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How to Identify and Manage Emotional Triggers

How to Identify and Manage Emotional Triggers | Hopeful Panda

When I wrote about how my childhood abuse shaped me, I mentioned that emotional triggers were one of the hardest things for me to manage because it’s so instinctual.

In that post, I shared a brief story of how, one time, my husband jokingly yelled at an inanimate object. I think a ball was about to roll off the table or something.

I don’t remember exactly what he said. All I remember was how I initially thought it was directed at me.

Before I could process what happened, my eyes were already getting teary and I was already in fight-or-flight mode.

I previously wrote a post about common emotional triggers stemming from abusive parents.

This post will cover more about emotional triggers and the what, why, and how: what it is and what the signs are, why we have them, and how to manage them.

What Why and How of Emotional Triggers | Hopeful Panda
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What are Emotional Triggers?

Triggers are anything that can prompt an emotional, physical, or cognitive response or reaction.

Emotional triggers specifically refer to stimuli or situations that elicit strong emotional responses or reactions.

They can vary from person to person since we all have different experiences, beliefs, histories, and associations shaping our emotional responses.

Emotional triggers can be internal or external.

Internal triggers arise from within us such as our memories, thoughts, or bodily sensations like being triggered by a particular sound or smell associated with our trauma.

External triggers come from the environment such as words, images, people, or situations.

Emotional triggers can also be positive or negative.

But in terms of healing from childhood trauma, we’ll be focusing on the negative triggers – ones that elicit unpleasant, uncomfortable, or negative emotions or responses.

What Are the Signs of Being Emotionally Triggered?

When you’re emotionally triggered, you may display intense emotional reactions that seem disproportionate to whatever situation you’re currently in.

You may experience a sudden and overwhelming surge of emotions and sensations that feel similar to the original trauma even if you’re in a different situation or environment.

To go back to my initial example, my being close to tears because my husband was jokingly yelling at an object is very much an overreaction when taken at face value.

A reaction to an emotional trigger is known as a trigger response. And everyone’s trigger responses can vary, even your own.

The specific trigger response you display depends on your individual characteristics, past experiences, and what the trigger itself is.

For instance, you may be more on-edge some days than others, thus more easily triggered. Or some emotional triggers may be more overwhelming or triggering to you.

Below are some common responses and signs to emotional triggers. Some people may exhibit one or more of these signs when triggered, while some may have completely different reactions.

These signs are part of your body’s automatic reaction to emotional triggers, which your body interprets as distressing, dangerous, or threatening.

Learning about these signs can help you begin to notice when you’re experiencing a trigger response and thus, better able to identify what your emotional triggers may be.

Heightened levels of anger, fear, sadness, or anxiety

When you’re emotionally triggered, your emotions may intensify rapidly. It may lead to heightened levels of anger, fear, sadness, or anxiety.

To recognize whether your response is caused by an emotional trigger rather than the situation you’re in, ask yourself whether your reaction to whatever happened was reasonable or justified. If not, it probably stemmed from something deeper.

Physical signs

Emotional triggers can also manifest in physical ways, many of which typically resemble anxiety symptoms.

For instance, you may experience an increased heart rate, sweating, trembling, or a sensation of tightness in your chest. You may also experience headaches, stomachaches, or other physical discomfort.

Fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response

Emotional triggers can activate the body’s stress response. This can lead to a fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response.

When in a fight response, you may become defensive, argumentative, or confrontational. You may feel a strong urge to defend yourself or take action against whatever triggered you.

For example, when you’re criticized or insulted, you may respond with verbal or even physical aggression.

In a flight response, you may feel the urge to escape or run away from the trigger. For instance, you may disconnect from your environment, shut down emotionally, or literally leave or run away from the situation.

In a freeze response, you may become temporarily immobilized and unable to respond.

You may feel suddenly detached or emotionally numb, unable to express your emotions, process what’s happening, make decisions, speak up, or take any action.

And finally, in a fawn response, you feel the urge to appease or comply with whatever triggered you.

For example, if someone criticized you, you may seek to please them by going to great lengths to meet their needs or demands.

You might also continually “fawn” to avoid possible emotional triggers like maintaining an unhealthy relationship so you don’t have to deal with confrontation or being alone.

Hypervigilance

When triggered, you may become hyperalert and hypersensitive to your surroundings.

You may scan the environment for potential threats, display an increased startle response, or have difficulty focusing on anything other than the trigger itself.

Cognitive distortions

Emotional triggers can create cognitive distortions, an exaggerated or irrational thinking pattern.

When triggered, you may experience intrusive thoughts, negative self-talk, or cognitive biases that reinforce your emotional response. You may also have trouble thinking logically or rationally at the moment.

Impulsivity

When triggered, you may react impulsively without considering the consequences of your actions.

For instance, you may say or do things that you later regret, lash out at others, or engage in self-destructive behaviors as a way to cope with those triggered emotions.

Withdrawal or avoidance

Some people may withdraw, emotionally shut down, or engage in avoidant behaviors when triggered.

For instance, you may isolate yourself, become emotionally distant, or avoid situations, people, or topics that are emotionally triggering.

Dissociation

Emotional triggers can sometimes lead to dissociative experiences.

When triggered, you may feel disconnected from your emotions, body, or surroundings. You may experience a sense of detachment, time distortion, or a feeling of being outside of yourself.

Emotional Flashbacks

Emotional triggers can activate traumatic memories. They can lead to intrusive memories of past trauma or emotional flashbacks, a re-experiencing of the emotional and physiological states that were present during the original trauma.

When triggered, you may vividly recall the traumatic experiences, including the associated emotions and sensations.

Why We Have Emotional Triggers

Emotional triggers are a natural response that arises from the complex interplay between our brain, emotions, and past experiences.

Survival Mechanism

Emotional triggers have evolutionary roots in our survival instincts. Our brain has evolved to recognize and respond to potential threats in our environment.

Emotional triggers help us quickly identify and respond to situations that may pose a danger or harm.

For example, when you experienced past abuse, your brain may be wired to be hyperalert to similar situations. This allows you to take appropriate action to protect yourself.

Associative Learning

Emotional triggers are often formed through associative learning. In other words, our brain links certain stimuli with specific emotional responses based on our past experiences.

When we encounter a trigger, it activates neural pathways associated with the original emotional experience.

This learned association helps our brain make rapid connections and categorize incoming information. It allows us to respond quickly and efficiently to perceived threats or important situations.

Memory Consolidation

Emotional triggers are closely tied to the way our memories are formed and stored. Emotionally charged events have a strong impact on our memory consolidation process.

When we experience an event accompanied by intense emotions, the brain forms connections between the emotional experience and the associated sensory information.

These connections can create long-lasting memories and increase the likelihood of emotional triggers when you encounter similar stimuli in the future.

Conditioning and Trauma Response

Emotional triggers can also be influenced by conditioning and traumatic experiences.

Through classical conditioning, our brain can associate previously neutral stimuli with intense emotional responses.

For example, a certain smell or sound that was present during a traumatic event becomes linked to the emotional distress experienced at that time.

As a result, encountering that specific smell or sound can trigger a conditioned emotional response.

How to Manage Emotional Triggers

It’s important to note that while emotional triggers can be adaptive in certain situations, they can also be challenging to manage, especially when they’re linked to trauma.

Understanding our emotional triggers and learning how to manage them and move forward can help us navigate and heal from their impact.

Dealing with emotional triggers can be challenging, especially when it feels like it just takes over by surprise most times.

Below are some methods I use to manage my emotional triggers. I hope they can be helpful for you, too.

Recognize and identify your triggers

As for most processes of healing or coping with the effect of the abuse you experienced, being able to recognize and identify the source of the issue, problem, or discomfort is the first step.

Try to be aware of your emotional triggers. Pay attention to the situations, events, or stimuli that consistently elicit strong emotional responses in you.

By understanding your triggers, you can better prepare yourself and develop coping strategies.

For instance, whenever you feel a specific emotion or you reach an emotional state that you have trouble understanding or processing, try to trace the steps back to what happened that might’ve caused it.

Practice self-awareness

Cultivate self-awareness by monitoring your emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations when triggered. Take note of patterns and how you typically react.

If it helps, keep a journal listing all possible emotional triggers.

You can also check out The Hopeful Planner. There is a designated section that lets you keep track of what happened and how it made you feel. That way, you can see what seems to trigger certain emotions or thoughts.

Seek professional help

A professional can provide you with the tools and strategies you need to navigate your emotional triggers and work towards healing.

They can provide guidance, support, and specific therapeutic techniques to help you process and heal from your past experiences and develop effective strategies for managing triggers.

You can connect with a certified therapist here.

Practice self-care

Engage in self-care activities that promote emotional well-being such as exercise, mindfulness, relaxation techniques, or creative outlets.

A way to practice self-care is knowing how and when to reach out for help.

For example, if I’m really struggling, I’d go to my husband for comfort. Just a hug, him rubbing my hand, or giving me a tight squeeze can be comforting and help calm me down.

Utilize relaxation techniques

Practice relaxation and stress reduction techniques like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, or guided imagery.

These techniques can help calm your mind and body during and after experiencing triggers.

Create a safe space

Establish a safe space or calming environment you can retreat to when emotionally triggered. This could be a physical space or a mental space you create in your mind.

Fill it with objects, images, or activities that bring you comfort and a sense of security.

Make this into a project! Have a box, notebook, or whatever and fill it with things that bring you comfort. You can fill it with nice comments from people in your life, photos of happy memories, a coloring book with coloring utensils, and/or a meditation guide.

For example, whenever I feel triggered or hurt by an insult, criticism, or even just lacking motivation to work, I’ll look into my folder for all the positive emails, comments, and messages I’ve received. It reminds me that the positives I get from Hopeful Panda far outweigh the negatives.

Voice your needs

At times, you may be emotionally triggered by someone else’s words or actions.

For the most part, no one intentionally wants to be triggering.

Depending on who the person is and how close to them you are, maybe it’s something to bring up with them. And when you do, try not to be aggressive or blaming.

Focus on how you feel about it and why it makes you feel that way. Remember that the person likely didn’t know how it’d make you feel. Give them the benefit of the doubt when approaching them to voice your need.

Whenever my husband has done or said something - unintentionally or not - that emotionally triggers me, it's vital that I voice to him how it made me feel.

Learning to voice my needs helped immensely in addressing the trigger at that moment and in reducing future triggers.

For example, if it felt like he ignored me when he brushed off a comment I said, I bring it up once I've calmed down. I tell him how it made me feel sad, unloved, or like he didn't care about what I had to say or feel. 

He would normally apologize and said he didn't intend to have it come across that way. He was either distracted, preoccupied, or didn't hear me. Then, he'd reiterate that he does care about me. And there, crisis averted. 

If I didn't voice that concern to him, I would just bottle it up and assume he didn't care about me or my feelings. And that will continue happening whenever a misunderstanding like this occurs. 

As a result, I slowly build up resentment towards him or reinforce to myself that I'm unworthy and unlovable and he doesn't care about me. But being able to communicate with him properly, I'm able to nip that situation in the bud.

Practice self-compassion

When you’re triggered by something, you may feel the need to beat yourself up and call yourself sensitive, crazy, or dramatic. But you are not those things!

This is just a form of self-gaslighting.

Sure, maybe your reaction to a trigger seems like an overreaction. But given your traumatic history, it makes sense. It isn’t a small thing. It’s a trauma response.

Rather than beat yourself up, try to be compassionate with yourself. No matter how minor the trigger seems, your reactions to it are very real. It’s a result of years of abuse.

Remember, healing takes time. And managing emotional triggers can be a gradual process.

Self-compassion is essential for your healing journey. So please be patient and kind to yourself. Celebrate small wins and acknowledge the progress you make along the way.

And if you’re having trouble managing, that’s okay, too!

Emotional triggers are tough to manage because they’re usually instinctual. But it is still up to you to find ways to healthily manage them so it doesn’t manifest itself in negative, destructive ways.

We’re all still (and likely forever will be) a work in progress. But hey, at least we’re moving forward.

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Hi there, I’m Estee. Having grown up with an abusive mother, I know how isolating, frustrating, and hopeless everything could feel – back then as a child and even now as an adult.

I am always trying to better understand and manage the effects of the abuse I experienced. And this journey I’m on inspired me to create Hopeful Panda. Learn more here.

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