Triggers, What, Why, How


A trigger is a reminder of a past trauma that can show up in our mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual process and elicit overwhelming sadness, irritation, internal shutdown, emotional charge, anxiety, or panic. Emotional triggers are automatic responses that can show up as people, places, things, sounds, smells, words, or even colours. A trigger affects your ability to remain in the present moment. It can initiate or precipitate an emotional or psychological process. Within the context of mental health, a trigger refers to something that affects your emotional state, often significantly, by causing extreme overwhelm or distress.

If you feel triggered, that’s your body telling you that there’s work to be explored. We’ve assembled resources to help you understand your triggers instead of running from them and develop practices to aid in healing.

How to Identify Your Emotional Triggers and What to Do About Them

Awareness is the birthplace of possibility. Everything you want to do, everything you want to be, starts right here!

Ever wonder why some people respond in the same destructive way over and over even though they keep getting the same bad results?

Many of us can relate to having unhealthy coping mechanisms and responses to things like stress, fear, or other agitating emotional states. Often, we are unaware of the subconscious processes going on and we may, for example, instinctively reach for an alcoholic beverage at the end of a long, hard day, never realising we are setting ourselves for an addictive pattern that may one day claim our health, or possibly our life.

I know this was certainly my situation many years ago. But, I was unable or was unconscious of how to get out of this pattern of behaviour—until I learned to identify my emotional triggers and re-route my unhealthy habitual responses.

Addiction or other self-destructive behaviours or habits are learned responses to environmental and emotional triggers. You can un-learn these responses and create new ones, thus building a healthier way of engaging with the world, your emotional landscape, and your family and friends.

An example of a common trigger is when someone downplays something you’ve achieved. One day you are talking to your husband, wife, friend about an accomplishment at work. Their response? “Anyone could’ve done that.”

You would feel dismissed and belittled, as if what you had accomplished didn’t mean anything and had no value. Any time you feel dismissed in this way, you could lash out in angry ways. Or worse, you get yourself a large glass of wine or a beer and then another, and another, and another, and another…

Is this a healthy or productive response? No. Does it resolve anything in a useful way? No. Would you be in a position of power acting this way? No. In fact, you are allowing other forces and factors to control your behaviour and your emotions.

It is not until we realise where this emotional trigger comes from that we begin to recognise our actions for what they were: a reaction rather than a calm and poised response, a mindful reaction.

We can realise that when we grow up with perfectionist parents who would often criticize us if they didn’t feel like we were living up to their high standards. This often leaves us feeling devalued as a person, or “less than.” So, whenever we feel devalued, we often lash out in anger, whether at others or at ourselves.

This is a natural defence mechanism. But it is harmful to us in many ways because we never really acknowledge our pain, nor do we ever address it in a healthy way. Instead, we often turn this anger inward upon ourselves and, in order to numb the pain, drink it down, lash out more or try to gain control of others.

This is an ongoing cycle for years and how we deal with any kind of emotional pain: anger or sadness turns into inward hatred, and we drink, smoke, take drugs, lash out in anger and try control others to dull the pain.

When we don’t recognise our triggers and our unhealthy reactions to them, it can lead us down a long, tortuous path.

Part of ‘recovering’ from a debilitating substance abuse or psychological problem involves understanding how triggers work and also learning healthier ways of responding to them. This is why when we feel dismissed or rejected, we should give voice to those emotions. open our mouth and say, “You know, that hurt my feelings because…”

We then find that by giving pain a voice, we no longer have to turn it inward upon ourselves and suppress it with other means.

Let’s go over a few other emotional trigger examples:

A person who felt ignored and dismissed growing up might start yelling whenever they feel they aren’t being heard.

A person who had emotionally unavailable parents (or partners) may get insecure whenever someone isn’t there for them.

A person who felt controlled in the past might get angry when they think they’re being told what to do.

A person who felt helpless for years might panic when they’re in a situation over which they have no control.

Do any of these emotional triggers resonate with you? Ask yourself, “How do I handle it when this occurs?” Many of us turn to food, alcohol, or other substances to dull our pain when faced with unresolved anger or other emotions.

A trigger is simply a stimulus that evokes upsetting feelings, which may lead to problematic behaviours. We all have triggers, and we all have unhealthy ways in which we deal with them. But, we have the power to stop our automatic responses and re-route. The challenge is learning to identify our triggers and then recognising them when they are happening.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.