As a therapist, a significant part of my work revolves around helping clients understand, manage, and ultimately heal their emotional triggers. Although the process of identifying emotional triggers can take a good deal of time, it is really just the beginning of the work in a therapeutic relationship. With the increased public conversation around triggers and trigger warnings, it is crucial to emphasize that the point of identifying triggers isn’t to evade all potentially triggering situations. Rather, a more effective and long-term approach is to cultivate inner resources to self-regulate when encountering triggers and to foster healing around the original emotional wounds. This empowers individuals to weaken the emotional grip these triggers hold on their lives, ultimately enabling them to lead healthy, fulfilling lives, regardless of their triggers. This blog post delves into the realm of emotional triggers, their origins, and the remarkable potential they offer for profound healing and personal growth.
The Origins and Unconscious Nature of Triggers
Triggers occur due to the emotional residue left behind by past wounds. Unlike regular memories, events that threaten our sense of safety and connection are etched into the lymbic system of our brains, acting as sentinels to our threat response mechanism. By drawing on sensory data from previous instances of danger, fear, or isolation, the amygdala—through an unconscious process called neuroception—identifies potential threats and will initiate a protective response often before the person is aware it’s happening. Because the amygdala operates on the sensory level and doesn’t engage in reasoning, it sometimes struggles to distinguish between genuine threats and situations that merely share similar aspects of past dangers. The amygdala’s inability to distinguish between adjacent experiences can lead individuals to reacting with an involuntary emotional and/or physical response that is often disproportionate to the situation.
We've all likely encountered situations where emotions escalate abruptly, leaving us baffled and questioning, "What just happened?" When a person is triggered, they’re not consciously reacting to the events unfolding in the moment. Instead, the body relives aspects of previous trauma, initiating a full-blown safety response involving fight, flight, or fawn mechanisms. While we often associate this experience with combat veterans and flashbacks, it can also happen on a much smaller scale with threatening emotional experiences. For instance, a friend or partner arriving late or canceling plans could trigger feelings of abandonment as it recalls past experiences where someone important was consistently late or absent.
Navigating Triggers with Empowerment
Although it's reasonable to request sensitivity from significant individuals regarding triggers, it's nearly impossible to evade all potentially triggering situations—no matter how vigilant you and those around you are. Focusing on controlling external circumstances can place undue pressure on your loved ones, as they feel they have to walk delicately, trying to avoid your emotional landmines. This approach can be draining for the people in your life and reinforce a sense of victimhood, detracting from the healing process. What truly requires attention is the unconscious material that is initiating a reaction to non-threatening situations as though they are threats. Without this important work, these triggers will continue to arise, complicating your life and relationships.
The Therapeutic Journey to Healing Emotional Triggers
The artful support of a trauma-focused therapist can be powerful in helping you detangle from the confusing web of your emotional responses. While there's no one-size-fits-all route to healing emotional triggers, the process typically involves the following elements:
Cultivating Tools for Self-Regulation: Developing effective techniques to self-soothe during trigger episodes can increase your ability to act intentionally and respond more appropriately to the situation.
Gaining Insight: Increasing awareness of triggers and uncovering the underlying beliefs that fuel them provides a foundation for transformation. Insight increases your ability to identify when you are being triggered and creates perspective during triggering moments instead of being swept up in them.
Processing the Origin Wounds: Confronting, processing, and making meaning from traumatic memories, beliefs, and emotional wounds that contribute to triggers enables profound healing and reduces reactivity to triggers. One of my favorite tools to address triggers and negative beliefs is EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), as it decreases the emotional sensitivity to the triggering memories and helps move them out of the safety response system.
Emotional triggers provide opportunities for growth, transformation, and deep healing. It’s not enough to know your sensitivities and avoid potential threats. By understanding the unconscious and conscious origins of triggers and committing to a journey of empowerment and healing, individuals can lessen and sometimes eliminate the grip of these triggers on their lives. In doing so, they increase their emotional freedom, resilience, and capacity for healthy relationships.