Identifying your emotional triggers
Have you ever noticed how a certain person’s comment or behaviour, a smell or a sound, can evoke a strong negative emotion and reaction in you?
Do you overreact, feel upset or withdraw? Are you perhaps angry, envious, feeling guilty or sad? Do you react with irritation? For some it might be a topic about money. For others it might be about work, family-related, or relationships. And often you are not even aware of what makes you feel this way?
Emotions are important for our survival
Fear makes us flee, anger makes us fight, shame makes us obey social rules and ensures that we remain a member of a group. But this advantage can turn into a disadvantage when emotions run away with us. In the long run, persistent negative emotions can make us sick. If someone tends to anger or fear from their basic nature, then this is likely to remain an issue in some form. However, long-term studies show that even at a later stage in life emotional behaviour can be changed positively. The keyword is neural plasticity. Fortunately, our emotional circuits can still be developed in adulthood. New nerve cells can grow, connections between them can be established and existing ones can be strengthened. Such positive-acting structures can be trained, like a muscle, with specific exercises.
What happens during an emotional trigger?
An emotional trigger is anything that makes us feel uncomfortable, frustrated or dissatisfied and draws our attention to old painful topics. It leaves us off-center with feelings that were previously stored in a traumatic situation. The brain stores a traumatic event differently than a non-traumatic one. The brain usually has no access to the feelings from the traumatic event, but a trigger manages to get through this lock and it can lead to negative emotional states and unwanted reactions. A negative emotional trigger might be a picture, music, sound, smell, anything that can touch the core of a painful experience. Under certain circumstances, this can be triggered by a person who, while not the cause of the trauma, might act as a proxy for the true cause of the underlying painful experience. The subsequent reactions can be different. Some break out rather impulsively, like a volcano. Or are intimidated and withdraw emotionally. Get loud and roar like a lion. Others fall into a childish pattern, etc. The range of emotions is wide, a consequence of our individual experiences and childhood imprints.
We all have emotional triggers and it is worth dealing with our recurring unpleasant emotional states and the negative emotions associated with them. Understanding the triggers that truly irritate us, spark behaviours we do not like in ourselves, or even harmful reactions, is critical to gaining control over our lives. Becoming aware of it, can start the process of a healing journey. Future conflicts could be prevented, and we learn how to cope better in response.
How can I learn to manage painful feelings that are triggered?
With specific exercises, emotions can be changed through our feelings. If we accept our feelings and live through them, then they cannot degenerate into negative emotions, they trigger us and drive their mischief in form of harmful behaviour patterns and reactions. Self-observation, a pinch of humour, kindness towards ourselves, mindfulness and regular mental hygiene as well as physical activity are important keys to a healthy and fulfilled life.
You might want to enlist the help of a therapist you trust, a coach, a friend or explore self-help options. Be patient with yourself as you search for the precise trigger. It is a skill that takes practice and time. Tracing painful feelings back in time will eventually help spotting the triggering event, clearing up the situation at its origin and finding peace.