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Emotional triggers

Understand your emotional triggers – and how to deal with them

The world can be great and beautiful, but it can also be evil and scary. Some have to endure hardships or deal with traumatic experiences. Such past experiences can affect the way we respond to events in the present. Then emotional triggers can cause painful thoughts and behaviours to re-emerge. Because they are dependent on individual experiences, emotional triggers differ from person to person. Understanding our triggers can help us deal with them successfully in the long term.

Emotional triggers: definition

An emotional trigger is generally anything that causes a strong emotional response, such as anger, sadness, or fear. These emotions can have their roots in the past’s negative experiences and traumatic events, which events or situations in the present can then trigger. Then triggers function as cues that drown us with the unprocessed trauma and associated feelings stored in the traumatic situation.

What are such stimuli?

Emotional triggers are certain words, events, memories, images, sounds, smells, sensations that evoke strong emotional reactions. They can remind us of a traumatic event or experience and trigger an emotional response in the here and now.

These reactions are rarely helpful, such as being aggressive. Or they can start a vicious cycle of negative thoughts. It depends on us and our experiences.

Common emotional triggers

Triggers come in different shapes, sizes, and situations. They can be people or places, words or smells, or even colours. Common emotional triggers are:

• Rejection, e.g. after a breakup

• Improper treatment, e.g. at work

• Feeling oppressed, e.g. when our beliefs and values are challenged

• Confrontations,

• Feeling undesirable, ignored or excluded

• Loss of control (over a situation or in life in general)

However, these are only examples. Everyone has unique experiences that affect them in different ways.

Noticing how we feel when we have been “triggered” is the first step in identifying our emotional triggers and their origins.

Emotional triggers: how do I recognize them?

When we know what triggers us, we can take steps to protect our emotional balance. This protection can be an integral part of our self-care that we may have neglected.

Be patient with yourself, however. Triggers are not always easy to spot, and our overflowing emotions can cloud our view of specific triggers.

Try to remember when you first experienced triggered feelings. Was there a specific childhood event that triggered similar emotions? Or maybe it’s a recent incident, like a terrible argument with a friend or partner.

Your triggers will be easier to spot as we become more aware of ourselves. And once we’ve identified triggers, we can take steps to change our responses or at least control them.

Emotional triggers: physical signs

Soul and body are not separate, as our perception might lead us to believe. Emotional triggers become physically felt and resemble symptoms of panic, including:

• racing heart

• stomach pain

• dizziness

• tremors

• sweat

• muscle tension

When we experience physical symptoms, we usually try to take a step back and assess the situation. From where does it come? We can use these physical reactions as warning signs that something is wrong – be it with our health or mental balance.

Emotional triggers: how they affect our relationships

Our relationships can be real emotional roller coasters. And let’s be honest, almost everyone has had difficult phases in their partnership. Negative experiences from previous relationships can affect our behaviour in our current relationships. They can lead us to sabotage this relationship with our thoughts and actions.

For example, if we have been lied to or cheated on by an ex, we may be suspicious of our current relationship. We may get angry or emotional at the first sign of trouble because suspected or genuine infidelity reminds us of that past breach of trust.

But romantic relationships aren’t the only ones suffering from such baggage. Triggers can also be h affect our friendships and relationships with family members or colleagues.

In the end, it is our job to identify and keep track of our emotional triggers. Nobody else is responsible for our reactions.

But it’s also important to recognize when a toxic relationship is making our triggers worse. If our partner (or a group of partners) continually disregards our emotional needs, they will hurt us more and more.

Emotional triggers: coping mechanisms

Fortunately, there are ways to successfully deal with emotional triggers, both immediately when triggered and in the long term. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to defusing emotional triggers. It can take a little experimentation, and most importantly, practise to see what works. Here are a few ideas. Try them out and see what works best for you:

• Accept your feelings.

• Gain distance and perspective.

• Communicate your feelings.

• Try breathing techniques.

• Try mindfulness.

• Write your thoughts in a journal.

• Talk to a therapist.

Short term solutions


Our feelings are real and express unconscious needs. It’s okay to be angry, upset, or scared. We have to learn to accept our feelings without being overwhelmed by them. We may not control all of our emotions, but we are in control of what we do.

Gain distance

When we are triggered, we lose our objectivity. It is almost impossible to keep track of things when we are overwhelmed by emotions. Try to get away from the situation so that you can see more clearly. Highly emotional thinking does not bring clear solutions.


Intense emotions make communication difficult. But practical communication skills are critical to any good relationship. When you trigger a partner, friend, or colleague, take a moment to organize your thoughts. Communicate how you are feeling. We can misinterpret the intentions of others or situations. If we clearly state what is happening within us in a situation, no one can contradict us.

Breathing techniques

Emotional triggers can produce physical symptoms of anxiety. Breathing techniques help calm us down and keep things from getting worse.

Emotional triggers: how to deal with them in the long term

Once we’ve found the best way to neutralize our motivations, it’s time to develop long-term strategies.

Self-care takes work. It is essential to recognize our need for emotional balance and find ways to support our mental health. By addressing the root cause of our emotional triggers, we can reduce their consequences over time.


Mindfulness exercises are a great way to slow down and focus on the present moment.

Working on mindfulness helps us to become aware of feelings and emotions. We notice emotional triggers more easily.


Journaling is a great way to organize our thoughts. By recognizing the situations in which we were triggered and how we felt, we can uncover patterns.

• Try to write down the three primary emotional triggers that are throwing you off balance.

• Are there any similarities between them?

• Can you identify a common cause, or are they all different?

That gives us a deeper insight into where our triggers come from.

A Positive Affect Journaling PAJ encourages us to write 15 to 20 minutes a day about everything positive in our life, things for which we are grateful.

PAJ helps to reduce psychological stress and to increase our well-being, especially in the case of anxiety.

Talk to a therapist

Sometimes our past trauma can be so ingrained that it is impossible to get away from it without professional help. Here, psychotherapy comes into play. It helps us understand emotional triggers and develop individual coping strategies.

“A suffering shared is a suffering halved” is not for everyone. But talking can help, particularly when we speak to someone trained to understand our thoughts and feelings. If you have trouble controlling your emotions on a day-to-day basis, don’t be afraid to talk to a doctor. A mental illness may cause limited control.

In the end, remember: all of our experiences are individual. We need to find out what works best for us. Don’t be afraid to look for help when you need it. If we become more aware of our triggers and what to do when they occur, the resilience gained will contribute to stable mental health in the long term. Also, remember: we may not control our feelings right now, but we can control how we react to them. It just takes patience and practice.

Sources: Trigger-nometry: Understanding Your Emotional Triggers — and How to Cope.

Eisenhart Rothe v., Yannick: Getriggert? Ein Psychologe erklärt, warum Trigger nicht bloß ein Meme sind.

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