How to Identify Emotional Triggers

Head in Hands

Emotional triggers consist of thoughts, feelings, and events that seem to “trigger” an automatic response from us.  The word “trigger” is important here, because the idea is that our reaction occurs automatically.  It might seem as if the emotional reaction is completely involuntary.  The truth is that this reaction, like everything else that we do, is a choice. Learning how to identify our personal emotional triggers is the first step to taking control over how we choose to respond.

Have you ever been going through a relatively uneventful day, only to have something unexpected happen that seems to automatically turn your world upside down?  How about driving in the car while in a good mood, only to have a sad or sentimental song come on the radio and instantly change your mood?  Do you feel the overwhelming urge to do something that you know isn’t good for you or in line with your most important values when something upsetting happens?  These are all examples of being emotionally triggered.

Now that we understand what emotional triggers are, let’s figure out how to identify them.  Until we know how to correctly identify our triggers, they will continue to rule our emotions.  Below are some examples of situations that may trigger powerful emotional responses, adapted from Don’t Let Your Emotions Run Your Life (Spradlin, 2003).

Emotional Triggers

Pay special attention to your thoughts as you read through these examples of potentially triggering events.  Take the time to notice if you see any link between your own thoughts and emotions.

Love:

  • Thinking about your significant other
  • Watching romantic movies
  • Feeling unconditionally accepted by an important other
  • Giving gifts to others

Joy:

  • Seeing children at play
  • Hearing beautiful music
  • Experiencing success
  • Remembering a past triumph/victory

Sadness:

  • Thinking about failures
  • Having a loved one die
  • Failing a class
  • Being rejected

Fear:

  • Being alone in a scary place
  • Being threatened by someone
  • Thinking about rejection
  • Thinking about a past trauma

Anger:

  • Being criticized or mocked
  • Being challenged by someone
  • Finding out someone betrayed you
  • Being fired from a job

Interest:

  • Starting an exciting new project
  • Seeing something complicated and wondering how it works
  • Asking questions out loud
  • Believing certain knowledge is needed to be more competent

Guilt:

  • Lying to someone
  • Thinking about yourself as a failure
  • Saying something hurtful to another person
  • Forgetting to do something you said you would do

Did you notice that any of these examples triggered emotional responses in you?  What themes did you notice?  This is the beginning of learning to identify what types of internal and external situations tend to elicit emotional responses in you.  In order to ultimately feel a sense of control of your emotions, you must first be able to recognize and anticipate what types of situations are likely to trigger an emotional reaction.

Once you increase personal awareness of your own specific set of emotional triggers, you can begin the process of learning how to regulate your emotions.  This is how you can start turning emotional reactions into emotional responses. Remember: it is always up to you to choose how you want to respond in any given situation.

In a future blog post I will be discussing specific strategies for how to regulate emotions.

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Spradlin, S.E. (2003). Don’t let your emotions run your life: how dialectical behavior therapy can put you in control. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Featured image: Head in hands by Alex E. Proimos / CC BY 2.0

 

2 Responses to How to Identify Emotional Triggers
  1. Amy Looper
    April 14, 2011 | 7:37 am

    Hey Laura!

    WOW!! I love your blog! I’ve read all the posts twice and they all have such insightful advice. While reading this post, especially about the guilt triggers, it reminded me of a great explanation a wise therapist once shared with us when we were helping one of our sons after his father had shamed him relentlessly in front of many of his family and friends for an adolescent blunder:

    Guilt is I made a mistake. Shame is I am the mistake.

    Once we reframed this difference for our son, it helped his self-esteem immensely.

    Your wise post has reminded me just how easy it is to buy into what ever response pops out rather than taking a moment to actively think through and choose a healthier path. I look forward to reading more of your insights!

    Well done!

    • Laura
      April 14, 2011 | 7:45 am

      Amy – I’m so glad to hear that you love the blog and that you enjoyed this post about “How to Identity Emotional Triggers.” What an important distinction that therapist made about the difference between guilt and shame. That is wonderful that such a distinction helped your son’s self-esteem and self-concept in a positive way. It is easy to get into the habit of living on autopilot and letting our emotional reactions to events rule us. It takes much more practice and diligence to take a step back and reflect on what types of people, events, thoughts, and feelings trigger emotional responses in us.

      Thank you for your comment and for visiting my new blog!

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