Identifying Emotional Triggers

Male yelling.  Triggered/Panicked

Let’s Talk About Getting Triggered.

Getting Triggered

For many people, the word ‘trigger’ is not unfamiliar and may come attached with varying meanings. For me, it’s kinda like walking down the sidewalk and suddenly out of nowhere, a trap door opens and you fall through the sidewalk into a swamp, you look around, it’s dark, scary and you say to yourself….” Where am I? And how did I end up here?”

Another way of explaining it would be emotional hijacking; a term coined by Daniel Goleman, in his book Emotional Intelligence. This is when our brain perceives a situation as threatening and the amygdala becomes activated. The amygdala assesses the danger and sends a message to the brain to start the flight, fight, or freeze response. This alters our brain and prevents us from having access to our pre-frontal cortex or our thinking brain. When the amygdala takes over we tend to say and do things to keep us safe without thinking through the damage we might be doing in the process.

Let’s discuss how this relates to our relationships.

Triggers are sensitivities that let us know we are vulnerable to something. In that moment, it reminds us of an experience that caused our needs to be neglected, ignored, or dismissed. As a result, we are left feeling unimportant, alone, or emotionally deprived. These are experiences from the past. It could be from our childhood and how we were treated by our parents; a past relationship, or the current relationship during a difficult time of disconnection or injury.

It feels like our partner is DOING something to us. But when we dig a little deeper we discover that there is a connection between what is happening now (the trigger) and what happened in the past (the trauma or injury). I have a client whose partner is consistently late and it bugs her. When we look a little deeper she remembers that her father would consistently be late in picking her up and even one time forgot about her. She interpreted the behavior of her father as though she wasn’t important to him. So when this happened in her marriage, she was triggered and felt unimportant in her relationship. To begin to notice that a trigger is something that is happening inside of us is a big step in the right direction and allows for the opportunity to open up a dialogue.

How Do I Know I’ve Been Triggered?

We know we have been triggered when we are having a seemingly insignificant interaction with our partner and suddenly the conversation takes a sharp turn. In an instant, we are overcome by intense emotions such as anger, sadness, hurt, or fear. We see ourselves lashing out, wanting to run out of the room or just freezing up and not knowing what to do or what to say. What just happened? It doesn’t make sense. Within seconds we find ourselves in an argument with our partner and away we go down a path of disconnection. It happens daily in my office and I feel it happen inside of myself sometimes when interacting in my relationships.

Think about a time for you when you felt yourself getting triggered. What happened?

What Is Triggering Me?

But you might ask, “How do I know what my triggers are? I just find myself getting upset at my partner and can’t pinpoint my exact problems with the relationship.” If you find yourself pointing the finger at your partner it’s a good time to look for a trigger.

What Should I Do When I am Triggered?

What is your first clue that you are being triggered? Check-in with your body:

  • Do you feel your heart rate increasing?
  • Do you feel an urge to run out of the room?
  • Do you feel an urge to yell at your partner?
  • Do you feel something happening in your stomach?

These are all clues that your body is trying to give you a message. Just notice what is happening. “Oh I feel my throat closing up and I feel myself wanting to shut down. I don’t even know what to say”. Noticing what is happening in the body is the first clue to understanding what you might be feeling.

Once you recognize something is happening in your body try to figure out what you might be feeling. Identifying feelings is not easy, especially when you are in a triggered state. But the simple act of trying to name our feelings will begin to help us calm down.

At first, it might not be very apparent what you are feeling but go down the list of feelings and see what happens.

Am I happy? No. Am I sad? Maybe. Am I mad? No. Am I fearful? Yes. Afraid. But of what?

It might not make sense at first. Just sit with the fear for a bit and see what happens. Some additional clues start to surface. Does this fear remind you of something in the past?

My fear is related to not feeling important to my partner just like I felt with my father when I was little.

Maybe you are feeling fearful that you have continued a pattern from the past. Selecting a partner that is engaging in similar behavior to what you have experienced from past relationships. All of these feelings are Okay. What is important is to notice that they are happening inside of you.

Try This

Take a minute now to explore what is happening in your body. Do you notice anything?

The next step would be sharing this with your partner and sharing this from a different place. It might look something like this.

“I realize I got triggered when you were late picking me up. I started to feel my body tense up and I felt some anger and some fear. What I am aware of is that it reminds me of what used to happen with my father when he would drop me off at the mall when I was younger and forget to pick me up. It is so scary and that’s what comes up for me when I get triggered. I feel myself getting aggressive and then we get into an argument. I don’t want to keep doing that but I don’t know what to do with all of these emotions.”

Sometimes it may be hard to pinpoint exact feelings or body sensations, so to help with that look at a list of emotions. It is very important to be able to verbalize our feelings to our partner, so this list may be a valuable tool to help you identify precisely what you are feeling. Research shows that when we can label our emotions, we are less likely to feel hijacked by them. 

Now that you have a sense of what to do when you get triggered, next time we will build on this skill and talk about the steps to repair a disconnection. 

Lee LeGrice, Ph.D.

Dr. Lee LeGrice is a psychotherapist with offices in Denver, Colorado, and Fort Worth, Texas. In her practice, she focuses on two main areas: relationships and anxiety. A specialty of hers is helping people create safe, secure, loving relationships. 

Let’s face it, relationships are challenging! Healthy relationships don’t just happen, they take work! She feels passionate about putting attachment theory into practice for herself and her clients. And she wants the same for you.