We all have emotional triggers that activate certain feelings and cause us to act impulsively. Sometimes we can get angry without having a valid reason. At other times we may feel stressed, sad or frustrated by insignificant things without knowing the underlying reason.
You've probably noticed that certain topics of conversation always provoke the same unpleasant emotions. Maybe you get angry when it comes to financial matters or feel guilty when it comes to family matters. These problems are not simple "sensitive" points, but emotional triggers that hide a deeper problem.
What are psychological triggers?
Triggers are events that set certain psychological processes in motion. They are not a cause in and of themselves, but the ultimate "push" to bring out an underlying psychological problem. Emotional triggers are like "red buttons" which, when pressed, activate certain emotions and feelings.
Any stimulus can become a trigger. It can be a matter that causes us discomfort, but it can also be a person with whom we have a latent conflict, a memory or even a particular smell. In fact, smells are particularly intense emotional triggers because they act directly on our limbic system, deceiving the rational mind.
What reactions do emotional triggers cause?
Emotional triggers are usually not threatening or disturbing stimuli. The problem is that they activate emotional content that yes they are. For example, a melody can trigger a traumatic or unpleasant memory. The song itself is not dangerous, but the memory it activates is. The power of emotional triggers is that they activate trauma or past experiences that generate an intense response of rejection, anxiety or anger.
When we expose ourselves to a triggering situation, the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis sets in motion a complex process of self-protection that prepares us for three possible actions: fight, flee or paralyze us. Then the production of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol is activated, which flood our bloodstream. When stress hormones are released, anxiety skyrockets and we experience an emotional hijacking that robs us of our coping skills. This makes us stop thinking rationally and let ourselves be carried away by the first impulses.
Most emotional triggers are subtle and difficult to detect. You probably don't even realize that some emotional reactions have been triggered. For example, we may react with anger when we are asked a seemingly innocuous question because it addresses a sensitive subject that we want to ignore or that makes us feel particularly uncomfortable.
The question is the emotional trigger, but it is not the cause or the problem. The origin of these emotional reactions is much deeper and requires an arduous process of introspection to understand why certain topics generate such an intense affective response. We will likely find that these are aspects of our life that we feel dissatisfied with, shadows of ours that we don't want to accept, or traumas that we haven't completely overcome.
A study conducted at the University of Illinois found that people who respond to a greater number of emotional triggers are more likely to develop compulsions and obsessions, which is unsurprising because these psychological contents put constant pressure on our mind.
The importance of emotional triggers in some physical diseases, such as myocardial infarction, is also under discussion, because it has been seen that immediately before the heart attack many people report experiencing particularly intense feelings of anger, anxiety, sadness, acute pain or stress. This means that learning to recognize and manage emotional triggers is essential for our psychological balance and our health.
Avoid or confront, that is the question
Knowing our emotional triggers gives us power over them. If we are aware of what irritates us, angers us or destabilizes us, we can decide what to do to protect our mental balance.
At this point we have two options: avoid the situations that activate these psychological factors to prevent the emotions they generate or do a deeper psychological work to make them stop activating those emotional reactions.
Avoiding emotional triggers is the simplest solution, but it's not always possible or effective. There are problems or situations that cannot be avoided eternally. Furthermore, avoidance leads us to live in a comfort zone that is too narrow, from which we fear to leave because we do not want to face the stimuli that make us uncomfortable.
Escaping reality by trying to live in a bubble is unrealistic. We can find emotional triggers where we least expect it and they will end up hurting us if we don't learn to deal with them. Therefore, in the long run, the most convenient thing is to work with the psychological contents that generate this disproportionate reaction.
Consider that what you resist persists. The more we push down a psychological content to try to hide it, the more strength it will have when it resurfaces in consciousness. Long-term avoidance increases the chance of getting stuck in a hypervigilance cycle where we are always on the lookout for what can go wrong, which increases the chances of developing post-traumatic stress.
How to disable emotional triggers in 3 steps?
As we work on problematic psychological content, it is helpful to learn how to defuse the reactions that cause emotional triggers.
1. Know the "point of no return"
We all have a point of no return, from which emotions take over and prevent us from acting rationally. We need to learn to detect the first signs of stress, anger, frustration or anxiety to stop it from growing and getting us to that point. These marks are seen on the body but vary from person to person. Some may experience great muscle tension, others a feeling of tightness in the chest or rapid breathing. You just have to find the physical signs that the emotional trigger has hit the mark and is triggering an intense affective reaction.
2. Calm the body
When we understand our emotional response, we can eradicate it by taking the opposite action. If the stress or anger increases, we can apply techniques to relax in ten minutes or perform breathing exercises, for example. Calming the body is an essential step to focus on the here and now because these emotions give rise to a hectic and disorganized mindset that prevents us from implementing adaptive coping strategies. We must remember that we interpret reality based on our state of mind, so that when we are anxious or angry, our perception of the threat will be greater and we will not be able to solve the problem objectively. Therefore, calming the body will help us calm the mind.
3. Label emotions without judging them
Once we have calmed down and our mind is more relaxed, we can analyze what happened. We have to ask ourselves: what situation, thought or image led us to the point of losing control? What did we feel before, during and after the event? It is important to be able to label emotions without judging them. We must keep in mind that they are neither good nor bad, but only bearers of a deeper message. They help us find out what the underlying trigger is and guide us to the real problem to be solved.
Learning to calm down and explore our emotional triggers, being able to analyze and process them in a detached way, will give us tremendous confidence. That way, the next time we're exposed to these triggers, we won't feel threatened and the emotions won't be as overwhelming. This way we can decide how to act, instead of reacting impulsively.