When Someone Presses Your Hot Buttons: How to Manage Emotional Triggers

waves-emotional-triggers

Ever had that moment when someone says something, and a wave of white-hot emotion floods your body?

You feel angry, upset or outraged. Sad, lost or afraid.

Whatever the emotion is, it’s strong. Perhaps overpowering. And the time between the event and your reaction is minimal.

The other day, I opened an email from a friend. I began to read – and I felt my stomach jump, and my jaw clench. How dare he say that? He was completely wrong. I dashed out a few angry lines of text.

With a few choice words, I was going to show him exactly how wrong he was.

I hovered over the send button, ready…

…and I slowly lifted my hands off the keyboard, and took a breath.

Whoah.

Luckily for my (good!) friendship with this person, I caught myself in time, realising my reaction was far disproportionate to his words. All he had done was put forward a point of view that I didn’t agree with. I just hadn’t realised exactly how much I disagreed until that email.

My reaction wasn’t about him, or his words, or his opinion.

It was about the associations that I had with that opinion, and the feelings it triggered in me.

When I explored it by journalling, I found it was because I felt defensive about the topic. Possessive. It felt like he was making a negative comment about something important to me – but more than important to me, I found I had identified so strongly with the opposite opinion to his, that it felt like he was criticising me personally.

But of course, his almost throwaway comment wasn’t about me. In fact, he wasn’t even that negative about the topic when I reviewed the email later.

I was the one who’d somehow loaded a lot more meaning onto it than he meant.

Emergency! Emergency!

Our brain is a sophisticated piece of equipment, and it has many short-cuts and ways of handling the huge amount of information it’s processing at any given moment.

One such short-cut is that it remembers situations which were associated with a strong emotion in the past, and creates a sort of emergency response to get us out of that situation more quickly in future. This response is then much faster than our more rational, or logical brain (which sometimes tries to keep up by making up explanations – you should have heard the rude thoughts I had about my friend before I realised what was going on).

What we call an emotional trigger is therefore a kind of conditioning – something happens and we associate that event with bad things – not just in the moment, but in the future too.

It’s a survival thing – just like when I ate a goat’s cheese sandwich in a hotel in Ireland and got food poisoning, and my body’s response to that food has been to avoid it ever since, even though there’s probably nothing wrong with most of the goat’s cheese I come across.

You Need to Take Accountability for Your Emotional Triggers

I like the concept of being ‘triggered,’ because it’s a reminder that we may overreact to certain things, no matter how calm and chilled we are most of the time. Sometimes people, sometimes topics. My friend in the story above doesn’t trigger me as a person, I enjoy his company, but that particular comment did.

But just because someone else ‘triggers you’ doesn’t mean that your emotional reaction is their fault.

We still need to take responsibility for recognising what triggers us, and then decide what to do with those thoughts.

How Being Triggered Can Help You Grow

It’s a useful exercise to track what triggers you. If you can recognise your triggers or potential triggers, you can make efforts to explore them and understand why this is the case, and eventually, move past that emotional response.

But if there are certain innocuous people, topics or things that make you fly into a rage, or give you that wash of emotion where you fly off the handle, then if you can understand the reason behind that, you can do something about it.

If you know the what and the why, you can first of all see if you can spot this kind of situation coming before it occurs, and defuse it before it happens – take the heat and emotion out of it and respond to it in a logical way rather than an emotional way.

Why You Should Face Your Triggers

Neil Gaiman, in his engaging and dark book of short fiction ‘Trigger Warning,’ makes the point that actually it’s only through facing some of the things that trigger us that we can grow and get past them.

The controversial idea of putting such trigger warnings on media or materials to warn those with mental health difficulties that what’s within could unsettle or upset them promotes this avoidance – but avoidance can cause feelings of helplessness which can lead to depression.

If we focus too much on the idea of trigger warnings, we start to encourage people to over-identify with their trauma, and we also don’t give them enough credit for resilience and healing (research suggest that less than one in ten of those who had experienced trauma such as natural disasters, accidents or the sudden death of a loved one, though this is higher among those who have experienced sexual abuse).

But everyone has hot buttons, or triggers, to some degree, and for most people, avoidance isn’t helpful. In these cases, day-to-day triggers shouldn’t be avoided, but noticed: We need to bring a conscious awareness to what triggers us, and work to process it, whether we do that with a therapist, a friend or by journaling.

My first week back to work after my father died, I was in a bar with work colleagues, when a particular song came on the radio. I disappeared to the bathroom, and burst into tears. The song had been one which my father had loved, and it had triggered a huge wave of grief in me.

Seven years later, I can listen to the song and enjoy it – and it triggers wonderful memories and a feeling of love. I didn’t avoid the trigger, but I did process the thoughts and feelings that it elicited.

Next Time You’re Triggered, Ask Yourself This

What triggers you? What causes that rush of intense emotional distress, that catches you before you even notice it? What jerks you off-course and means you behave out of character?

Sometimes it’s an obvious emotional wave that crashes over your head, submerging you in whatever terrible emotion has been triggered, whether it’s sadness, anger, upset and so on. At other times the trigger is more subtle, and more pernicious – and harder to find.

Your goal is to find the emotional trigger, and even if you don’t catch yourself in future before it happens, you’ll eventually be able to step out of whatever mood or emotion the event has incited much more quickly.

Spend a few days this week noticing:

  • How often are you triggered?
  • What were the strong negative emotions (there’s a list here) you felt in reaction to the trigger?
  • What was going on when you were triggered?
  • Do you know what or who it was that triggered you?
  • Is there just one person or thing in your life who triggers you?
  • Do you know why you had this response?

Most triggers stem from experiences we had as children, where we faced difficult situations that we couldn’t properly process at that stage of life. So the brain stored it away to ensure we avoid such situations in the future.

My final suggestion, then, is to show that inner child a little compassion. Nurture him, let her play, show her a little self-care.

Help her to let go of emotions that are no longer needed, so she can spend more time experiencing the emotions that light her up inside.

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15 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Elle November 2, 2015, 9:50 pm

    We all have them Ellen…those triggers that invoke a strong emotional, gut reaction.

    Today I’ve reached a point when even though triggers still exist for me, I can give myself time to wait and as you say be conscious of what’s happening. It makes all the difference between reaction and response and is much easier on the heart! :-)
    Elle recently posted…5 Killer Techniques to Boost Your Self-confidenceMy Profile

    • Ellen November 3, 2015, 7:10 am

      Thanks Elle, and you’re right, no-one is immune to these types of triggers. The more conscious we can be of them, the more we can try and respond in love rather than in fear.

  • Lea Bullen November 2, 2015, 10:59 pm

    Hi Ellen,

    I have a good idea of the type of person I want to be so when I find that something or someone may cause me to act outside of that I try to reel it in. I pretty much focus on what the main goal is and stay in line with it.

    When something during the day hits a deep emotional trigger I address it as you suggested. I used to just hold things in but it would ultimately just burst out when I least expected it.

    Talk soon,
    ~Lea
    Lea Bullen recently posted…What You Need to Do to Get Unstuck and be SuccessfulMy Profile

    • Ellen November 3, 2015, 7:11 am

      Thanks Lea, and that’s a great approach, to hold in our head the image of the person we want to be, or the goal that we want to achieve. You’re right, holding things in doesn’t work in the long-term – much better to try and process it or understand what’s going on more deeply.

  • Cathy Taughinbaugh November 3, 2015, 12:47 am

    Triggers do come up for me from time to time. Something just hits me and either brings up a memory or reminds me of something that stirred up emotion before.

    Your suggestions are good ones and I especially like your line about how, “to show that inner child a little compassion.” So needed in all of us. Thanks Ellen!
    Cathy Taughinbaugh recently posted…Interview with Rose Barbour, Addictions AdvocateMy Profile

    • Ellen November 3, 2015, 7:11 am

      Thanks Cathy, it’s good to hear that others struggle with this too. We’re all a beautiful work in progress after all :-)

  • Peggy November 3, 2015, 2:52 am

    Great, great article Ellen!

    Especially this: “everyone has hot buttons, or triggers, to some degree, and for most people, avoidance isn’t helpful. In these cases, day-to-day triggers shouldn’t be avoided, but noticed: We need to bring a conscious awareness to what triggers us, and work to process it, whether we do that with a therapist, a friend or by journaling.”

    Part of my work in healing my relationship with my younger daughter was to figure out the buttons she pushed that would send me over the edge and why. There was a lot of unlearning and new learning I needed to do in order to remove the buttons as weapons she could use (Her “mean” ager years were rough) Once I did that, voila…the healing began.
    Peggy recently posted…When Rest Calls Do You Listen? An Open Letter to High Octane OverachieversMy Profile

    • Ellen November 3, 2015, 7:13 am

      Thanks for sharing that story Peggy, I think it’s really helpful for us all to know that with work, we can move past this issue, even in very difficult and hurtful situations. It’s definitely a challenge that those we love the most, or are closest to us, are likely the people who trigger us most easily and quickly.

  • Sandra Pawula November 3, 2015, 6:03 am

    Absolutely, triggers come up for me! I completely with you on exploring them. My goal this month is expanding that space between stimulus and response. I do believe that trigger warnings are appropriate at times for people in the throes of trauma. Safety is so important to healing in my experience.
    Sandra Pawula recently posted…5 Effective Antidotes to WorryMy Profile

    • Ellen November 3, 2015, 7:14 am

      Thanks Sandra, and I think that’s a great focus – just stopping to breathe before we react, or counting to 10 are simple methods but can give us a little space to react out of choice rather than from instinct.

  • Sarah November 21, 2015, 11:23 pm

    Such a great post, Ellen. I, too, journal to delve deeper into why I feel and act certain ways. I love that you are teaching people to actually stop and think about why they react the way they do, not just rely on instinct. I need to do this with my triggers as well.

    I’m loving your site, and so glad I found it. I also aspire to help people live happier lives, and am learning a lot from you. Thanks so much for your work!
    Sarah recently posted…To TP Or Not To TP; That Is The QuestionMy Profile

    • Ellen November 22, 2015, 7:34 am

      Thanks Sarah – and I’m teaching whilst continuing to explore it myself, that’s for sure. So glad that you’re enjoying the site!

  • sherill December 9, 2015, 12:52 am

    These triggers are all within us, and you are definitely right, we have to let go of emotions that are no longer needed, in order for us to move forward, enjoy life and shine bright. Thanks for sharing. Beautiful post.
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  • sara March 2, 2017, 1:29 pm

    is there a way we know how many triggers are there? all at once so we can plan the wholething better? each one is draining life when it happens.

    • Ellen March 4, 2017, 4:54 pm

      I think that our triggers are very individual to us. The more self-exploration you can do around the area, the better – make notes on what triggers you and see what patterns you can find. But you might find reading something like Non-Violent Communication useful as a way of thinking about it. Good luck and be kind to yourself.

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