Everyone gets triggered. It’s not an ‘if’, it’s a ‘when’. We might be triggered by reminders of unwanted memories, uncomfortable topics, another person’s words or actions, or even one’s own behaviors.
How do you know if you’ve been triggered?
By listening to your mind and body
A key element in recognizing one’s emotional triggers involves paying attention when situations generate a strong emotional response. When you go from 0 to 60 about something emotionally, you know you’ve been triggered.
Beyond surging emotions, you might also experience physical symptoms, such as:
- pounding heart
- upset stomach
- shakiness or dizziness
- sweaty palms
Common emotional triggers:
- I felt excluded
- I felt like the bad guy
- I felt forgotten
- I felt unsafe
- I felt unloved
- I felt unappreciated
- I felt like what happened was unfair
- I felt frustrated
- I felt disconnected
- I felt trapped
- I felt manipulated
- I felt smothered
- I felt powerless
- I felt unheard
- I felt scolded
- I felt judged
- I felt blamed
- I felt disrespected
- I felt a lack of affection
- I felt uncared for
- I felt lonely
- I felt controlled
Managing triggered moments
This is the key – learning how to regulate ourselves emotionally when we are triggered. Here are a few pointers to help you respond in a more balanced and skillful way.
Step back – respectfully disengage from the situation
Having an agreed-upon non-verbal time out signal with your partner can be very helpful in situations such as these. Pull back. Disengage. Remember that it’s when we’re triggered—or flooded—that we often say all sorts of hurtful things. Engaging when flooded is the first step in John Gottman’s Distance and Isolation Cascade.
If needed, don’t hesitate to take space for yourself
Physically removing oneself can help reduce the experience of emotional overwhelm. Once on your own, try some breathing or grounding exercises to calm down and soothe yourself.
The goal here isn’t to avoid the circumstance that triggered you, but rather to give yourself the opportunity to cool off so you can handle the situation more productively. Once you feel relaxed, you can return to the situation with a more balanced and skillful response.
Accept your experience, your feelings
Remind yourself that it’s totally OK to feel whatever it is you’re feeling in that moment. Sad, angry, afraid, irritated, guilt, anything. Triggers evoke plenty of emotions and that’s normal. It isn’t the emotions that create problems; it’s what we do with our emotions that determines if an interaction is loving or if it is harmful.
Before any of us can explore our emotions—striving to understand them better—we first need to accept them. Denying or ignoring how we feel typically makes the situation worse over time.
Let’s say you grew up in a large family, where you had siblings who would grab personal items of yours and then perhaps damage them or tease you about them. So then as an adult, when your partner innocently picks up your book and asks, “What are you reading?”, it’s understandable that you might feel anxious and annoyed and want to snatch the book away.
Instead, try to take in even just a couple slow deep breathes—to calm your nervous system—meanwhile silently acknowledging that, while circumstances in the past may have caused pain and led you to these understandable feelings, those circumstances aren’t present right now.
This reminder can help you actively choose a different, more appropriate response, such as briefly summarizing the book.
When strong emotions arise, don’t try to ignore them nor come down hard on yourself for having them. Emotions are pre-cognition, pre-thought—they simply arise. They tell us something about who we are and what matters to us.
Instead, approach your reaction and your feelings with curiosity; see if you can garner more insight on what may have triggered you. Is there a story as to why you feel this way? Do you see a pattern?
If the connection isn’t clear, don’t fret. You don’t have to know its roots to manage a trigger.
Keep an open mind. Give others the benefit of the doubt.
Most people aren’t trying to upset you on purpose. Some of their actions or words that are upsetting could even be a byproduct of their emotional triggers or other factors you aren’t aware of.
Say you spent the afternoon deep cleaning your apartment and rearranging the furniture in your living room. When your partner gets home from work, you wait excitedly for them to comment.
Instead, they head to the kitchen for a snack and then settle onto the sofa without saying a word.
You’re disappointed that your hard work went unacknowledged, and you start to feel angry and frustrated. You notice your heart’s pounding and your jaw is clenched. It takes everything in you not to snap and say something like, “Notice anything different?” or “I can’t believe you’re so oblivious!”
Pull back, respectfully disengage. Honor your feelings and soothe yourself. Then get curious and consider your partner’s point of view. It could be that they had a really rough day and are engrossed in their own swirling emotions. They came home and simply needed to comfort themselves. Or perhaps you are someone who is attuned to your environment and how it looks and your partner might be someone who is oblivious to their environment or perhaps doesn’t even care how it looks. Neither way is better or worse than the other, they are simply different. Every couple has to manage differences such as these.
When you are in a long-term love relationship, opening up about one another’s triggers is not only important, it can draw you closer together (when it’s done well). By that I mean, only have the conversation when you both are calm and have undisturbed time to talk. When a topic is sensitive, it is essential that you focus on deep listening, where the goal is understanding, and where you both honor one another’s experience and point of view.
Boosting mindfulness skills can help us become more aware of our emotions that come up throughout the day. Being more in tune with our feelings can make it easier to both understand what triggers us and find helpful ways to cope.
Research from 2019 suggests mindfulness meditation can help improve one’s ability to process and regulate emotions.
When to seek professional help
Emotional regulation can be a difficult skill to master. There are times when triggers are so ingrained that a person may not realize that their reactions are causing harm. In a situation like this, individual or couple’s therapy can be helpful. Therapy provides a safe, non-judgmental space to identify triggering situations, explore potential reasons behind one’s triggers, and suggestions on more successful behavioral responses.
 A result from his 40+ years of research on marital stability and divorce prediction, we only have control over the first step. The Distance and Isolation Cascade: Engaging while Flooded →Four Horseman of the Apocalypse: Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling and Contempt → Emotional Disengagement → Loneliness → Parallel Lives → Divorce