• Tim Way


Updated: Oct 14, 2021

We all have emotional triggers. Moments that can throw us off course, disrupt our day and damage our productivity. Most of us accept them as a part of life. But they don’t have to be.

Triggers in a nutshell

Any sensory stimulus that brings up negative emotions, including the feeling of being unsafe possibly linked to a past trauma, is a trigger. That could be a stressful morning in traffic, a thoughtless comment from a loved one, being spoken to aggressively, taking the blame for something – they vary from person to person.

When a trigger sets someone off, they find it hard to control their emotions. They might be overwhelmed by negative thoughts and stress, causing their heart rate to speed up and prompting an urge to disconnect from the world around them. In terms of relationships, they might avoid people or react excessively to others’ actions.

Why are triggers so powerful?

There’s an evolutionary element. Growing up we inevitably faced painful, scary or challenging situations that were beyond our understanding.

Unless those negative emotions are resolved, we’re on high alert for similar situations in the future and as adults look to protect ourselves against them. Even as we mature, any incident that upsets us and isn’t dealt with can leave negative emotions that, when triggered, disrupt everyday life.

They live in a part of the brain called the amygdala. It controls survival instincts and emotions and stores memories of things it believes you need protection from. These memories come in the form of images, sounds, smells and other sensory input. So when a noise, word or facial expression resembles an unresolved experience from your past, it pushes your brain into fight-or-flight mode. Your nervous system thinks it’s a life or death situation, even though it’s probably not.

Identifying and dealing with causes

As we’ve mentioned a trigger might make you act disproportionately to a situation. A certain amount of emotion is healthy, but if it goes beyond what’s reasonable it’s a sign that something has made you emotionally unstable and is worth investigating. This takes some self-awareness and you might only notice it when you’re reflecting on the situation afterwards.

Our first reaction is often to try to change the people who are triggering us. “If only they’d stop doing this or start doing that, I wouldn’t get so worked up!” But that’s a mistake. Only by resolving your own emotional needs and issues will you limit, or completely eliminate, your triggers.

Identifying the cause

You might need someone to help you pinpoint where your trigger originates, a partner, a friend you trust perhaps or a professional. Or you might be able to find it yourself with some self-reflection.

Think about the situation in which you found yourself experiencing excessive emotions. For example, you might have been really nervous giving someone constructive feedback in a performance review: your palms sweated at the thought of offending them, you avoided the conversation and hid the truth. It took you a couple hours to feel calm and steady again afterwards, putting a serious dampener on your day.

List other situations that trigger those negative feelings. Now ask: “What did I experience in my early life or since, that reminds me of the feeling I’m having?”

With a little investigation, by thinking about your past and asking others who can shed light on it, you might discover the answer. Perhaps someone in your family got very angry with you whenever you shared your honest opinion as a child, and that used to frighten you.

Dealing with the cause

Once you understand where your intense response is coming from, you can address it. In this situation the first step is to offer your younger self some kindness and compassion. Reassure yourself that anyone would feel afraid in that situation and that it’s understandable it has left you fearing giving honest feedback today.

Now you need to deactivate the trigger. Again, you can do this alone or with professional help. Here are some useful techniques:

  • Note the differences between your memory and the present situation. For example you’re now in a safe environment and you’re a capable adult who could de-escalate an interaction with an angry person if necessary.

  • Find evidence that things will not go the same way. Perhaps the co-worker you’re reviewing is level-headed and doesn’t get angry often. Perhaps they’ll appreciate constructive feedback.

  • Most importantly, don’t let the trigger win. Follow through and deliver that honest review.

It’s an ongoing process but the more you practice investigating your triggers and training your mind to overcome them, the less of an impact they’ll have on your life.

Author: The Career Conversation editorial team.

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