We all have certain things that get under our skin and bother us, that’s a given. However, some things go a little farther—they don’t just annoy us, they prompt an immediate response. This knee-jerk reaction is prompted by an emotional trigger and while it may seem completely involuntary, like every reaction that we have, it’s a choice. By understanding what our emotional triggers are, we can learn to spot them when they occur and adjust our reactions accordingly, creating a pattern of positive behavior to neutralize a bad past association.
What’s an emotional trigger?
An emotional trigger can be just about anything: a thought, an event, a comment made in passing, even a song that plays on the radio. There are potential emotional triggers coming at us in all forms, on all days, all of the time. Think back to the last time that you had an abrupt mood change. Maybe you were cruising along just fine, going about your business, when something seemingly innocuous happened: a co-worker bailed out on drinks after hours, an early 80’s power ballad started on your playlist, you tripped on your shoelace—and suddenly, your entire mood is ruined. You feel angry or despondent or a mixture of the two and you have no idea why. It’s hard to “get over” an emotional trigger, as they aren’t just a simple annoyance, they remind our subconscious of something painful from our past and cause us to have a current reaction. Emotional triggers are extremely powerful and have been known to contribute to harmful behaviors and even addictions.
How to find them
We’re going to show you a little exercise that can help you identify some of your emotional triggers. Please note, that there is no substitute for good old fashioned professional therapy, if you feel like you may have a serious issue that needs attention, but this may help to get that conversation started.
Instructions: Read through the scenarios below. Assign each one an emotion, based upon the first feeling that you have after reading it. Then assign that emotion a strength from 1-5; 1 being a minimal reaction, almost no change, 5 being a strong reaction (Oh my god, why am I feeling like this from a sentence????)
Love | Joy | Sadness | Fear | Anger | Interest | Guilt
- Thinking about your significant other
- Seeing children at play
- Thinking about past failures
- Being alone in a scary place
- Being criticized or mocked
- Starting an exciting new project
- Lying to someone
- Watching a romantic movie
- Hearing beautiful
- Having a loved one die
- Being threatened by someone
- Being challenged by someone
- Seeing something complicated and wondering how it works
- Thinking about yourself as a failure
- Feeling unconditionally accepted by an important other
- Experiencing success
- Failing a class
- Thinking about rejection
- Finding out that someone betrayed you
- Asking questions out loud
- Saying something hurtful to another person
- Giving gifts to others
- Remembering a past triumph/victory
- Remembering a past trauma
- Being fired from a job
- Believing that certain knowledge is needed to be more competent
- Forgetting to do something that you said you would do
Now, look at your responses. Notice the patterns in the types of scenarios and the types of emotions that you experienced. Consider the strength of your reaction. Did more external scenarios or internal scenarios trigger stronger responses? Can you identify experiences from your past that may have been similar? By having a deeper understanding of our emotional triggers and reactions, we can begin to adjust our approach to minimize ongoing trauma.