How to Identify and Manage Painful Emotional Triggers

how to identify and manage painful emotional triggers

We all have painful emotional triggers that we aren’t conscious of. You might wake up feeling great in the morning and then BAM! Something happens or someone says or does something that triggers you and before you know it you are reacting in anger. Poisonous words cascade out of your mouth, words that you can never take back.

You see, emotional triggers play out in many different shapes and forms. The person or situation might be different, but the underlying trigger is the same. This can make it very difficult to identify the actual root of the trigger. We tend to project our blame onto other people or situations, instead of realising that something painful within us has been triggered.

What are emotional triggers?

An insightful article on identifying emotional triggers by Loner Wolf explains emotional triggers like this;

Emotional triggers are people, words, opinions, situations, or environmental situations that provoke an intense and excessive emotional reaction within us. Common emotions that we experience while being triggered include anger, rage, sadness, and fear. Virtually anything can trigger us, depending on our beliefs, values, and earlier life experiences such as a tone of voice, a type of person, a particular viewpoint, a single word – anything can be a trigger.

I am certainly no stranger at dealing with painful emotional triggers, I’ve had to learn the hard way many, many times. But as my awareness increases, I’m beginning to discover that the trigger is not the problem. It’s our reaction to the trigger that causes our pain and suffering.

It’s impossible to go through life as a human never being triggered. Unfortunately, as painful as it may be, our triggers are part of life. True, some of us are triggered more easily than others but each and every one of us has something that trigger us.

So, if we can’t avoid painful triggers how can we learn to identify and manage them?

There isn’t a simple answer, it takes work and patience. Your triggers won’t just disappear no matter how much you try to avoid them and like me, you may have to learn the hard way sometimes. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to become better at dealing with painful emotional triggers when they arise.

4 Steps for identifying and managing painful emotional triggers

The following are practical tips that you can implement when you are feeling triggered. This is an ongoing practice, like I said the triggers don’t just disappear but when you learn to respond with a more mindful approach, eventually the intensity of your reactions will lessen.

how-to-identify-and-manage-painful-emotional-triggers
1. Pause

When you notice that you are being triggered try to remove yourself from the situation and take a pause. But most importantly you must know what to do with the pause for it to be effective. 

I only discovered this recently, I was aware that I needed to pause but I wasn’t using the pause effectively. I would pause and spend that time mulling over things in my mind which was only increasing my anger and frustration.

To use the pause effectively you must redirect your mind because often the anger or frustration will be too strong to think rationally. Here are three steps for working with the pause:

  • Identify that you have been triggered and that you are suffering. Say to yourself, “I have been triggered. I am experiencing intense emotions, I am suffering and I choose not to react.”
  • Take responsibility. Even though a person or situation may have triggered you, the trigger is personal to you, it’s your trigger. Blaming another person or the circumstances will only cause more pain and drama. Let the other person know you have been triggered and that you need some space, that is all you need to say.
  • Ask yourself, “How can I care for myself right now, what do I need to feel safe?”  Then do what you need to do for yourself to feel calm.
2. Take Space for Yourself

When you feel triggered it can take time to bring yourself back to a calm space. Sometimes it might take a few minutes, other times it could take hours, days or even weeks. It depends on how deep the wound is for the trigger. 

Tell yourself that it’s okay to take some space and time out, you can’t rush this process. Don’t respond to the person or situation until you feel ready. It is important to communicate that you need space, but you don’t have to discuss it any further until you feel in a calm and healthy mindset.

Give yourself permission to take space.

3. Reflect

Start by naming the emotions that surface without judgement. You might experience fear, shame, resentment or a need for control. Explore what’s underneath the trigger and ask yourself, “What is coming up for me at this time?” Just sit with the emotions and see what arises.

You might also like to identify what bodily sensations accompany these emotions. Often emotional triggers will bring on heat or a burning sensation in your heart and solar plexus. You might experience increased heart rate or shaky hands. Just pay attention and acknowledge what presents itself in your body.

4. Be kind to Yourself

Remember this is a learning process. Your triggers come from deep painful wounds that take time to heal. There is no point beating yourself up for feeling triggered or if you responded in a way that you’re not proud of. Placing guilt, blame and regret on yourself will just intensify the wound. The only way to heal is by practising kindness and doing your best.

It’s ok to make mistakes, you are only human. What matters is each time you become more aware and learn from the past. 

Remember, working with painful emotional triggers takes patience and courage. This isn’t an easy process so go easy on yourself when you feel triggered. The more you practice awareness in these situations, gradually old patterns and triggers will lose their power over you.

How do you deal with painful emotional triggers? And what helps you to practice kindness and compassion when you are triggered? Share your comments below.


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