We all have emotional triggers that activate certain feelings and cause us to act impulsively. Sometimes we can get angry or upset without a valid reason. Other times we can feel stressed or frustrated for inconsequential things or feel sad without knowing the underlying reason.
In fact, you have probably noticed that certain topics of conversation always provoke the same unpleasant emotions. Maybe you get angry when it comes to financial matters or you feel guilty when it comes to family matters. These issues are not mere “sensitive” issues, but emotional triggers that hide a deeper problem at their base.
What are triggers in the psychological realm?
Triggers are events that set certain psychological processes in motion. They are not a cause in and of themselves, but the last “push” for an underlying psychological problem to come to light. Emotional triggers are like “red buttons” that, when pressed, activate certain emotions and feelings.
Any stimulus can act as a trigger. It can be a matter that causes us discomfort, but it can also be a person with whom we have a latent conflict, a memory or even a peculiar smell. In fact, smells are particularly intense emotional triggers because they act directly on our limbic system, fooling the rational mind.
What reactions do provoke emotional triggers?
Emotional triggers are not usually intrinsically threatening or disturbing stimuli. The problem is that they activate emotional content that yes, it is. For example, a melody can trigger a traumatic or unpleasant memory. The song itself is not dangerous, but the memory it activates is. The power of emotional triggers is that they activate past trauma or experiences that generate a particularly intense response of rejection, anxiety, or anger.
When we expose ourselves to a triggering situation, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis sets in motion a complex process of self-protection that prepares us for three possible actions: fight, flee or get paralyzed. Then is activated the production of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which flood our bloodstream. When stress hormones are released, anxiety skyrockets and we often suffer an emotional hijacking that takes away from us our usual coping skills. That makes us stop thinking rationally and get carried away by the first impulses.
Most emotional triggers are subtle and difficult to detect. In fact, you probably don’t even realize that certain emotional reactions have been triggered. For example, we may react angrily when asked a seemingly innocuous question because it addresses a sensitive topic that we want to ignore or that makes us feel particularly uncomfortable.
The question is the emotional trigger, but it is not the cause or the problem. The origin of these emotional reactions is much deeper and often requires an arduous process of introspection to understand why certain topics generate such an intense affective response. We are likely to discover that these are aspects of our life that we feel dissatisfied with, shadows of our own that we do not want to accept or traumas that we have not fully overcome.
In fact, a study conducted at the University of Illinois found that people who respond to a greater number of emotional triggers are more likely to develop compulsions and obsessions, which is not surprising since these psychological contents are constantly exerting pressure on them in our mind.
The importance of emotional triggers in certain physical diseases, such as myocardial infarction, is also being debated, since it has been appreciated that immediately before the infarction many people report experiencing particularly intense feelings of anger, anxiety, sadness, pain or acute stress. That means that learning to recognize and manage emotional triggers is essential for our psychological balance and health.
Avoid or cope, that’s the question
Knowing our emotional triggers gives us power over them. If we are aware of what irritates, angers or destabilizes us, we can decide how to act to protect our mental balance.
At this point we have two options: avoiding the situations that activate these psychological triggers to prevent the emotions that they generate or making a deeper psychological work to get them to stop activating those emotional reactions.
Avoiding emotional triggers is the simplest solution, but it is not always possible or the most effective. There are issues or situations that cannot be avoided permanently. In addition, avoidance often leads us to live in a comfort zone that is too narrow, from which we fear to leave because we do not want to face the stimuli that bother us.
Running away from reality trying to live in a bubble is usually unrealistic. We can find emotional triggers where we least expect them and they will end up hurting us if we don’t learn to deal with them. Therefore, in the long term the most convenient thing is to work with the psychological contents that generate this disproportionate reaction.
Consider that what you resist persists. The more we push down a psychological content to try to hide it, the more force it will have when it gets back to consciousness. Long-term avoidance increases the chances that we will get stuck in a hypervigilance loop in which we are always looking for what can go wrong, which increases the chances of developing PTSD.
How to deactivate emotional triggers in 3 steps?
While working on problematic psychological content, it is helpful to learn how to defuse the reactions that emotional triggers elicit.
1. Know the “point of no return”
We all have a point of no return, from which emotions take over and prevent us from acting rationally. We must learn to detect the first signs of stress, anger, frustration or anxiety to prevent them from growing and leading us to that point. These signs are seen on the body, but they vary from person to person. Some may experience great muscle tension, others a feeling of tightness in the chest or rapid breathing. You just have to find the physical signs that indicate that the emotional trigger has hit the mark and is triggering an intense affective reaction.
2. Calm the body
When we understand our emotional response, we can root it out by taking the opposite action. If stress or anger is growing, we can apply techniques to relax in a minute or perform breathing exercises, for example. Calming the body is an essential step to focus on the here and now, because these emotions generate a frenzied and disorganized mindset that prevents us from implementing adaptive coping strategies. We must remember that we interpret reality according to our state of mind, so that when we are anxious or angry, our perception of the threat will be greater and we will not be able to solve the problem objectively. We literally don’t think clearly. Therefore, calming the body will help us calm the mind.
3. Label emotions without judging them
Once we have calmed down and our mind is relaxed, we can analyze what has happened. We must ask ourselves: What situation, thought or image brought us to the point of losing control? What did we feel before, during and after the event? It is important to be able to label those emotions without judging them. We must bear in mind that they are not good or bad but only the carriers of a deeper message. They help us discover what the trigger factor is at its base and guide us to the real problem that we must solve.
Learning to calm down and explore our emotional triggers, being able to analyze and process them in a detached way, will give us enormous confidence. That way, the next time we are exposed to those triggers, we won’t feel as threatened and the emotions won’t be so overwhelming. This way we can decide how to act, instead of just reacting impulsively.
Lubis, N. et. al. (2018) Emotional Triggers and Responses in Spontaneous Affective Interaction: Recognition, Prediction, and Analysis. Transactions of the Japanese Society for Artificial Intelligence; 33(1): DSH-D_1-10.
Edmondson, D. et. Al. (2013) Emotional triggers in myocardial infarction: do they matter? Eur Heart J; 34(4):300-6.
Abramowitz, A. & Berenbaum, H. (2007) Emotional triggers and their relation to impulsive and compulsive psychopathology. Personality and Individual Differences; 43(6): 1356-1365.