What are emotional triggers?

What does “being triggered” even mean?

It’s a popular phrase used in recent times, so let’s break it down. A trigger is when an event or interaction brings about an intense emotional response. Basically, being triggered is used to refer to when you’ve reached an uncomfortable emotional state coupled with a nervous system stress response and are no longer able to access your prefrontal cortex (your rational and compassionate brain). You’re in your reptilian brain, and you need to regulate your system before you can proceed in any logical way. Often times this happens because of a trauma in our past that the current situation mirrors or mimics in some way. It can seem like our current response is out of proportion to what is happening in the moment, which is true – we’re not just reacting to the moment, we’re reacting to the pattern in our nervous sytem.

This is a term my husband and I use to express that we need to postpone or take a break from a conversation. We don’t use this phrase as a threat or a punishment, but rather a way to indicate to the other person we’re moving into the reptilian brain and need time to climb out before we can safely continue!

There’s a difference between experiencing a difficult emotion and being triggered.

When we experience an emotion without being triggered, we have the ability to feel that emotion, name it, experience it, and move on from it. We stay out of fight, flight, or freeze.

This happens, probably without you knowing it, many times during the day. One regular occurrence of this is when you watch a movie that moves you to an emotion, but don’t get stuck in it.

Being triggered means that you’ve stumbled upon a stressful or even traumatic emotional subject from your past and are actually now stuck in that repressed emotion. Past trauma and stress trigger the nervous system because they are messages from the past that were never resolved.

For example, a common trigger I worked through was when my husband gave me feedback on something he’d liked changed in the household. I was such a sensitive child and had perfectionistic parents who pushed me to achieve. One of the ways I learned to control uncomfortable stimuli was to reduce the amount of disappointment I received from my parents, and I did this through putting one hundred percent into everything I did.

When my husband would comment on something done half-heartedly (very reasonably, I might add), I would become triggered into a state of fight and start defending myself tooth and nail. He was always taken aback by my behavior, because it seemed like such a huge reaction to such a small thing, and he was right.

After I realized that an early childhood experience was creating this reaction, I used the tools I share in my book and worked through much of my fear around disappointment. I’m now ninety-five percent better at this. The only times I fall back into this trigger is when I’m really run down, overtired, or overstimulated already (then nobody better ask me to do anything better!).

You can learn to work through your triggers, too, and the first step is to question why you might react the way you do in certain situations.

I talk at length about this in my book, but you can start to think about situations you respond poorly to and dig into why you might be reacting that way. What are the coping patterns you learned as a child that helped you avoid adverse experiences? What were the ways in which you learned to react in order to handle difficult circumstances?

Answering these kind of questions can help you get to the root of your triggers. You can also use your body to help you notice where inside your body you hold the trigger or emotional memory. Together, you can your body can start to overcome your triggers, one at a time.

Think of this like gathering the clues together that will make your experience of emotions so much easier!

Want to learn more? You can get my best practices for managing emotional triggers in my book, Embracing High Sensitivity: Your HSP Guidebook to Eliminating Overwhelm, Handling Difficult Emotions, and Becoming the Boss of Your Life. Get it here.

2 Comments on “What are emotional triggers?”

  1. thank you Anna, this is exactly what happening. pretty trippy stuff. I feel I am waking up to it. when it happens, I feel harmed, instead of attacking, I do my best to say how I feel and take a really long break so I can look at myself. I see these triggers daily in others drama , I am all, huh, look at that. step back joy 🙂 I find myself just wanting to be alone so I dont get triggered. that doesn’t help me learn anything.

    1. And wanting to be along and not be triggered also sounds so very normal and natural! The practice of self-awareness isn’t always beautiful–we have to look at all the dark places in ourselves to unwind the patterns that keep us triggered, and it’s super uncomfortable. I’m still doing this, and imagine I will be for all of my years! It DOES get easier, especially with humor 🙂

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