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What Are Emotional Triggers & How To Deal With Them?

8th June 2018

There has been a lot of confusion about the word “triggers” when it comes to your mental health. You might have heard the term in relation to certain problems such as addiction, behavioural issues, and PTSD. Seen some of the backlash around triggers and their associated “trigger warnings.” Most mental health professionals agree that psychological and emotional triggers are very real. That they can play a huge role in our reaction and our actions. Here, we’re going to look at what triggers are, how they build and what you can do about them.

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What are triggers?

Psychological and emotional triggers are exactly as they sound. Circumstances, emotions, situations, and even people that can unconsciously prompt us into certain kinds of behaviour. Triggers are often associated with delayed reaction to trauma, as well as unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol, drugs, or self-harm.

Lately, “trigger warnings” have been used to help people avoid their emotional triggers. This practice is under a lot of scrutiny of late, as The Telegraph suggests. Most people with triggers tend to be unaware of them for some time, raising awareness can help people begin to better cope with them.

The signs of psychological triggering.

There are different ways to see if you have been ‘triggered’. In many cases identifying triggers is about taking note of unhealthy behaviour. Like turning to an addiction or lashing out in anger, and working your way back to see what led you to that point. Some people have triggering not as the beginning of a behaviour, but an independent experience that causes their body to react. Reactions to triggering and symptoms can include trembling, increased heart rate, trouble breathing, panic attacks, to name a few. In the long-term, a psychological trigger can leave you feeling depressed, anxious, or threatened.

Causes: Cognitive dissonance.

The root causes of psychological triggers are not easy to figure out, by any means. We can’t take a comprehensive look at them. All we can do is highlight some of the more commonly noted roots.

One is the meeting of opposing ideas and values. If you’re in a working or personal relationship with someone, finding you’re opposed to their views, even offended or personally attacked by them, can cause physical fight or flight reactions. Unless addressed these differences can continue to polarize and magnify. Some people experience this struggle internally. The butting of contrasting world views that cause you to question what you might consider your key traits can have much deeper impacts than many would think. In many cases, the best way to address these opposing views is to learn to live with them. Accept that others hold beliefs that may be completely contradictory to yours and, as Psychology Today suggests, learn to live with loved ones that fall into those beliefs.

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Causes: Trauma.

From assault and injury to abuse and severe stress. Trauma is one of the leading causes of psychological triggers. This is especially true where PTSD is concerned.

In many cases, individuals may dissociate during trauma or may develop mental blocks to stop them from remembering it. Delayed reactions can show up through psychological triggers, even much later in life. Childhood trauma, in particular, has been shown to have devastating effects and may need to be addressed to get to the core of the problems that triggers can cause.

Causes: Ongoing stressors.

Stress from high pressure environments in education, work, dysfunctional family life and so on can act as the beginnings of psychological triggers. For instance, addiction can develop because we self-medicate as a way to cope with severe ongoing stress. As time goes on, we develop triggers that turn unconsciously to those coping mechanisms. Even when we are far away and years past the inciting stress. The more consistent and ongoing the experience of stress, the more likely it is to have long-term effects. Identifying your own triggers, if necessary, may include a closer look at the sources of stress in your life, past and present.

Identifying your triggers: environmental

In many cases, learning to live and cope with triggers may mean identifying exactly what they are. When it comes to problems like addiction, environmental triggers can play a huge role. Certain scenes such as bars or gardens where you are used to drinking may feed into triggers of alcoholism. In familiar environments you turn to familiar behaviours, even when you don’t want to. This is why many treatment options, like ARC Project, recommend or involve a carefully constructed environment. By getting away from triggering locations, you can deal with the underlying issues. Build the mental tools you need without the surroundings that can make your triggers prevalent to a distracting or distressful degree.

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Identifying your triggers: sensory

Often, in the case of trauma our memories bury not just an event, but all the sensory experiences of those events. Certain colours, sights, and even sensations of materials can be triggers. Even though the situation is entirely different and the link to the trauma seems minimal, sensory triggers can be some of the strongest. In particular, Mercola states that smell is one of the greatest links to memory. A smell that was present during a trauma can forever carry that connotation and context, even if we are not aware of it. Sensory triggers can also be some of the hardest to avoid. While some may argue for the effectiveness of trigger warnings, they will never be able to provide comprehensive protection and coping must be the long-term strategy.

Identifying your triggers: social

Social triggers can be related or intermingled with environmental triggers. For instance, someone with a dependence might be more prone to turn to harmful behaviour in a setting that is a common context for it. Someone might do so if they are with someone who would normally indulge in that behaviour with. For others, the combination of the two might be the key. There are people in your life who may encourage or enable harmful behaviours that can act as triggers in and of themselves. Many recommend identifying the toxic social presences in your life and seriously considering whether or not you should continue to accept them as a part of it.

Accepting and managing your triggers

When it comes to living with triggers there are some tools that can help you manage them. As you might have guessed, identifying your triggers can be extremely helpful. Whether this is in order to avoid them or to better react to them. As far as the latter goes, practicing mindfulness as shown at MindValley has seen many positive results for those that live with triggers. Some that suffer from them have said that practising mindfulness allows them to take a step back from their initial reaction without dissociating. It can help them process the emotions related to a trigger with a measure of more control and stop them from experiencing the full effects of a trigger.

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Improving your lifestyle habits

While some may argue that it doesn’t address the triggers themselves or the trauma at the route of them, there’s significant evidence that building healthier lifestyle habits can help the healing process. For instance, triggering can cause the body and mind to become “stuck” in fixed patterns of behaviour. Exercise has been shown to force the body out of these thanks to the release of hormones and changes in heartbeat and mood. Isolation has been shown to increase the impact of triggers and finding support structures can help downplay their involvement in your life, too. Sleep, a well-balanced diet, and other habits that build a healthier body have been shown to build a stronger mind, as well.

Don’t neglect the need for help

No-one can force you to seek help but at some point, it may become crucial to confront mental health issues head-on. Ignoring the problem often makes it worse. You have to be committed to treatment for it to be most effective. It can take a lot of people some time to get to that stage. Therapy may include learning mindfulness techniques we have looked at, making lifestyle changes, and changes in environment.

It can also include revisiting past trauma, which many individuals have trouble with. If you can start talking, it can open your perspective on treatment, which can help you get to that step quicker. The internet can help you find help lines for a wide range of issues, so search for that which relates to you best, whether it’s coping with addiction, suicidal ideation, trauma, or otherwise.

The evolution of how we treat and cope with triggers shows that our personality and behaviour doesn’t have to be deterministic. We can change how we react to severe stress and trauma, as well as the mechanisms by which we cope with difficult situations. If you feel out of control, talk to a professional about it and start looking at how to identify and deal with your triggers.

*This is a collaborative post

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