The Danger of Emotional Triggers

Photo credit — Joshua Sherurcij

Emotional triggers.

We all have them. We do not all recognize them.

Emotional triggers are wounds that were most likely developed in childhood that were never healed. It has to do with having our needs met. Situations occur or people act a certain way and it re-injures us in that area.

Sometimes new emotional triggers are developed as an adult when we go through particularly difficult circumstances. We survive them and move on, but having someone or something trigger them again makes us feel vulnerable and threatened. All of our hard-earned gains seem at risk when this happens.

Emotional triggers can get activated when someone:

  • misunderstands you
  • is angry with you
  • rejects or abandons you
  • mocks you
  • acts as if you are “less than”
  • is unavailable to you
  • doesn’t make time for you
  • is needy or smothering toward you
  • discounts or ignores you
  • evokes feelings of helplessness
  • makes you feel vulnerable or exposed

When this happens, we have to soothe ourselves by calming our inner child. Making sure that we know we are okay, that the bad situation no longer exists for us, that things have changed. We must be kind and understanding of ourselves and our fears, as well as other emotions brought to the surface by these frightening situations.

Otherwise, we act in ways we do not approve of, which are hard to apologize for later on. We evade, argue, cry, blame, insult, run, or redirect attention so that we do not feel those negative feelings. And in doing so, we lose out.

I was so traumatized by my workplace bullying situation and the end of my career stemming from it, that I still literally feel sick to my stomach whenever I hear the name of the town it happened in. I avoid seeing professionals in that town or going to shows there. I used to make numerous trips during the year to shop at the exceptional stores in that town. Now, I avoid shopping there at all costs.

Just the name of the town is an emotional trigger for me. It puts into motion a flood of feelings, including but not limited to confusion, anger, worry, shame, humiliation, stress, etc.

It brings back to me the years I spent suffering not only the trauma but the years of fall-out that followed it. It reminds me of the suffering of my family, friends and myself. It makes me want to hide. No matter the amount of time and effort I put into healing it, the multi-layered wound remains.

Although my mind understands that the experience is over, my amygdala (the fear center in my brain) does not. It prepares for fight or flight with any reminder of the situation. I feel my heart stop, my feet dig in, my body go rigid and my mind reel.

Airman 1st Class Joshua Smoot

I instantly feel vulnerable and at risk, scanning my environment for other threats to my well-being. Just like a soldier, I experience PTSD.

Most emotional triggers are lesser versions of this extreme reaction. They may elicit anger or tears or people-pleasing as a way to not feel what we are feeling. They are mainly unconscious, but can be better managed when made conscious and handled appropriately.

Earlier today, I had an experience that was a strong emotional trigger for me. I felt myself spiralling into a well of negative thoughts and feelings as my eyes filled up with tears. I felt dismissed, misunderstood and regarded with judgment.

Instead of allowing these feelings to overwhelm me, I identified that they were related to my workplace bullying experience and that the current situation was triggering my remaining emotions from it.

I then conveyed that information clearly to the other person, explaining that the reason I was upset about the current situation was because it mimicked a devastating prior experience. I identified it as one of my emotional triggers, which explained why I had handled it in the discreet way I did. Being a doctor, he understood.

When this type of situation happens to us we have to slow down. Recognize our emotional reaction and thoughts and try to identify their source. Own the experience by calming ourselves and acting intentionally instead of from a knee-jerk reaction from our amygdalas.

Easier said than done, I know.

However, it ties into that idea of emotional intelligence we have been exploring lately. We cannot understand other people’s motivations and emotional reactions until we deeply understand our own.

Relax, breathe, let it go and choose your measured response!


Day 179


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