How to Identify Emotional Triggers

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.


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


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


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


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


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


  • 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


  • 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.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

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


About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. Amy Looper on April 14, 2011 at 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 on April 14, 2011 at 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!

  2. Vladimir on July 20, 2015 at 8:50 am

    Hallo and thanks a lot for this topic.
    My emotional trigger is in nature auditory. When I was young, my father liked to scare me with his scary sounds of coughing. He always did it when all other sounds disappear. He always needed intentionally to break the calmness and silence. The joy for him was I guess to bring attention to himself. That became my emotional trigger, and even today, I’m 33, when I hear him cough, I know that he does it cause he knows for 100% that he will evoke fear in me and emotional response. He is raised by an alcoholic, and automatically the chaos for him is normal; he recreate it in order to feel ‘at home’.
    I just don’t know what to do with it. I guess I should face it but I don’t know how. Every time I told him about it, he got only an adrenaline fix and kept doing it making me more crazy. He does not recognize his behavior and he just go autopilot.
    I’m dreaming the day when I’ll leave this house.

  3. Liz on September 6, 2015 at 6:48 am

    I have lived with a very abusive Passive-Aggressive husband for many years so I’ve got a lot of ‘ trigger-pulls’ in my life almost every single day. There is no doubt that I am traumatized by many of the things he’s done AND REPEATS ( especially when it harmed our pets) If it were not for the repeats, those things as isolated incidents would not have affected me this way. Everyone makes mistakes right? My panic and stress can be so bad at times that I literally feel uterine cramps, chest cramps and I fall into a mental fog and want to lie down and sleep. It’s horrible. Now it takes me a full day or two to recover from a single incident.

    But there is one thing that really triggers me and that is DENIAL. It enrages me when people choose to avoid the truth, make excuses for their mistakes and hence, promote suffering. Denial is the way of selfish/self absorbed cowards who will do anything t protect their over inflated egos at the expense of other people’s happiness and well-being. I guess it’s bad character. I really can’t stand to be around people who exhibit that kind of character. Both my mother and my husband and his family are like that and I’ve witnessed the suffering and even death of family members because of everyone’s chosen DENIAL.

    BTW, my mother and husband are both narcissistic borderlines. Imagine that. Ick. Yes, I’m currently working on leaving. It took getting an autoimmune disease to make me realize that my health and my life is at stake.

What's On Your Mind?