigger is "being unavailable". Notice how you feel as soon as you stop taking things personally , as soon as you look at the situation from a different perspective.
Make a distinction between the past and the present – for example, if you go to the park to read a book, and someone asks you, "What book are you reading?" you can interpret this as something ill-intentioned because other kids used to tease you about it at school. Your initial reaction might be anger or fear, and it's precisely in those moments that it's important to talk to yourself and realize that your emotions stem from the past, not the present, and consciously choose a different response.
Additionally, therapy can be helpful in this case because we are talking about a healing process of certain past wounds. A process that involves working with your emotions, with your mind, a process through which you gradually change and learn to manage your thoughts, feelings, and reactions.
Learning to recognize and manage your emotional triggers is a process that can take time, but it certainly helps you handle different situations without additional stress and contributes overall to your wellbeing.
Dr. Ursula Sandner