Emotional Trigger, or Just Big Emotion?

by Andrea Blundell
Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

It’s a common expression these days. “I’m so triggered”. But what is an emotional trigger, really? And when are your big emotions something you need to worry about?

What is an emotional trigger?

An emotional trigger means that something —a situation, memory, smell, visual, sound, expression — sets off feelings in you that are generally bigger than the situation requires.

Also called a 'psychological trigger', the idea is that your current experience sets off unconscious memories and emotions arising from previous difficult or traumatic situations. Your emotional response seems to be about what you are living through in the present, but is actually also or uniquely about something in your past.

For example, you are ordering your lunch when a piece of music that was playing in the background when the love of your life unceremoniously dumped you comes on in the background. And suddenly, out of the blue, you snap at the cashier as she made a mistake with your change. And you feel in a rage for the rest of the day.

Isn’t it okay to have big emotions?

Certainly. They can be healthy and helpful. If someone attacks you, then anger can raise your adrenaline enough to help you get away. If you experience the loss of a loved one, sadness can help you cry out your pain until you can cope again.

But note that in these examples, there is a logic reason for the big emotion. The response is suitable to the situation, and is helpful.

With emotional triggers, the response either doesn’t make sense, or is far too big for the situation, and is not helpful.

Why do emotional triggers matter?

First of all, they are a sign we have unresolved experiences that need our attention. In the example above, the person has clearly not allowed themselves to feel angry about their breakup.

Secondly, if we don’t learn to recognise and resolve or at least manage our triggers, they can mean that we let our emotions get the better of us.

This can mean we end up with a bad reputation, or have endless problems at work, school, home, and in our social lives. We can be that person who snaps at others over small things, or who is known as a drama queen, always bursting into tears.

We can end up lonely and depressed, or with low self-esteem, convinced we are a flawed or unlikeable person. When we aren’t. We just have an emotional backlog, or a mental health issue that we need help with.

Also, constantly having big emotions is related by research to all sorts of issues. One research study shows it is connected to poor reasoning skills, for example. And other research connects being emotionally triggered to having a heart attack, although this is a statistical issue that is still not medically understood.

Mental health issues that see you triggered

Unresolved trauma and adverse childhood experiences are the core reason for emotional triggers.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

The most common diagnosis here is post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD happens when we experience something too horrible or overwhelming for our brain to navigate.

The fight, flight or freeze response that all difficult situations start seems to stay on, leaving us an anxious mess. Or it seems to flick on far too easily, meaning we react to everything and are always on edge. Any situation that at all reminds of what caused our trauma will see us triggered.

Complex PTSD has the same symptoms, but doesn’t come from one exact experience. Instead it arises from a series of ongoing difficult things, such as being abused as a child.

Borderline personality disorder (BPD)

Borderline personalty disorder is another mental health diagnosis that means we are constantly emotionally triggered. Research shows that most people with this issue did experience childhood trauma as well.

If you have BPD you will have what is known as ‘emotional dysregulation’. This means that you go from zero to a hundred emotionally at the drop of a hat and before you can stop yourself. In this case it will be any sense of rejection or abandonment that sees you go off.

Depression

Depression is interesting, in that we can be triggered while very well knowing it's about the past.

When we are depressed our brain is in ‘doom and gloom’ mode, and always looking to the past. So something difficult, like being rejected for a job, can feel like the end of the world and send us spiralling into despair because we think of all the other times we felt not good enough.

Adult ADHD

Attention deficit disorder causes impulsivity, and this can also look like emotional impulsivity. Many people with ADHD also have a higher sensitivity than others, including emotionally.

If you have adult ADHD you might fly into anger over something small, or feel really upset if you think someone is insulting you. In this case it’s not that you are being triggered by a past experience, or necessarily lived through a trauma. Your brain is just hyper sensitive.

Can therapy help?

Therapy can be a lifeline if your emotions are ruling your life.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is often recommended. It can help you learn to hear your thoughts, and troubleshoot them before they cause an unhelpful emotional response. Its focus is on the direct link between your thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Dialectical behaviour therapy was actually created to help those with emotional dysregulation and BPD. It uses mindfulness and other tools to help you to step back and defuse your hot emotions before you do things you regret.

Schema therapy is also helpful here, designed to help people with treatment resistant issues like personality disorders. It helps you learn to trust others and yourself.

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