Emotional trigger, we all have one or multiple throughout the day. Sometimes small things like a belated friend or the dirty dishes in the sink can make us go from calm and relaxed to furious and in rage in seconds. Certainly, there are a variety of techniques helping to calm these emotional triggers. These techniques work for a moment but don’t solve the issue of reactivity. In fact, just working on the surface of the trigger misses out on the positive change emotional triggers can bring.
For that reason, this article covers the mechanism behind an emotional trigger and provides a method to use emotional triggers as a way of creating positive change.
Where triggers originate
An emotional trigger is an event, memory, or experience that sparks an intense emotional reaction, regardless of the current mood. They can make a person go from happy to depressed or full of rage in seconds.
Even though emotional triggers are triggered by events, memories, or experiences, they are rarely about them.
Sudden strong negative reactions to for example the dirty dishes in the sink, the belated friend, or the unreliable coworker are a result of subconscious processing. We see something happening and subconsciously one of a few things happens:
- Subconsciously we assign a meaning to the event
- A belief gets activated
- We get reminded of something in childhood
Let’s look into all three of them and see how they can be a catalyst for positive change.
Meaning: the fuel to the fire of an emotional trigger
If you let two women experience the same situation of coming home late to a husband sitting on the couch and doing nothing, both of them will have an entirely different emotional reaction based on the meaning they assign to the event.
One of them will burst into anger, shouting at her husband “Why are you always so lazy? Can’t you just for once help me in the house and have things ready when I am back?”
While the other one calmly asks her husband “Hey baby. Could you please help me with preparing dinner?”
What makes them react so differently is their thoughts and thus the meaning they create. The first woman probably has thoughts in her head of “he is so lazy”, “he doesn’t respect me”, “he doesn’t appreciate anything I do” or “I have to do everything by myself.” This then results in her feeling lonely, angry, and helpless.
Contrary to the other woman thinking maybe thoughts of “he probably had a rough day”, “maybe he waited for me”, “I am happy he is so comfortable at home” or “I can use this as a practice to stand up for myself”. This makes her calmly ask him for help.
With these two examples, it becomes very clear that the internal meaning we attribute to a situation with our thoughts dictates the reaction we have.
Change the meaning, change the trigger
Changing the meaning is not as easy as simply changing your focus or thoughts. Because meanings arise from deep within the subconscious mind and they are often already controlling our behavior when we recognize them.
That is why the first step is to question the meaning. For that, we use a process that is inspired by the transformative process called “The work” by Byron Katie.
It consists of 4 questions and then a few reverses. This process can take 5-20 minutes depending on how deep and detailed you go with the answers.
To do this process take the situation in which you were emotionally triggered and come up with one sentence that describes what the other person did or the circumstance that is underneath the negative emotional reaction. For example
- John is always late.
- My boyfriend doesn’t love me enough
- My girlfriend doesn’t care about me.
- My boss is an aggressive macho.
- My parents never supported me.
When you have the sentence, picture yourself in the situation and ask the following questions for the statement.
The 4 powerful questions to change any meaning
- Is this true?
- Can I be 100% certain that this is true?
- How does this though feel in my body? What emotions are there? What am I not capable of in this situation? How do I treat myself when I think this thought? How do I treat others?
- Who would I be without this thought?
After going through the questions, take the sentence and reverse it at least three times by turning it into the opposite, changing the person’s name for yours and yours for theirs, and lastly having an “I” statement. Then you want to think about examples for how each reversal is true.
If you take the original statement of “My girlfriend doesn’t care about me” here are the reverses and potential examples
My girlfriend does care about me (excl.: she kisses me whenever I come home, she openly talks about problems”
I don’t care about my girlfriend (excl.: I get angry when we fight, I look at my phone when she talks to me)
I don’t care about myself (excl.: I stopped exercising, I drink from time to time)
Find a new meaning
After doing this process, ideally, you have some insights and feel a sense of relief. When that is the case, it is the best time to search for another meaning that feels a little better. But don’t fall into the trap of blindly convincing yourself of the complete opposite thus gaslighting yourself. Better approach this by finding better feeling thoughts little by little.
The hidden beliefs that get you from 0 to 100 angry in seconds
Besides the meaning we assign to events, emotional triggers can cause such a strong reaction because of a negative belief that is influencing the situation. Beliefs are nothing less than just habitual thoughts we keep thinking for such a long time that they turned into truths in the brain. Examples are “all men/women cheat”, “It takes hard work to earn money” or “to lose weight I need to eat less and workout more”.
The problem is that beliefs operate from the subconscious mind. And no matter how hard we try, we will never be able to fully grasp all beliefs that are hidden in the subconscious mind. Emotional triggers are always an opportunity to uncover the negative belief that is dictating the emotional reaction at the moment. To do this, the following process can help.
Finding the belief that is controlling you
When there is an emotional triggering situation there are two questions to bring a negative belief to the surface.
- “What do I believe to be true in this situation that is causing this reaction?”
- “What truth do I hold about x that is causing my strong reaction?”
Here’s an example.
Your partner is not responding to a text message which causes you to switch into anxiety mode. Suddenly you are questioning the entire relationships and loyalty of your partner. Taking this situation as an invitation to uncover a belief, the answer to the question can be the following.
What truth do I hold about texting that is causing my strong reaction? What do I believe to be true in this situation?
Answer: If a partner stops texting frequently, he is about to break up.
Now this belief makes it understandable that you will start to feel anxious but is it true? Probably not.
This belief is like a colored class you are wearing that is preventing you from seeing anything else but what you are assuming. For that reason, it is good to investigate this belief and potentially install a new one.
On this blog, I talked about beliefs a lot and I offer several processes to change a belief. Check out these articles to continue or book a coaching session to work together on it.
- Limiting Beliefs: Identify and Overcome your Limiting Beliefs
- Limiting Beliefs and the Law of Attraction
Emotional trigger: a message from the inner child
Now that we’ve covered the emotional trigger and its relation to beliefs and meaning, it’s time to look into how childhood influences what triggers a person today.
In the first 7-8 years our subconscious mind gets formed and absorbs everything like a sponge. All memories, experiences, and “lessons” are accumulated into a giant web of programming which then runs our life. The problem is that during these early years, we could not rationally think through traumatic and stressful experiences. Therefore, we were dependent on caregivers to help us resolve stressful and traumatic situations.
If they did a bad job or didn’t help us at all, a lot of these experiences are unresolved and thus manifest as emotional reactions in our adult lives. This then causes us to be triggered by small things that remind us of the childhood experience. It can be as small as a word or smell or a similar situation. Rationally it doesn’t make sense why a certain event triggered a reaction, but subconsciously it is all connected.
From a psychological perspective, we experience these triggers because they are calling to be resolved. This is where shadow work comes into play.
Healing the inner child- first steps
The process of healing the inner child is complex yet powerful. Since this process is so complex, there will be future articles covering this topic. But to get started with this, here are a few steps you can take when you are triggered to heal the inner child. To go further with this practice, you can book a coaching session below to work through this.
- Spend time with the emotion that got triggered without distraction.
- Affirm that it is completely ok to feel this way.
- Imagine the hurt child that is feeling this pain in front of you and give her a hug.
As much as triggers can create a feeling of powerlessness there are in fact powerful tools to learn and heal. For that reason, taking the time to look closely anytime a trigger occurs, can create major shifts in life.