I don’t know about you, but sometimes people press my buttons and I lose my cool. Years ago, I would say I had no idea how to process my intense emotions. You see, from the time I was young, I learned to repress and stuff them. And, I did whatever I had to do to avoid conflict, so I wouldn’t have to deal with them.
Thankfully, doing my inner healing work (and inner child healing work) has helped immensely. If you’re struggling with emotional regulation, getting triggered, etc. here’s a great guide just for you. I believe we can all learn to defuse the emotional triggers more and more that sit within the emotional body. Let’s get started!
In This Guide
What is an Emotional Trigger?
Why Do We Get Triggered?
How Do I Know I’m Triggered?
Identifying Emotional Triggers
5-Step Process for Integrating Shadows
What Story Is Playing?
What Are Your Core Wounds/
What If I Don’t Catch It In Time?
Recently, I witnessed a man at the Walmart auto center emotionally flip out at the mechanics. He was irate and had no problem letting the whole store know. I don’t know the whole story, but I could see that he was emotionally triggered, and his reaction was out of proportion to the current situation.
Being “triggered” can certainly bring out angry, scared, hurt parts of ourselves.
Have you ever had had an intense, strong reaction to something someone said, did, or didn’t do?
They pressed your buttons? Ignited explosives living within you?
You flipped out? Lost your cool? Chucked something across the room? Screamed obscenities? Cried hysterically? Shut down? Slammed doors?
Have you ever bashed a group of people verbally, spouting off all the reasons they are this or that?
Carl Jung said, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding about ourselves.”
Do you believe that?
Do you believe that things that intensely bother you about your partner, parent, friend, siblings, coworkers, society, etc. can help YOU become more self-aware?
What is an Emotional Trigger?
I like how physician and trauma expert Gabor Mate explains triggers. He uses the metaphor of weaponry, where we get the word “trigger” from. Most people understand what the trigger on a gun is. It may be a small part of the gun or pistol, but it’s an important one.
You can have all the parts and the ammunition, but if there is no trigger, that gun won’t be of much use. Likewise, you can have a gun, but without ammunition, it’s not going to be of much use.
So, you need the ammunition, the explosives inside the gun that propel the ammunition, and that little trigger to release the bullets.
Now think of a time when you were triggered and reacted quite intensely; perhaps even overreacting.
Sure, maybe someone or something pulled your trigger, but as Gabor points out,
“Who is the one carrying the explosive material? The ammunition?”
I used to think this kind of talk was hogwash. I thought my intense reactions, especially in a past relationship, had all to do with my partner and nothing to do with me.
It’s their fault! If there weren’t so blank and blank and blank, I wouldn’t have to freak out like this!
My views have changed quite a bit since I committed to my inner healing path over a decade ago. Since I started facing, feeling, and dealing with past trauma, and embracing an inner spiritual and emotional growing up and journey.
Even still today, in dealing with any intense feeling that arises, I get curious about what’s happening in me – and not just blame the other person or situation. I get curious about any explosive material left inside ME and consciously deal with that.
Emotional Trigger – “An emotional trigger is anything — including memories, experiences, or events — that sparks an intense emotional reaction, regardless of your current mood.” Healthline
Many people have “trigger buttons”. Push them and you may see angry or fearful behaviors that may shock you.
But here’s the thing.
We can learn to identify and defuse our triggers (heal them) so that we feel less like dynamite just waiting to be lit and more like a peaceful lake, still and serene.
It doesn’t happen overnight, though. And, some people contend with triggers for a very long time for one reason or another. I always encourage people to be gentle with themselves regardless of the time frame or how many times we “miss the mark”.
Why Do We Get Triggered?
In my experience working with men and women, past trauma is the main culprit behind becoming “triggered”. You’ve probably heard of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Someone who has experienced a traumatic situation, such as war, may get triggered later on and literally feel like they are right back in the traumatic situation. They may hear a loud noise and the brain, hell-bent on surviving, thinks it’s right back in wartime, triggering a series of chemical and bodily reactions that will help the person survive.
It doesn’t just have to be big “T” trauma events either. Chronic stress, developmental, or a series of little “t” trauma can be the culprit of becoming emotionally triggered too.
This is what happened to me growing up. I experienced a series of what’s considered little “t” traumatic experiences (as well as a couple big “T” trauma experiences). As a result, my nervous system adopted the coping mechanism of “freeze” or immobilization to help me survive. In other words, I shut down emotionally, disconnecting from the unpleasant and scary bodily sensations of fear, terror, panic, and so on.
And parts of me got frozen in time, so-to-speak.
So, as an adult, when I would somehow be reminded of those past experiences or fears, I would become triggered. My brain was in survival mode, and I’d feel terrified inside. For me, the fear of abandonment was a core wound. That’s why after a breakup in a toxic relationship I was in, I’d literally feel like I was dying. I’d curl up in the fetal position and suffer, not having a clue as to what was going on under the surface.
Sure, breakups are tough, but this was an extreme inner reaction. My brain/nervous system was reexperiencing the very first times I suffered trauma as a child.
So, there was plenty of opportunity for me to work through that fear and heal that core wound. Well, I won’t say it’s completely healed because every once in a while it pops up, especially if I’m dealing with someone who is emotionally unavailable. However, I can now recognize it and deal with it internally, rather than let it cause me (or others) emotional mayhem.
“The bodies of traumatized people portray “snapshots” of their unsuccessful attempts to defend themselves in the face of threat and injury. Trauma is a highly activated incomplete biological response to threat, frozen in time.” Peter Levine, Trauma Expert
Preserving Sense of Identity
I teach a lot about the ego, or our sense of self. I think it’s important that we learn about the ego and this false sense of “I” that we largely identify with.
The ego is a mental construct that we create as we grow up. It’s an evolutionary construct and it serves as a survival mechanism.
The ego consists of things like our memories, thoughts, conditioning from society, and belief patterns. It’s not a bad thing. The ego simply helps us survive as a species.
But the ego can become hurt in a quick minute, especially when challenged by others.
Have you ever had a belief system that someone challenged, and you immediately got triggered? I see this happen often in religion and politics. It’s the ego that’s triggered. It feels threatened. More specifically, your ego identity feels threatened.
But the good news is that as we continue along our inner healing journey, we can learn to disidentify with the ego identity. Rather, we can identify more with our spiritual identity, which is really helpful because then we aren’t prone to react in such a disproportionate way.
How Do I Know I’m Triggered?
How do we know we’re triggered?
First, pay attention to your bodily sensations, such as:
- Racing heart
- Feeling stomach tighten
- Chest tightens
- Lump in throat
- Feeling super hot
- Pain in chest area
- Feeling numb, spaced out, “not here” (dissociate)
Then, notice what arises in your mind, such as feelings of:
These bodily sensations and intense feelings can cause your nervous system to go into “fight, flight, freeze, or fawn (people pleasing)” mode. Depending on what coping mechanism you learned growing up, you may respond or react in behaviors that to you, serve as protective mechanisms, such as:
- Walking out
- Shutting down
- Being mean
- Some other emotional reaction
Of course, the better you get at noticing when you’re beginning to become triggered, the more apt you are to pause and create space between the feelings and the reaction. That space allows for you to consciously realize, “Oh, I’m triggered, but I have options. I don’t have to do what I’ve always done (scream, flip out, spiral, etc.)”
Then, turn to your “processing emotional triggers” plan, whatever that plan is. Do some inner inquiry and call on your support systems and/or resources to help you face, feel, deal, and process the emotions that are arising.
Identifying Emotional Triggers
When Amy gets emotionally triggered (and doesn’t realize it), she goes into a raging rant, flipping out on her boyfriend. She screams obscenities, rehashes their past, points out his flaws, and ends up crying hysterically asking him to forgive her.
She’s never done any “inner healing work”, and the ongoing triggers and intense reactions continue to create suffering for her and her boyfriend.
Not being aware of our emotional triggers can cause undue suffering. However, becoming conscious of them can help you live life less in “reaction autopilot” mode and more in “logical, healthy response mode.”
You see, self-awareness can help us on all levels. Journeying within to become more aware of what’s going on in your psyche can help you be more in control of your life.
Doing the “inner healing work”, as well as the inner spiritual work, can help us live less controlled by the dark side, or unconscious side of the psyche.
Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.”
We’ve all endured some tough stuff along life’s journey – some more than others, of course.
Be we all have the choice to explore and navigate the inner landscape. We can do some of it alone and some we may need support with, and that’s alright. (Especially if you’ve survived trauma. Reach out for support!)
5-Step Process for Integrating or Healing Shadows
Here’s where journaling and worksheets can come in handy. When I was learning to better understand and identify my emotional triggers, I’d grab a notebook and start writing. I’d answer questions and do some inner exploration.
This led me to create a Shadow Work – Tracking & Integrating Emotional Triggers Mindfully workbook. Essentially, to begin identifying emotional triggers, heed the following.
- Notice & Name
Your task is to become and “emotion hunter”, on the lookout for intense, strong emotions. This is where a lifestyle of mindfulness comes in handy. You’re aware moment by moment, living in the present moments.
Here, you begin to realize that buttons have been pressed or they’re just about to be pushed. But before you get “triggered”, you NOTICE AND NAME.
Is it anger? Sadness? Hurt?
If you don’t know what emotion is coming up, it’s alright. Simply notice that you’re feeling something and move onto the next step.
Grab your journal and start writing what you’re sensing.
So, Step 1 is to become aware that you’re feeling something and to name it if you can.
- Pause & Witness
Once you’ve named what you’re feeling, pause.
Take a long, deep breath, breathing in to the count of 4 and exhaling to the count of 6.
Do this several times.
Drop your awareness into your heart area.
Step back and flip the switch from experiencer to witnesser.
You’re stepping out of emotion experiencer mode and into witness observer mode.
From the perspective of your true self or spiritual nature, refer to the thoughts or emotions that arise as “it,” “you,” “them,” “exiled energy,” etc.
For example, rather than saying, “I am angry,” you could say, “I see you, Anger. I feel you quite nicely right now.”
“I am devastated!” can be rephrased as, “I feel you, Devastation.”
This way, you’re not identifying solely as anger, devastation or another emotion.
And, you (the already healed, empowered, whole you) is taking charge, not the wounded, illogical, survival part of your brain.
So, in Step 2, you PAUSE & WITNESS the thoughts or emotions that are arising.
You can begin to witness shadows, hurts, wounds, trauma, fragments, etc. from the space of loving awareness, recognizing that strong emotions are opportunities for you to heal something from the past.
- Explore What Happened and What’s Going On In The Body
The next step is to do some exploration regarding the situation and what’s going on in your body.
What happened that triggered your feelings? Do you know?
Was it a person? Situation? Place? Noise?
Jot it down.
Don’t spend much time on this, as the situation is usually just the prop to get your attention to deal with some underlying emotions or shadows that are seeking to be healed and integrated.
Remember, the emotions, thoughts, belief patterns, stories, traits, etc. are not arising to hurt you or to make you feel crazy or out of control. Emotions are natural and can help us in a variety of ways.
Once you jot down the situation surrounding the strong emotions, write down what’s happening in your body.
I lived most of my life disconnected from my body. When my therapist would ask, “Where do you feel that in your body?”, I was dumbfounded. I lived in my “head” for so long, I had no idea how to sense anything in my body.
So, begin paying attention to any changes in your body, including your heart rate, tenseness of muscles, breath, temperature, etc.
What are you feeling? Where are you feeling it?
Is your heart beating fast? Stomach tight? Breath shallow? Teeth clenched?
Do a body scan and explore what’s going on.
This is the “feel to heal” part of defusing, healing, and integrating old wounds.
The next step is to think back to a time you felt this way as a child or in the recent past.
Continue to act as a detective, doing some inner inquiry.
Something or a series of events stockpiled the ammunition that’s about to be lit.
Now, you’re not remembering to retraumatize yourself. You’re witnessing the stored trauma imprint that’s been frozen in time and thawing it out. This allows for processing and releasing of that stored energy – and that can help you feel better emotionally NOW. This is what helps you get triggered less and respond more in proportion to the situation at hand in healthier and empowering ways.
If you’ve been doing inner child work, ask “little you” what they’d like to show you or say to you.
If you’ve been doing shadow work, ask that shadow what it wants. Why does it keep popping up?
Journal the first things that come to mind. If nothing surfaces, that’s alright too.
Simply witness and lavish all kinds of love on your inner child or shadow side.
- Process & Integrate
It’s likely that one or more core wounds are desiring to be seen, heard, healed, and integrated back into your whole self.
Look at that list. If you sense one of them fits the moment, address it in your journal. If you’re not sure, make an educated guess or go general.
You could write, “I see you, Abandonment. I’m right here with you and you’re safe. I love you so much.”
Or, “I think this is you, Grief. I’m here. I’m listening.”
What Story Is Playing?
When we’re triggered, usually there’s an old story playing in the mind – a story that is not serving you today.
Notice what thoughts or belief patterns are wanting to play out. Do some journaling to become more self-aware. You’re not doing this to judge yourself. You’re doing this to boost your awareness of any extreme thoughts/beliefs that are simply not true.
(I am wrong, I am bad, I suck at everything, I deserve this, I will be abandoned, etc.)
The thing about core wounds is that they’re common. Almost everyone has some sort of core wound or wounds that they suffered growing up. But here’s the thing.
We will always have opportunities to become aware of it and heal it.
Usually, opportunities come in the form of people who tend to trip our “trigger wire”. But remember, it’s not helpful to just point at people and say, “It’s your fault!”
If I’m exploding or dissociating, it’s me that has the explosives inside. It’s my responsibility to defuse those explosives and respond in a healthy way; not someone else.
Feeling Out Of Control
For example, if I feel out of control, I can become triggered. This goes for flying in an airplane, not being the driver of the car, or being in a new environment. These can cause my nervous system to scream, “danger, danger!”
As a result, I can avoid new situations, flying, or isolate because being alone is where I feel safest.
However, by becoming aware of this particular trigger, I am able to work through the intense bodily emotions that arise (mostly anxiety) through breathwork and visualization. This helps me realize I’m not truly in danger and not everyone is a threat.
It’s a process and takes time and effort, but it’s worth it.
Do You Know Your Core Needs?
Sometimes we’re emotionally triggered when our core needs go unmet. Do you know your core needs? What do you need in order to feel safe, loved, autonomous, peaceful, respected, valued, and secure?
Look for a connection between a trigger and an unmet need. For example, one of my core needs is to feel safe. If I’m with someone and something they’re doing or not doing causes me to feel unsafe, I’ll become triggered. I’ve learned to speak my needs, rather than react or shut down in many cases.
What If I Don’t Catch It In Time?
It’s human to get triggered at times. Cut yourself some slack. Intimate or family relationships are the most common situations where buttons get pressed. I try to view them as opportunities to heal and grow on all levels.
If you find yourself getting triggered repeatedly, try not to get frustrated. It truly does take time and sometimes it takes seeing a counselor who can help you do some work under the surface. Or, it may be as simple as you learning effective communication or boundary setting skills.
Feeling like you’re out of control emotionally is no fun, for sure. But I do believe that we can journey toward healing and integrating emotional triggers/past wounds/shadows. Keep doing your inner work and walking your unique healing path.
I hope this article has helped shed some light on the topic and prompts you to consciously do some exploration of your triggers AND defusing them.
Be sure you check out our latest shadow work journal: TRACKING & HEALING EMOTIONAL TRIGGERS MINDFULLY