How to Identify emotional triggers

We all have triggers that send us over the edge and make us react in the most unexpected ways. To be able to manage the outcomes, first step is to learn to identify those triggers.

Even the person who is normally considered the most rational and level-headed, sometimes behaves in the most unexpected way. Oftentimes, the reaction is caused by a deep-rooted trigger activated by a person, conversation, situation or an environment.

These adverse reactions can become a serious hindrance to achieving our financial and life goals on the way to our financial independence.

The first step in gaining control over our emotions, is learning to identify the emotional triggers.

What are emotional triggers?

People, opinions, words, situations or environment that provoke an intense and exaggerated emotional response within us.

When triggered, we experience common emotions, which include anger, sadness, rage and fear.

Virtually anything can become a trigger, so it is important to be able to identify them and control the reactions caused by them.

Why do we get triggered?

There are 3 main reasons why we get triggered by certain words, people and situations:

  1. Opposing beliefs and values. When we strongly believe in something, we find it hard to agree or accept alternate or opposing views. Beliefs in general give us a sense of safety, security. When our beliefs are challenged, we begin to feel like our life is put in danger. This is why often alternative beliefs become a trigger and evoke a strong emotional response from us.

  2. Trauma. Term "triggered" traces back to the experience of stress, anger and fear of those suffering from PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder). When our sensory system is reminded of a previous traumatic experience through taste, touch, smell or sound, we are triggered and are bound to act in unexpected and exaggerated ways.

  3. Ego preservation. Ego is the sense of "I" that we carry around with us. It is a combination of thoughts, memories, values, beliefs and assumptions which we built around us to live in the society. Threat to existence of our ego as a whole or any part of it is a huge trigger to most.

Signs of being triggered.

How can you actually tell that you are being triggered? Below is a list of physical and emotional reactions you may experience when triggered:

  • Trembling

  • Palpitations/Racing heart

  • Choking feeling or trouble breathing/swallowing

  • Hot flashes

  • Chills

  • Dizziness or faintness

  • Nausea

  • Chest pain/discomfort

  • Feeling of detachment (disassociation/unreality)

  • Sweating

All these are generally followed by intense emotional reactions, like hatred, disgust, anger, fear, terror, grief. They result in self-protecting behaviour, like shouting, arguing, insulting, hiding, crying.

How to identify your emotional triggers?

Being unaware of our emotional triggers, let alone being able to handle them can cause some major issues in our lives. Our relationships can become strained or ruined, we may pass by the greatest opportunities and make the wrong decisions in the most important stages of our life. To avoid bing a puppet controlled by emotional triggers, follow these simple ways to identifying your "hot buttons":

  1. Pay attention to your bodily reactions. Increased heart rate, clenched muscles, hot or cold flashes are reactions that generally indicate recoiling (flight mode), where you are trying to get away from the current situation. Remember or write down those reactions in a journal.

  2. Pay attention to thoughts. Look for thoughts about people or situations which are extreme or polarized (great/terrible, nice/evil, right/wrong, etc). Become aware of the thought process around the person or situation, notice the story being painted by your brain.

  3. What/who triggered the emotion. Once you have become aware of your physical reactions, take note of who or what had caused it. Sometimes you will notice that it is caused by the same person, word, smell, feel or object. Other times, you will discover that the trigger is a specific situation, viewpoint or belief. Make sure you write them down, as this will solidify your recall of them in the future.

  4. What happened before you were triggered. Sometimes, triggers have certain prerequisites. It could be feeling tired, stressed, going to a place you don't particularly like (grocery store for example). Anything can set the stage for an emotional trigger to be pulled, so in the future try to recognize the prerequisites and be extra cautious in those times.

  5. What needs of yours were not met. Being emotionally triggered goes back to lacking in certain desires and emotional needs. Take some time to think which one of the needs is threatened or unfulfilled:

  • Acceptance

  • Autonomy

  • Attention

  • Love

  • Safety

  • Fun

  • Consistency

  • Respect

  • Peacefulness

  • Predictability

  • Being liked

  • Being needed

  • Being right

  • Being valued

  • Being treated fairly

  • Being in control

Being aware of bodily reactions, certain situations and people, thoughts and unmet needs and desires will help you be aware of your emotional triggers and allow you to not act out when you encounter them in the future.

What to do once you have been triggered?

We have discovered how to prevent from being triggered by recognizing the triggers early on, but what to do if you've already had the 'knee-jerk' reaction? How do you come out of the situation without ruining your relationships and your future?

  1. Remove your attention from the person or situation and concentrate on your breathing. Focus on your in and out breath as a distraction from the triggering situation.

  2. Remove yourself from the situation. Step away for a few minutes, take a break to cool down. If you are speaking with a person, ask to be excused and leave to regroup. Return once you feel calm and in control of your emotions.

  3. Find the humour in the situation. Rather than laughing at your reactions, yourself or the person you are interacting with, try to look at the situation from a birds-eye view and find comedy or absurdness in it.

  4. Ask questions. Be inquisitive as to why you are being triggered. Becoming aware of your current emotions will help you control them and not fall victim of the 'knee-jerk' reaction.

  5. Don't bypass your feelings, but don't act on them either. It will do no one any good if you act out on your emotions by lashing out on your counterpart. However, repressing your emotions will only hurt you as well. So we recommend delaying the immediate reaction and acting out on it later, perhaps by exercising vigorously.

These tips should help you master your emotional triggers, become aware of them and gain complete control of your life and your reactions.

To improve your interactions, even with people who trigger you, check out our Mastering the Art of Difficult Conversations Checklist.