What Do Our Emotional Triggers Say About Us?

by | Mental Condition

Have you ever experienced a moment when someone jokingly makes a comment that may not be a huge deal to other people, but it immediately destabilizes you for the rest of the day? Suddenly, you find yourself fixated on that comment and all you can feel is a variety of negatively charged emotions such as sadness, shame, anxiety, anger? Does this resonate with you?

Well, don’t be alarmed if it does. We have all been that person before. The experience of being controlled by overwhelming, out of control emotions which resulted in you shutting away from people, stonewalling, or even saying things that you don’t mean and later regret.


Most people have had such experience in which people are saying “You are triggered”. However, what does it actually mean? And how can we respond better in the face of an emotional trigger? 

What is an Emotional Trigger?

Emotions are a painful topic in and of itself. They are real, subjective, present and definitely the main driving forces in our everyday lives. We feel emotions on a daily basis and sometimes they take precedence over our rational mind. 

So, you can imagine the nightmare that is your emotional trigger. According to various research, a trigger is defined as an experience of an emotional reaction to something based on one’s past history. Triggers come in many forms; it can be from a specific person, certain words, environmental stimuli, a situation or opinion that provokes an intense emotional reaction within us. 

Often, it is our brain telling us that we are re-experiencing something unpleasant that had happened in the past. Therefore, we tend to respond in a certain way when we face a situation akin to the past, even though we are no longer living in it. 

Our emotional responses can become highly charged even before we are aware of how we are feeling. The fight-or-flight response automatically takes the front wheel and act out based on our past experience in favour of ‘protecting’ us.

You may ask why should I care when I can simply avoid triggering situations? Unfortunately, avoidance is not a healthy strategy and it will not be sustainable in the long run. From the several conversations that I have had with my friends and family lately, it prompts me to think how well aware we are of our triggers. 

And the answer is, sadly, not quite enough.

Most of the time, we react abruptly towards our trigger, since the trigger causes stress and distress in our emotions. Our ‘fight-or-flight’ coping mechanism kicks in as a way to shield us from any further perceived damages to us. This kind of reaction is problematic because we may end up jeopardising our relationship with others. 

Thus, learning how to identify our emotional triggers is one of the most useful skills we can acquire. Only by tackling and unpacking these emotional triggers can we not hinder our own ability to fully function in life. 

The 4-step Recipe to Manage Emotional Triggers

1. Recognise That You Are Triggered

In most cases, people are not aware they are triggered. In response to any emotional triggers, we normally react out of spite, and it can lead to regrets later on when we realise we have unintentionally hurt others feelings. 

Imagine this scenario, when you hear a relative asking, “why are you still single?” or a friend innocently asked, “why don’t you have a job yet?”. You feel ashamed, you feel angry, you feel hurt, you feel frustrated. You burst out with some unkind words and leave the room. After half a day, you feel like you have overreacted and regret what you have said to them. 

Being mindful of your feelings at the moment informs you whether you are triggered. This will help you to not react immediately, but instead give you time to recognise that you are not in your right form because you just have been triggered. Thus, you make time for yourself to respond instead of reacting to your trigger right away. 

2. Pause and Breathe

After identifying yourself as being emotionally triggered, try taking a step back and pause whatever you are doing. Give yourself time to regain control over your emotions and responses.

You can excuse yourself when in a group of friends, by letting them know that you need some time to cool off. It is good to have a few grounding tricks up your sleeves that work for you in order to cope with stressful situations.

For instance, the “5-4-3-2-1” technique. This is a grounding technique that focuses on ‘here-and-now’ by directing your attention to your bodily sensation.

Find yourself a comfortable space, take a deep breath and let’s dive in: 

I. Look

Start by looking at your surroundings and name 5 things that you can see.

i.e. “I see the chair”, “I see people”, “I see clouds”.

II. Touch

Shift your attention back to your body. Name 4 things that you can feel.

i.e. “I can feel my weight on my feet”,” I can feel my hair on my face” “I can feel the softness of the cushion”

III. Listen

Now, pay attention to the 3 sounds that you can hear in your surroundings. For instance, traffic, the sound of water, breathing. 

IV. Smell

Try to focus on the scent around you, name or notice the 2 things that you can smell.

V. Taste

Last but not least, notice 1 thing that you can taste. This can be the taste of coffee that you had earlier in the day, the taste of your food. Or simply the taste of air. If you are not able to name a taste, name a thing you would like to taste.

To conclude this exercise, take another deep breath. 

3. Don’t Bury But Be Curious and Open About It

Ask yourself this, why did I feel how I felt before? Why did I react in that way?

Self-reflection is key to understanding your own emotional triggers. Like the Greek philosopher, Aristotle once said: “To know yourself is the beginning of wisdom.” You must understand the root of your own triggers in order to reprogram those negative beliefs and unhealthy coping mechanisms. 

Yes, it is human nature to get defensive when things don’t go quite as we expected. We can get too caught up by the pain and lose the ability to listen and understand what these reactions and outburst mean. The goal here is to rewire your thought process, questions will lead to self-discovery. 

After all, an emotional trigger is a tap on your shoulder to ask for healing from unresolved trauma. 

4. Seek Clarity

Find a healthy outlet to release your emotions in a harmless way. Talk to a trusted friend, family members or seek out a therapist. Bottling up your emotions will not solve your problem.

While seeking help, it is important to stay open and listen to what the speaker has to offer. One common cognitive bias, namely confirmation bias, is that we choose to hear what we want to hear and overlook what is actually being said. Especially with emotionally triggers which are deep-seated within our mind and body memories of the past traumas, we think that our belief and actions are reasonable because that is how you are taught.


Without keeping an open mind, confirmation bias may cloud our ability to grasp reality. By seeking professional help, you can work collaboratively with your therapist to learn healthy coping mechanisms. A therapist can facilitate this exploration process and help you to gain a clearer perspective of yourself. This way you can gain effective communication skills which is helpful for your own unique circumstances

Ultimately, seeking clarity is about rediscovering the unknown side of you.

Therapy is a Process, Not an Express-Pass

All in all, knowing our emotional triggers and taking ownership over them is a journey worth embarking. Triggers are our own personal demons, and we need to confront it. 

It is also a form of ‘self-love’ as you choose to abandon the old, unhealthy coping habits and choices. 

But bear in mind that self-love is an intentional practise that doesn’t come overnight. It takes conscious effort, time and support from loved ones to walk through the entire process. So, take it one step a time!

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Do you need a safe space to be heard? Jasmine is experienced in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Compassionate Therapy and Solution-Focused approach to support you with a host of problems in your daily living. She had experience in both Malaysia and Australia and therefore able to be culturally sensitive towards her clients due to her multicultural background and upbringing. She believes in the power of vulnerability is the core of making a transformative change in life. By facing your own discomfort and being emotionally vulnerable is a courageous start to self-help.

Jasmine

Psychologist

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