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Discovering And Exploring Emotional Triggers


Apr. 16, 2020

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We all know the feeling.

A friend or family member says something offhand, maybe a bad joke or a random comment about an article of clothing. They probably said it without thinking about it, but something about it just stirs things up within us. We might see ourselves reacting negatively even though we know intellectually that our reaction is out of context or proportion.

This is an example of an emotional trigger.

If you don’t have the tools to manage these reactions you may find yourself spiraling into depression, anxiety or panic. One bad joke could ruin your whole day.

Identifying and learning to work with these triggers is a very important part of recovering from PTSD, or other trauma-related disorders. However, the truth is that everyone has emotional triggers and we can all benefit from learning to be less reactive.

Why Do We Get Triggered?

A trigger is an event or sense impression that sets off an emotionally upsetting memory of an event in someone’s past, usually some kind of trauma. This can result in a memory replay or flashback, but just as often the response is subconscious and a triggered person may find themselves reacting to a situation without really knowing why. The brain has created a link between the perception of a present situation or experience and that response, which might lead to automatic negative or even self-destructive behavior and habits. 

Techniques For Identifying Emotional Triggers

It stands to reason that unraveling these sensations and corresponding emotional states in our bodies will help us to identify and understand the situations that trigger them, possibly even allowing us to reprogram these responses. We can do this through a number of introspective techniques.

1. Keep A Journal

Psychiatrist Judith Orloff, the bestselling author of The Empaths Survival Guide, recommends journaling as a way to explore emotional triggers.

Make a list of the situations that commonly trigger negative reactions. Try to be as vivid as possible. Keep a regular account of real-world situations on a day to day basis that have stirred up your emotions. According to Orloff, writing these down will help “to clarify the aspects of yourself need to heal.”

The next step is to write about possible situations in your past that may explain where these triggers come from. These could include significant traumas but could also include simple acts of unkindness or neglect from parents, friends or authority figures.

2. Visualization Meditation

Once you have an idea of the situations that trigger you and the possible sources of those triggers, a simple meditation technique that employs visualization can help you become clear on the emotions that arise as a result of these triggers and the sensations in your body that these emotions correspond to.

Lie down on your back in a quiet place, try to get as comfortable as possible. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and allow the body to settle. In your mind try to recall some of the sensations that have triggered your emotions in recent days and explore the sensations that arise in the physical body as you do this. Try to become clear on how the emotions that arise actually feel.

It may also be beneficial to explore some of the situations in your past that you explored in your journal. Try to recall these situations in as much detail as possible and explore the emotions that arise. This technique may not be appropriate for people with serious PTSD. If you are in doubt, consult a mental health professional.

3. Mindfulness Meditation

A 2016 neurological study published in the Journal of Biological Psychology found that the practice of mindfulness meditation helps to lessen emotional reactivity.

The study required participants hooked up to an EEG to view a series of emotional stimulating images while at the same time attending non-judgmentally to their thoughts, feelings and physical sensations. They found a significant decrease in a neurological marker of emotional response called the “Late Positive Potential” while in this “mindful” state.

The American Mindfulness Research Association published a review of this study where they expressed the following:

“One advantage of being mindful is that it allows one to respond to situations with equanimity rather than reacting emotionally in a “knee-jerk” fashion. How does mindfulness help us to do this? According to one theory, mindfulness helps to extinguish our negative emotional reactions. It does this by increasing our exposure to the stimuli that provoke these reactions while helping us to maintain an open, nonjudgmental stance.”

Many different techniques are taught in both traditional and modern mindfulness training. However, one of the most effective for tracking down and exploring the effects of emotions in the physical body is the simple technique and practice of a body scan:

Sit comfortably in a quiet place with the eyes closed. Take a moment to slow the breathing down a bit and relax all the muscles of the body not necessary to maintain an upright posture. When you are ready simply begin to pass the awareness through the physical body from head to foot, noticing whatever sensations arise. Try not to label or judge these sensations. Simply observe them. If you become distracted by a thought or emotion, that’s OK. Simply observe the thought or emotion and allow it to pass before returning to the body scan.

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