How To Manage Emotional Triggers: Part 1

A while ago, I was asked to write a post about how to manage emotional triggers.

Ironically, this request ended up “triggering” me.

I know exactly how I would coach a client through overcoming their triggers. I tailor my approach and my questions to their specific trigger, response and situation. It’s a fluid process – one not easily reduced to a pre-determined formula, script, or worksheet.

So in the absence of any specific situation and emotional trigger to talk about, I felt overwhelmed by all the ground to be covered. I was worried that if I did write a post, it would inevitably end up becoming the kind of generic advice that I hate, filled with bulleted tips about “taking deep breaths” and “identifying what triggered you”.

I’m talking about the kind of post that could be written by ChatGPT:

Image of ChatGPT's Answer to "Explain how to deal with triggers"

I didn’t manage my sense of being overwhelmed properly, because I had a few pressing things to deal with at the time as well as easier posts to write. And so an old demon of mine was resurrected: my habit of procrastination.

I’ve found that in life, certain challenges haunt us repeatedly. The good thing is that if we’re reflective and open to learning, we face the challenge at a deeper level each time and gain richer insights. Sort of like a video game where each level goes up in both difficulty and reward.

Now that I’ve worked through this trigger and my own defense mechanism of withdrawal/procrastination, let me share with you what I’ve learned this time around:

What to do when you’ve been emotionally triggered

1. Become the observer, not the experiencer

This is the first and hardest step in dealing with any trigger. It’s to observe, first of all, that we have indeed been triggered – or in psychological terms – to become aware that we’re “emotionally dysregulated”. It’s difficult because our rational faculties tend to shut down whenever emotions flood our systems.

Let me give you a concrete example. Say your boss shouts at you for something that wasn’t your fault at all. You might feel a range of emotions in response – confusion, fear, anger, contempt, guilt. These might manifest as bodily reactions – a racing heart, sweaty palms, a burning in your stomach etc.

At this point, we need to make a switch from what psychologists call the “experiencing ego” to the “observing ego”. Rather than just remaining steeped in whatever reaction we’re having, we need to unblend ourselves from our emotion and observe it instead.

It can be as simple as telling ourselves, “I’m feeling __________ right now.” (Insert emotion of choice). Or for people who are more bodily-attuned, it can be identifying what’s currently taking place in your body, e.g. “My heart’s beating a lot faster.”

This is why meditation and mindfulness techniques are frequently cited when it comes to managing triggers. A regular meditation and/or mindfulness practice teaches us how to observe our thoughts and emotions and separate ourselves from them.

2. Accept the emotion without acting on it

There are many situations in life where it is not wise to display your emotional reactions openly. As gratifying as it may sound, it’s probably not a good idea to shout back at your boss that you think he’s a stupid asshole.

But while you may need to keep your immediate reactions hidden from others, never keep them hidden from yourself. The costs of emotional repression are high. When we don’t allow ourselves to fully feel what we are feeling and try to prematurely abort the emotion, it doesn’t just disappear. It remains in the body and nervous system and can build up over time in ways that wreak havoc in our lives.

I’m serious: chronic emotional repression is a great recipe to develop both physical and psychological problems. For more information on this, I’d suggest reading “When the Body Says No” by Gabor Maté.

The good news is that emotions in their natural state have a short lifespan when allowed to flow through completely from start to finish. According to Harvard neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor, an emotional reaction to a trigger involves a 90-second chemical process in the body, after which the chemicals are flushed away.

So why do our emotional reactions seem to go on for much longer? It’s because our minds hijack the reaction and assign a narrative to our suffering, (E.g. “How dare he shout at me?? What kind of shitty manager is he? That wasn’t even my fault!” etc). These thoughts re-stimulate the emotion to happen again from scratch, keeping us trapped in a loop.

And so, the best way to deal with an emotion after we’ve identified it is: simply accept it.

That’s it. Just observe the emotion and accept that it’s flowing through your body right at that moment. Say to yourself: “I’m feeling ____. I’m allowing myself to feel it.”

This process of not acting on our emotions but simply being with them until they pass naturally on their own is alien to most of us. It’s a crucial skill to master though – when it comes to emotions, “the only way out is through.”

Please note that when I say to accept the emotion and let it flow through, that is not the same thing as validating it or saying it’s the “correct” response to the situation. Our emotions are a reaction to our perceptions. They don’t need to be either validated or invalidated – they just are. When we’re in a state of calm or “emotionally regulated” again, that’s when we get to the stage of questioning the perception underlying the emotion and evaluating how appropriate it is.

Overcoming emotional triggers in the long run

Now, I could technically stop here. Most articles about managing emotional triggers just seem to revolve around getting the momentary distress to go away.

Rarely do I see a post that goes further: being curious about why the trigger exists in the first place, what causes our inaccurate perceptions, and how to reduce or even eliminate the impact of emotional triggers in the longer term.

The reason is that at this point, we would need to start moving away from generalities towards a more specific approach that is contextualized to each person’s triggers, history and current life situation. This is the part where I got stuck writing.

I appreciate, however, that not everyone can afford individualized therapy or coaching.  For the sake of making this topic more manageable, I shall write a five-part series breaking down what exactly triggers are, why we have them, as well as provide a general framework to use about how to overcome them in the long run.

Read Part 2 here.

Also in this series:

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5