How to Stop Overreacting to Emotional Triggers to
Do you find yourself emotionally triggered by powerful feelings in specific situations and circumstances, or by other people?
For over 15 years as a volunteer in a therapeutic group for incarcerated men, I learned to spot someone trapped by an emotional trigger. One man I’d known for many years, who’d just turned 50, and was doing a life sentence had a reputation for having an especially violent temper. One day he said to me, “Look at the scars on these hands. For the first time since I was sixteen, my knuckles have finally healed. It feels so good to know I can deal with problems without fighting.”
Knowing the trauma he'd experienced as a child, and how much of his life he had spent reacting violently toward anyone he believed was doing harm to others, it was amazing to see how he'd learned to manage his emotions.
Do You Experience Emotional Triggers?
Do you overreact, or underreact in ways that leave you feeling diminished, disappointed or that you have made the situation worse? Would you like to change how you react?
When you experience an emotional trigger, it’s common to believe that you have no control over your reaction. I often hear people say things like, “That’s just the way I am” or “I’ve always been that way.” More recently I had a client say, “Yup, all the women in my family are fiery and short tempered, my grandmother is like that, my mother is too, and so am I!”
Emotions have incredible power. They shape our experiences and our view of the world, and they can consume our thinking and our actions. Like the man I met in prison, we can spend decades being emotionally triggered. But, with a little insight and practice, we all can learn to better regulate our emotions.
What is Emotional Regulation?
Emotional regulation is more than simply ignoring, denying or using positive affirmations to wish away your emotional triggers. It is the ability to recognize, be present to, and respond intentionally and appropriately to your strong or painful emotions.
Emotional regulation requires three distinct steps.
- The ability to be recognize, attend to and clearly identify an emotional trigger.
- To be mindful of the feelings and bodily sensations that cause your reaction to the trigger, without minimizing or amplifying the feelings.
- To identify the deeper needs behind the emotional reaction so you can respond in a way you feel good about.
When faced with an emotional trigger, it’s common to experience what is known as the fight, flight or freeze response. Emotional regulation allows you to fully experience emotions without having them overwhelm you. With practice, emotional triggers become less intense so that you can have greater control of yourself and respond intentionally, assertively and confidently to difficult situations.
Emotional Triggers in Couples and Families
Have you ever noticed how contagious emotions can be? While emotional triggers affect you on an individual level, they also trigger responses between friends, intimate partners, families, on teams and in workplaces.
If you’ve ever been in a large crowd at an exciting sporting event or music concert it’s easy to recognize. Your mood is lifted by the energy, and excitement around you. But attend that same concert with a miserable friend or partner, and you could potentially miss the exhilarating experience altogether.
In the context of a family, emotional triggers can become amplified to a point where every conversation and response evokes such strong emotions that communication becomes almost impossible.
By learning to manage your emotional triggers, you can prevent emotionally reactive cycles with friends, family and colleagues too.
Steps to Stop Overreacting to Emotional Triggers
If frustrating, painful or traumatic experiences cause you to react in unhelpful ways, create conflict with others, or prevent you from doing things you would otherwise enjoy, it can be freeing to learn to regulate your emotions. To do so, start to pay attention to how you experience, perceive, and react to emotional triggers.
When you meet with a Counselling Therapist, they play the role of guide, allowing you to identify, experience and process emotions. But you can try to do this on your own. To do so,
Identify your emotional triggers.
Common Emotional Triggers may be caused by:
- Other people’s behaviours
- Locations or situations
- Painful or traumatic memories
- Disagreement or conflict with others
- Sights, sounds, smells or other sensory experiences
When you experience a trigger you will likely notice a sense of immediate discomfort or dread. When this happens,
Identify the physical sensations and where they are located in your body:
Common Physical Sensations include:
- A knot or uneasiness in your stomach,
- Feeling “flooded” with emotion
- Increased heart rate
- Weight, heaviness, tension, tightness or butterflies, in your chest
- Clenching of your fists
- Trembling or shaking
- Clammy or sweaty palms
When these powerful emotional responses happen, it’s natural to make meaning of them by attributing them to negative beliefs about yourself, others, your life, or the world in general.
Identify what beliefs or meaning you may be making about the situation:
- There’s something wrong with you
- Life is always going to be this way
- You don’t feel you belong, or people will never understand you
- People are unreliable and can’t be trusted
- The world is a dangerous place
Then, notice how you respond to the difficult feelings and what you tell yourself.
Finally, notice how you tend to respond to the situation. Do you:
- Protest, complain, argue, lash out, become defensive or critical?
- Withdraw, avoid, or numb your feelings with unhealthy activities or substances?
- Shut down, become immobilized?
- Ruminate or catastrophize?
- Become clingy, seek attention, or affection?
- Drop your boundaries, people please, fearing loss or abandonment?
- Become weepy, cry out of feelings of sadness, grief and helplessness?
- Attempt to hurt others emotionally by stonewalling, gaslighting or spiteful words?
Understanding Your Emotional Reactions
Regardless of how you react to your emotional triggers, it’s important to understand that your reactions are natural and normal. We all have them and if you look carefully enough, you’ll find that your reactions make sense.
By paying close attention to your emotional triggers and your reactions you can begin to understand where such strong reactions come from. Like the man I spoke with in prison, you too can uncover the painful experience that make your triggers so powerful.
Perhaps you were heavily criticized as a child impacting your attachment style. Maybe you were exposed to a traumatic or painful experience. Perhaps you had to face problems with little support, or someone was unavailable to you at critical times in your life.
Whatever the reason, it is important that you become skilled at using the above approach to understand the meaning and causes of your emotional reactions.
Once you are able to name your emotions and pinpoint the causes for your emotional reactions, you will be less stressed when faced with triggers and better able to cope with them. Those who are effectively able to regulate their emotions are less likely to use negative strategies like aggression, self harm or substance abuse.
The next time you experience an emotional trigger, recount the difficult situation in your journal or diary. Follow the four steps above, and identify any behaviours that you would like to change. With practice, you will develop a set of skills that can serve you well any time you find yourself faced with an emotional trigger.
Once you learn the skills for regulating your emotional reaction, you will be less easily triggered, be in greater control of yourself and make better decisions. You will also solve problems more effectively, have healthier relationships and know that whatever type of distress you face in general, that you are generally able to manage it.
Take good care,
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About the Author:
Derrick McEachern is a Registered Counselling Therapist (RCT) in Nova Scotia, and a Canadian Certified Counsellor. He specializes in providing mindfulness-based and emotionally focused therapy. He offers workshops and webinars and consults with businesses on ways to improve employee wellbeing and mental health.