Understanding and Managing Your Emotional Triggers


A neon sign that says "and breathe" amongst leaves and plants

With our focus this month on "Embracing Your Emotions," we want you to acknowledge even those emotions that can sometimes cause embarrassment, regret, or even sadness.

This is hard for most – it gets uncomfortable. It’s really uncomfortable and frustrating when we can’t control our responses to emotional triggers. We’re adults after all and shouldn’t we be able to control ourselves? Much easier said than done.


In social+emotional intelligence, we speak about Self-Management skills. These skills include how we manage our responses to emotions after we become aware of them. The Institute for Social+Emotional Intelligence® defines Self-Management as, “Managing ones' internal states, impulses, and resources."


Before we can even begin to manage our response, we need to practice becoming more self-aware as we discussed in last week’s blog on “How to Build Emotional Self-Awareness." As we become more self-aware, we will start to recognize our emotional triggers, which can be memories, objects, events, people, past interactions or more which ignite intense emotions.


We all have memories that bring with them the wave of emotions that can leave us feeling as we did in that moment. That feeling maybe good and joyous, however, all too often, we feel these immense emotions because of something that we have anxiety, fear, anger, or frustration about.


It's common theory based on research that an emotion will last 90 seconds. The “wave” we experience is a chemical response. I’m sure you are thinking you feel the intensity longer than that, and much of the time we do because our thoughts keep that emotion firing. Even more amazing is that if you can wait just 6 seconds before responding, it's enough time to give your rational/thinking brain time to process the triggering experience.


Because we’re all emotional human beings, there will be times when that human-ness is on full display. These are some tips to help you process. However, this is a judgement-free space. It’s also a space you want to give yourself. Although most of us don’t want to have situations where we feel embarrassment or regret in how we respond, we will have those human moments. Explore your emotions, learn from them, and do the best you can the next time.


Here are some tips to understand your triggers and how to self-manage your way through them:

1) If Possible, Self-Manage Proactively


Knowing your triggers – what memories, objects, events, people, past interactions, etc. - is essential to be able to self-manage proactively. When I present on conflict management, I always inquire if people know their triggers. Most know what ignites them instantly. What are your triggers?


I know I find myself very frustrated if I feel a person is not taking ownership. It can be owning their part on a committee, learning an important job skill or just owning their mistakes. Because I know they are situations in which I feel triggered, I can prepare for it ahead of time.


If a person experienced trauma, they may be easily triggered if placed in a situation that recalls memories of that traumatic event. Many times, this can result in freezing or reversion to defensive behavior, which may appear more childlike because the person has reverted to a form of survival that helped them survive the previous event.


Personally, I have an intense emotional response when hear verbal abuse from one spouse or partner to another. As a survivor of an abusive relationship, I know that I need to remove myself from any situation where that fear creeps in before I respond from my place of survival.


2) Know When You’re Triggered


We will most times know when we’re triggered because of the significant physical response that occurs related to our emotions. If you’re experiencing fear, you might find it difficult to breathe, the palms of your hands may become clammy, or you feel tears welling. This might be a similar feeling you experience in times of great stress. Anger may show up in different physical ways. One might feel hot or begin sweating with that “flash” of anger.


Knowing the physical signs is key to understanding you’ve been triggered. Once you’ve become alerted, you can now name that emotion.


3) Name to Tame


One of the most efficient and effective ways to begin to tame your ignited emotions is to name it. When you’re alerted by that physical response, you could say to yourself, “I’m feeling angry right now,” or “I’m feeling stressed right now."


When we name the emotion, we help calm the wave and it moves us into a more thinking process of problem solving.


You can then ask yourself, “why” am I feeling angry, stressed, etc? As we shared in last week’s blog, you can keep an Emotional Mood Journal and take time to really debrief your intense emotions so that you’re better prepared and know your triggers.


4) Get into Recovery Mode


Recovering from an emotional trigger may look a little different for everyone, however, we need to use up that energy by doing something physical. It can be a walk outside to get a breath of fresh air, a good scrub of the sink, jumping on the treadmill, or just intentionally breathing!


There are a ton of great apps to help you breathe through a trigger. I’ve become a big fan of the Headspace app since it was our July Book Club pick. You can also find countless free options on YouTube. This short breathing video by Calm is a great example of a solution for your recovery.


I hope these tips to help you self-manage are beneficial for you. We’d love to know how you self-manage through your triggers. Let us know by sharing in the comments below after becoming a JennQuest site member.