We all have emotional triggers that activate certain feelings and cause us to act impulsively. Sometimes we can get angry for no good reason. Other times we may feel stressed, sad, or frustrated about trivial things without knowing the underlying reason.
You’ve probably noticed that certain topics of conversation evoke the same unpleasant emotions over and over again. Maybe you get angry when it comes to financial matters or you feel guilty when it comes to family matters. These issues are not mere “hot spots,” but emotional triggers that hide a deeper problem.
What are psychological triggers?
Triggers are events that set certain psychological processes in motion. They are not a cause in and of themselves, but the last “push” to bring out an underlying psychological problem. Emotional triggers are like “red buttons” that, when pressed, activate certain emotions and feelings .
Any stimulus can become a trigger. It can be a matter that causes us discomfort, but it can also be a person with whom we have a latent conflict , a memory or even a particular smell. In fact, smells are particularly intense emotional triggers because they act directly on our limbic system, deceiving the rational mind.
What reactions do emotional triggers cause?
Emotional triggers are usually not threatening or disturbing stimuli. The problem is that they activate emotional content which yes they are. For example, a melody can trigger a traumatic or unpleasant memory. The song itself isn’t dangerous, but the memory it triggers is. The power of emotional triggers is that they activate trauma or past experiences that generate an intense response of rejection, anxiety, or anger.
When we expose ourselves to a triggering situation, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis sets in motion a complex process of self-protection that prepares us for three possible actions: fight, flee, or paralyze ourselves. Then the production of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol is triggered, which flood our bloodstream. When stress hormones are released, anxiety skyrockets and we suffer an emotional seizure that robs us of our coping skills. This makes us stop thinking rationally and get carried away by first impulses.
Most emotional triggers are subtle and hard to detect. You probably don’t even realize that some emotional reactions have been triggered. For example, we may react angrily when asked a seemingly innocuous question because it deals with a sensitive topic that we want to ignore or that makes us feel particularly uncomfortable.
The question is the emotional trigger, but it’s not the cause or the problem. The origin of these emotional reactions is much deeper and requires an arduous process of introspection to understand why certain topics generate such an intense affective response. We are likely to find that these are aspects of our lives that we feel dissatisfied with, shadows of our own that we don’t want to accept, or traumas that we haven’t fully overcome.
A study conducted at the University of Illinois found that people who respond to a greater number of emotional triggers are more likely to develop compulsions and obsessions, which is not surprising because these psychological contents put constant pressure on our minds.
The importance of emotional triggers in some physical diseases, such as myocardial infarction, is also under discussion because it has been seen that immediately before the infarction many people report experiencing particularly intense feelings of anger, anxiety, sadness, acute pain or stress. This means that learning to recognize and manage emotional triggers is essential for our psychological balance and health.
Avoid or face, that is the question
Knowing our emotional triggers gives us power over them. If we are aware of what irritates us, angers us or destabilizes us, we can decide how to act to protect our mental balance .
At this point we have two possibilities: avoid situations that activate these psychological factors to prevent the emotions they generate or do deeper psychological work to make them stop activating those emotional reactions.
Avoiding emotional triggers is the simplest solution, but it’s not always possible or effective. There are problems or situations that cannot be avoided forever. Furthermore, avoidance leads us to live in a too narrow comfort zone , from which we are afraid to leave because we do not want to face the stimuli that make us uncomfortable.
Escaping reality by trying to live in a bubble isn’t realistic. We can find emotional triggers where we least expect them and they will end up hurting us if we don’t learn to deal with them. Therefore, in the long run, the most convenient thing is to work with the psychological contents that generate this disproportionate reaction.
Consider that what you resist, persists. The more we push a psychological content down to try to hide it, the more force it will have when it resurfaces in consciousness. Long-term avoidance increases the chance of getting stuck in a hypervigilance cycle where we’re always looking for what can go wrong, which increases the chances of developing PTSD.
How to Turn Off Emotional Triggers in 3 Steps?
As we work through problematic psychological content, it is helpful to learn how to defuse the reactions that cause emotional triggers.
- Know the “point of no return”
We all have a point of no return, from which emotions take over and prevent us from acting rationally. We must learn to detect early signs of stress, anger, frustration, or anxiety to stop it from building up and get us to that point. These marks are seen on the body, but vary from person to person. Some may experience great muscle tension, others a feeling of tightness in the chest or rapid breathing. You just need to find the physical signs that the emotional trigger has hit home and is triggering an intense emotional reaction.
- Calm the body
When we understand our emotional response, we can eradicate it by taking the opposite action. If stress or anger increases, we can apply techniques to relax in ten minutes or perform breathing exercises, for example. Calming the body is an essential step to focus on the here and now because these emotions give rise to a frenetic and disorganized mindset that prevents us from implementing adaptive coping strategies. We must remember that we interpret reality according to our state of mind, so that when we are anxious or angry, our perception of the threat will be greater and we will not be able to solve the problem objectively. Therefore, calming the body will help us calm the mind.
- Label emotions without judging them
Once we’ve calmed down and our mind is more relaxed, we can analyze what happened. We must ask ourselves: what situation, thought or image has brought us to the point of losing control? What did we feel before, during and after the event? It’s important to be able to label emotions without judging them. We must bear in mind that they are neither good nor bad, but only bearers of a deeper message. They help us find out what the underlying trigger is and guide us to the real problem to solve.
Learning to calm down and explore our emotional triggers, being able to analyze and process them in a detached way, will give us tremendous confidence. That way, the next time we are exposed to these triggers, we won’t feel threatened and the emotions won’t be as overwhelming. This way we can decide how to act, instead of reacting impulsively.